So much for their struggles against the East elite.
Well, at least for one night.
The Miami Heat entered Thursday’s game at Chicago with an eight-game winning streak. But they had done little this season against other top teams in the Eastern Conference, having gone 0-5 against New York, Indiana and Chicago.
But if there were any questions about whether the Heat (38-14) are playing their best ball of the season, they were answered Thursday at the United Center. The Heat dissected the Bulls 86-67.
Soon they will have a chance to show they can turn it around against the Knicks (32-19) and the Pacers (33-21), both of whom they are 0-2 against this season. The Heat are at New York, which is No. 2 in the East, on March 3 and play host March 10 to Indiana, which is No. 3.
The Bulls (31-23) recently slipped to No. 5 in the East behind Brooklyn. But, with the possibility of injured guard Derrick Rose returning for the playoffs, they might have more potential than any of Miami’s conference foes.
That’s why it was important for the Heat, who were pushed around 96-89 by Chicago at home Jan. 4 in this season’s only previous meeting, not to let the Bulls get any more confidence.
In the previous game, the bigger Bulls outrebounded the Heat by a staggering margin of 48-28. On Thursday, Chicago’s margin was just 39-36.
“You have to be willing to get into that fight,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team’s concerted effort to turn it around on the boards. “You can’t be a no-show. That’s one of the keys. Don’t be a no-show. If you’re not showing up and being there for your teammate, we’ll get embarrassed like we did the last time.”
Instead, it was the Heat embarrassing the Bulls. They shot 50.7 percent to 37.3 for Chicago while forcing the Bulls into 27 turnovers.
The Bulls were without guard Kirk Hinrich in addition to Rose, but the Heat weren’t complaining. They won their their first regular-season game in Chicago since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in the summer of 2010. They had been 0-4.
The Heat lately have been curing their road woes. Their nine-game streak has included four wins on the road, and Miami raised its mark to 15-11.
With the All-Star break in the rear-view mirror, the playoffs are in sight. Quite simply, the Heat, who have had their share of lapses as defending champions, are now getting more serious.
“We’re putting together some good basketball right now,” said James, who had 26 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists Thursday. “We’re defending. We’re creating turnovers. We’re winning the turnover game offensively. We’re the best shooting team in the league … So if we don’t turn the ball over, we get good shots at the rim, we could also have a good chance to win.”
But there is still work to be done against the East elite. The Knicks have beaten the Heat in both their meetings by 20 points. The Pacers have outscored them by an average of 11.5 points in their two wins.
Interestingly, Indiana was the last team to beat the Heat, winning 102-89 on Feb. 1. It remains to be seen if that was the defeat that turned around Miami’s season.
Who’s Hot: James might be getting most of the publicity during Miami’s winning streak, but Wade has averaged 22.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists in the nine games. That has raised Wade’s seasonal averages to 20.9, 4.9 and 4.8.
Who’s Not: Bosh misplaced his game somewhere on the way to or from Houston for last Sunday’s All-Star Game. In the two games prior to last Sunday, when Bosh started for the East, he averaged 26.0 and 11.5 rebounds while shooting 23-of-30 (76.7 percent). In the two games since, Bosh has averaged 9.0 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 7-of-19 (36.8 percent). Three Thoughts
1. Thursday’s game offered a nice test for the Heat, as they figure out what they want to do with their open roster spot. They carved out that spot by trading Dexter Pittman earlier in the day to Memphis.
In its previous meeting with the Bulls, Miami was outrebounded 48-28 in a 96-89 home loss on Jan. 4. If that trend had continued Thursday, the Heat might have gone looking for the first big man they could find. But Miami lost the battle of the boards just 39-36 to the bigger Bulls.
The Heat has become a better rebounding team lately. It’s helped that Chris Andersen joined them on Jan. 20. But the primary reason is the Heat, who remain undersized even after the Andersen acquisition, have made a concerted effort to be better on the boards.
