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Heat gaining respect as schedule gets tougher

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Miami will need to prove themselves all over again starting tonight.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Impressive back-to-back home victories against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers propelled the Miami Heat to first place in the Eastern Conference standings and renewed respect around the league and from the experts.

On paper, Pat Riley had assembled over the offseason an intriguing collection of returning veterans and hungry youngsters eager to prove themselves. There was still everything to prove; from whether or not Chris Bosh would be the same player he was before his medical setback, or if Hassan Whiteside could continue to build upon his dazzling first season in Miami. Coach Erik Spoelstra also faced the task of assembling together a starting five with Goran Dragic at the helm who had yet to play a single minute of basketball together for the Heat.

Taking advantage of a relative soft schedule and a high number of home games, the Heat have taken care of business and improved greatly from last year's squad that never seemed to gain any traction. With a quarter of the season behind them, the Heat have done a solid job of utilizing their considerable depth to spread the workload among the starters and the younger bench. Playing alongside a veteran or two such as Bosh to help anchor them, the reserves have more than held their own against the opposition with Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson and Gerald Green providing valuable minutes. Despite a slow start to the season, Dragic has finally found his groove again and is playing with more confidence.

ESPN's Marc Stein placed the Heat third in his Power Rankings behind only the perfect Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, leaping three spots from an already-impressive seventh place last week. And according to current NBA Futures the Heat are now given +1000 odds to win the Eastern Conference and a respectable +2500 to win the 2015-16 NBA Championship. Those who preferred to take a "wait and see" approach with the Heat before the season ended are now seeing positive results out on the court.

This is quite the turnaround for sure, but a sobering loss to the Washington Wizards on Monday ended their four-game home stand on a disappointing note with Bosh getting ejected after a bad call that didn't go Miami's way ended a miserable fourth quarter riddled with turnovers. Four of the next five games are on the road, including tonight's game against the Charlotte Hornets and a tough matchup against the resurgent Indiana Pacers on Friday.

The Heat will then host Mario Chalmers and the Memphis Grizzlies before heading to Atlanta to face the always tough Hawks. The second half of December features five of the last seven games of the year at home, which is a good thing because only five of their 17 games in January will be played at the AmericanAirlines Arena.

Miami at 12-7 stills holds the second spot in the East but it means little with only two games separating several teams in the loss column. At 12-9, both the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics occupy the eighth and ninth spots with the 12-10 Detroit Pistons right behind them.

The Heat will need to show more consistency but will have to do it largely on the road. Players who have mostly sat on the bench so far may be called upon to action as more and more games pile up. Whiteside is seeking a bigger role on the offense that seems to be favoring "small ball" while Amar'e Stoudemire, Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen look on. The season continues onward with still many questions left to be answered.