Reading LeBron’s Tea Leaves: The 13 games that will reveal how good the Heat really are

Posted: December 9, 2010 in NBA
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See this article with photos at Bleacher Report

Two weeks ago, the Miami Heat were 9-8, losers of four out of five games, feuding with their coach and generally crumbling. One six-game winning streak later, and LeBron, Wade, Bosh and company are back in business. Or so it seems.

Admittedly, their win in Utah last night was impressive, perhaps their biggest win of the season. No one ever said that Miami wasn’t talented, nor that they weren’t capable of beating good teams on the road, just that they aren’t close the championship caliber. The five games prior to Utah weren’t exactly mountains to climb. Washington, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee are winning games at a less-than-prodigious .322 clip this season, and the one winning team they did beat, Atlanta, was playing without their best player, Joe Johnson.

Don’t expect this train to stop rolling now, either. In their next six games, Miami has only two real challenges; a free-falling New Orleans team and a suddenly scrappy Knicks club. Again, not exactly upper echelon opponents. Their four remaining games in that stretch are with Golden State, Sacramento, Cleveland and Washington, combined a rather putrid .305 winning percentage. It is not only possible, but extremely likely that Miami is riding a 12-game winning streak into the Christmas holiday.  Get ready for the hype!

Just look at the number of stories already appearing about how the Heat have “got it all together” and “found their way.” But let’s take a deep breath and realize that these are the absolute dregs of the league their currently feasting on. LeBron and four scrubs from the crowd could win more games than they lose against the worst teams in the league. Same goes for Dwayne Wade.

So how will we really know if the Heat are for real or just high-profile posers? The answer is in the tea leaves, or more specifically, divined in their schedule. There are two specific portions of Miami’s 2010-11 schedule, encompassing 13 games, that will reveal whether or not the Heat will flare up this post-season or flame out.

The first will be over the Christmas holiday.  Fresh from their current 12-game breeze through loser-ville, Miami plays three games in six days between December 20-25. They start with the Dallas Mavericks in Miami, then travel to Phoenix to face the Suns, then on to L.A. for the Lakers on Christmas Day. Both Dallas and Los Angeles will be serious tests of whether or not the Heat belong with the best teams in the league, but it’s the middle game I’m most interested in.

Phoenix is a team Miami should beat, even on the road. But squeezed as this game is, between Dallas and the sure-to-be massively high-profile Christmas showdown with the Lakers, the Suns will give a clear look at the kind of focus Miami is playing with. If they take care of business and win the game, they might be for real. Look past it to the Lakers and lose, and it will be an indication that Miami is not ready for prime time. And it could mean a three-game losing streak, as well.

As telling as that three game stretch over Christmas will be, we won’t truly have a full handle on Miami’s real potential until the month of March. The first couple months of 2011 are filled with lots of opportunities for Miami to run off streaks of four, five or six wins between occasional losses. But beginning March 3, Miami has a ten game stretch with some of the top teams in the league, most of which are at home. Take out Memphis and their poor record, and the other nine opponents during this stretch are winning at a .684 rate, a far cry from what they’re enjoying right now. Miami plays, in order, Orlando, San Antonio, Chicago, Portland, L.A. Lakers, Memphis, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Atlanta and Denver. Only Atlanta and the first Spurs match up are on the road.

If Miami is for real and a genuine threat to win the title, they will post (at least) 7 or 8 wins in this stretch. Play .500 or worse against this line up, and they are little more than a great regular season team destined to be upset in the playoffs. In particular, watch the six-games-in-eleven-days home stand in the middle when the Bulls, Blazers, Lakers, Spurs and Thunder come to town. A record of 5-1 or 4-2 here, holding home court well against the best the league has to offer, and we’re looking at a contender. The reverse, 2-4 or 1-5, and it’s back to the drawing board in the off-season for Pat Riley.

It’s a modern truth that the constant media crush creates unprecedented hype these days. Miami is the type of team that will benefit from this greatly. They’ll have winning streaks, a great regular season record when all is said and done, likely a high seed in the East and tons of the requisite glowing press praising them as among the best ever, but it’s these 13 games we should really watch out for.  How the Heat perform in these will directly correlate to how they’ll perform in the money season. Just you watch.

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