“You can’t do it halfway,” Spoelstra said. “The way we’re built, if we do it halfway, we’ll get pounded.”
It remains to be seen what the Heat might do with their open roster spot. But with a nine-game winning streak and improved rebounding, there’s no rush to do anything.
2. It’s been quite a February for the Heat, but Spoelstra has had little time to celebrate.
“We have plenty of time to get tested,” he said. “We have a heck of a march ahead of us.”
It would have been the same had Spoelstra said the Heat have a heck of a March ahead of them. After falling Feb. 1 at Indiana, the Heat have won nine straight in February and have three games remaining. But March will be much tougher.
The Heat are on the road for 11 of their 18 games during March. The month includes intriguing battles at home against Memphis on March 1 and against Indiana on March 10. Marquee road games include March 3 at New York, March 18 at Boston, March 27 at Chicago and March 31 at San Antonio.
3. It was good to see former Heat point guard Tim Hardaway get some recognition by being named a Hall of Fame finalist. But it would be a surprise if he made it to Springfield, Mass.
Hardaway had a very good career, but he falls short as a Hall of Famer. Hardaway, who averaged 17.7 points and 8.2 assists from 1989-2004, was selected to five All-Star Games. A couple more would have helped.
Hardaway also didn’t help himself with his lack of playoff success. Hardaway, who also starred with Golden State and had brief stints with Dallas, Denver and Indiana, got beyond the first round just three times and beyond the second round just once, that being Miami’s East finals appearance in 1997. Hardaway had an impressive career but it wasn’t quite Hall of Fame caliber.
Quotes of the week
“The fans are always on me on the road. They stay on me. They continue to say I can’t shoot the ball, I can’t shoot.”
—James, who was 11-of-15 Thursday at Chicago, has continued to make road fans pay with his potent shooting.
“It’s a little bit of a secret. But if I tell you I may have to kill you.”
—James, speaking to a reporter who asked why James believes he gets stronger during second games of back-to-back situations.
“If you tuned in, hopefully you saw the start and the finish and nothing in between.”
—Spoelstra, on Miami’s 103-90 win Wednesday at Atlanta, which featured the Heat outscoring the Hawks 24-17 in the first quarter and 40-17 in the fourth quarter.
“The road is a monster in itself. It’s just tough on the road, and we’ve played much better on the road the last month.”
—Forward Shane Battier on the Heat, who have won four straight to raise their road mark to 15-11.
3 — NBA teams with two players who have scored 20,000 or more career points. Boston has Kevin Garnett (25,081) and Paul Pierce (23,587), Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki (24,495) and Vince Carter (21,810) and the Heat have Ray Allen (23,479) and James (20,460).
The Lakers soon will join the list with Kobe Bryant at 30,949 and Antawn Jamison needing 336 points to reach 20,000. When Jamison gets there, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan (23,331) will be the NBA’s only active player without a teammate who also has reached 20,000. 4 — Heat players who have numbers hanging from the rafters at their colleges. Mario Chalmers had his No. 15 hoisted last Saturday by Kansas. He joins Wade, who has had his No. 3 raised at Marquette, Allen, whose No. 34 was honored at Connecticut, and Battier, whose No. 31 was retired by Duke.
12 — Longest winning streak by the Heat since James, Wade and Bosh joined forced in 2010, that coming during their first season. Miami’s current nine-game streak is tied for the second longest in their three seasons together.
What’s Next? The Heat have a chance to stretch their winning streak firmly into double digits. After playing at Philadelphia on Saturday, the Heat have home games Sunday against Cleveland and Tuesday against Sacramento. None of those three teams are in position to make the playoffs. Tower of Power? It’s never been more obvious. The Heat are 23-3 at home and now they’re starting to cure their road woes. It’s no wonder they’ve extended their lead in the East to a season-high 5 ½ games over the Knicks.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter@christomasson