MIAMI (AP) — The Miami Heat have won 25 straight games, turned what was a super-close Eastern Conference race into a runaway and seem to be finding different ways to prevail on a nightly basis.
And no, they are not particularly thrilled with themselves right now.
From the Heat perspective, it's almost like they are simultaneously slumping and streaking after facing double-digit deficits in three consecutive games, yet finding ways to win them all, much like each of the 22 games that preceded this week.
"I'm taking the world view, that we have room to improve," forward Shane Battier said. "By no stretch of the imagination are we playing our best basketball right now. We're winning ball games, but we have a lot of room for improvement. We have not started well the last couple games and our defensive focus has not been there. It's been there in the second half and when we need it, but we need to do it more consistently."
Even as they move closer to the NBA-record winning streak of 33 straight established by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-72, the bigger concern in the Heat locker room is that they are nowhere near a playoff gear with just 14 games remaining before the postseason arrives. They've trailed after five of their past six opening quarters, been losing at halftime in three straight outings and have been outshot in three of their last six contests.
The next opportunity to fix some of those issues comes Sunday at home against Charlotte (16-52) — a team that has won two straight, yet is a mere 38 games behind the Heat (54-14) in the East standings.
"It's on the radar, no question about it," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We need to put together complete games. That's three games in a row where we haven't gotten off to that energetic start that we're looking for. We'll have an opportunity to get back to it on Sunday. No excuses. We're not making excuses for ourselves, the schedule or anything. Just more consistency."
The latest close call wasn't exactly all that close. Miami trailed Detroit by 11 points on Friday night, before clamping down in the second half and pulling away for a 103-89 win, with LeBron James finishing with 29 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.
"We never expect anything to be easy," James said.
But the 17-point deficit at Boston (and a separate 13-point hole in the fourth quarter) that was followed by the 27-point lead Cleveland held over the Heat in a most bizarre game on Wednesday may be perceived as some warning signs, and the Heat freely acknowledge they have to be addressed.
At the same time, though, to say the reigning NBA champions are nervous about where they are right now would be a gross exaggeration.
"Everybody wants us to win by 30 every night," guard Dwyane Wade said. "Sorry, guys. It's not possible."
Wade said he has seen mentions on his Twitter timeline lately from fans who aren't exactly pleased with the close calls, with one mention saying that the Heat are causing heart attacks.
He doesn't see the in-game lulls as causes of angst. He sees them as fun.
"I think it's great for the game," Wade said. "Keep people entertaining, keep people watching, keep people in the stadium for most of the game. ... For us, it doesn't matter if we're up or down. We play games within games. We go on runs at different times. We have a lot of confidence. We don't do it on purpose, but we have a lot of confidence in our team and we can go on runs very fast."
That's been proven.
Erasing the 13-point Boston lead in the final 8 minutes on Monday, a 45-12 run over a 12-minute stretch in Cleveland on Wednesday, a 19-8 start in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter to pull away from the Pistons for good on Friday, those are just the latest examples of what Wade says is the Heat calling card.
In Spoelstra's eyes, it's helping the playoff-readiness process.
"Teams are coming at us. That's a good thing," Spoelstra said. "We can't sleepwalk into a game. We have to bring it, we have to play well at both ends, we have to dig, we have to earn wins and we're playing against our opponents' best games. That only helps. That sharpens you. The more you get tested in this league, the better you get, as long as you handle it the right way."
If the Heat beat Charlotte, the win streak goes to 26. And then yet another road test — the latest big challenge in a month where the Heat play a schedule loaded with 18 games and almost no practices — awaits, with games every other night starting Monday at Orlando, Chicago, New Orleans and San Antonio.
"I enjoy going on the road and hearing fans say, 'You guys suck,'" Wade said. "Really? We're not too bad. When the playoffs start, we're going to have to buckle down and it becomes a new season. But right now, in this season, man, we're enjoying it."
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