Just five days ago, the Miami Heat moved into first place in the Eastern Conference with a win over a depleted Cleveland Cavaliers team. Miami had also defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder just a couple days earlier, with Dwyane Wade calling it the team's best win of the season.
Now, where do the Heat stand?
After two disappointing losses -- including a blowout at the hands of the Charlotte Hornets last night -- the Heat have tumbled to sixth place in the competitive Eastern Conference. The 10th-ranked Detroit Pistons stand just three games behind the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers. And with the exception of the conference champions, we don't know how good any of the East teams are. And that includes the Heat.
Miami came out flat and never recovered against Charlotte -- a performance even more disappointing when considering that it came just two nights following a missed opportunity to defeat the Washington Wizards at home. The Heat have played well in AmericanAirlines Arena, but have gone a subpar 2-4 on the road thus far. And three of Miami's next four games are on the road, in a stretch that will serve as an early-season test for the Heat.
Overall, the Heat have played strong defense and slow, unimpressive offense. Some of the Heat's offensive problems are structural -- Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Justise Winslow are all wings who receive big minutes and aren't good 3-point shooters. But Goran Dragic and Gerald Green -- players who are supposed to be knock-down shooters for this team -- have gone through several cold stretches this season. The Heat shouldn't waste 16 seconds of the shot clock to get Wade the ball on a post-up, though. Dragic has completed some nice one-man fast-breaks for Miami recently, and he may have to do that more often with this team.
The Heat have several good developments this season. Hassan Whiteside leads the league in blocks and continues to grow. Winslow and Green have emerged as solid perimeter defenders -- they shut down Carmelo Anthony in Miami's Nov. 27 victory over the Knicks -- possibly allowing Pat Riley to trade Luol Deng for a perimeter shooter later this season. Tyler Johnson has improved markedly from last season, growing into the role of the quintessential role player. He shoots the ball with confidence, plays hard-nosed defense and makes smart decisions. Chris Bosh has returned from his blood clot scare, and leads the Heat in 3-pointers made. While a less efficient offensive player, Wade is still capable of putting up big scoring nights.
Of course, this team also has a lot of questions. Whiteside's poor free-throw shooting will impact his ability to play in the fourth quarter. Miami's 3-point shooting needs to improve. And the Heat have approached some games without the proper respect for their opponents, and that has led to losses. But every other team in the East has battled issues as well. If the Heat want to play in the conference finals, the players and coaching staff will need to use the final three quarters of the season to separate themselves from the rest of the field.
Final Grade: B-