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State of the Heat: East is too close to call

Though some may have predicted a runaway for Miami in the East, the race is a dead heat at this point.

The thinking before the season was, if it were an election, FOX News would have declared it over early in the evening.

 

Instead, the race in the Eastern Conference might just keep people tuned in for a while.

 

It had looked as if the Miami Heat would romp in the East and the only thing that could stop them from a second straight NBA title was whichever team the West sent to the Finals. Surprisingly, though, this is a race.

 

Following Thursday's 92-90 loss at Portland, the Heat (23-11) held a mere half-game lead over New York for the top record in the East. There are four other East teams within 3½ games of Miami.

 

"That never came out of our camp that we felt the East was an easy run," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Last year, we had to fight through New York, Indiana and Boston (in the playoffs)."


Actually, the series against the Knicks in the first round wasn't much of a fight, with Miami winning 4-1. But the Heat fell behind the Pacers 2-1 in the second round before coming back to win 4-2. And they trailed the Celtics 3-2 in the East finals before surviving to win 4-3.

 

With the Knicks having an aging roster and with the Pacers lacking in star power, some believed Boston might be the only team that could seriously challenge the Heat in the East. But the Celtics have either finally gotten old or they're just waiting again until after the All-Star break to get going.

 

But several other teams have stepped up as East contenders. The Knicks (23-12) already have beaten Miami twice by 20 points. The Pacers (22-14) got their first crack at the Heat this season, and manhandled them 87-77 last Tuesday. They're now just two games behind in the conference.

 

The Bulls (19-14), who finished first in the East the past two years, were not expected to make a serious run due to star guard Derrick Rose being out until at least the All-Star break while recovering from a torn ACL. But they gave the Heat reason to be concerned for when Rose comes back by beating them 96-89 last Friday at Miami. They're now 3½ games behind in the conference.

 

While Atlanta (20-14) is three games out and Brooklyn (20-15) is 3½ back, neither of those teams bother the Heat. But Miami is 0-4 this season against the Knicks, Pacers and Bulls, teams that now must be regarded as legitimate East challengers.

 

The Knicks went 37-of-80 (46.3 percent) from 3-point range in their two wins over the Heat, so perhaps that won't continue. But the Bulls and Pacers have pounded Miami on the glass in the past week, and that's been no fluke.

 

Chicago won the battle of the boards 48-28 while Indiana did 55-36. And you thought it was just those big teams out West the Heat really has to worry about on the glass.

 

"I mean, you look at the Bulls," said center Chris Bosh, whose Heat are a so-so 11-7 this season against the East, while assessing the conference. "I think they're a lot better than their record. They have some good wins against some very good teams."

 

The Chicago loss might have gotten Miami's attention more than any other defeat this season. Since then, there's really been an effort to find big-man help on a team that has been outrebounded by 17 or more in three of the past six games.

 

Yes, the calendar did play a role since Miami had to make a call on non-guaranteed contracts by last Monday. But soon after the loss to the Bulls, the Heat waived guard Terrel Harris and center Josh Harrellson to get their roster down to 13.

 

They've since brought Harrellson back on a 10-day contract and signed power forward Jarvis Varnado to a 10-day deal, allowing them to continue to have roster flexibility. They've also worked out free-agent center Chris Andersen. Simply put, the Heat are on a mission to find rebounding help.

 

If it doesn't arrive, the battle in the East becomes a lot more interesting. The Knicks were able to crush the Heat twice despite not having burly forward Amar'e Stoudemire in either game (star forward Carmelo Anthony missed one of the games). The Knicks won the battle of the boards just 87-84 in the two games, but would figure to be helped even more in that area by having Stoudemire.

 

And the Celtics, who did win the boards battle 41-36 in losing the Oct. 30 opener 120-107 at Miami, would like another crack at the Heat in the postseason. If the playoffs started now, Miami and current No. 8 seed Boston (18-17) would meet in the first round.

 

Wasn't Miami vs. Boston again supposed to be the conference finals matchup in the supposedly non-competitive East?

 

Who's Hot: Guard Dwyane Wade's 18 points on 6-of-18 shooting Thursday at Portland was nothing to email home about. Still, Wade has averaged 23.1 points in his past eight games to raise his seasonal average to 20.7. Wade had a season-high 30 points Tuesday at Indiana.

 

Who's Not: So much for Heat point guard Mario Chalmers scoring 37 points in a two-game stretch late last month. Since then, Chalmers has averaged a meager 4.5 points in eight games to drop his seasonal average to 6.8. During the stretch, Chalmers has shot just 7-of-28 (25.0 percent) from 3-point range. Despite that, Spoelstra inserted Chalmers for a last-second 3-point attempt that would have beaten the Trail Blazers. It was off the mark.

 

Three Thoughts

 

1. Forward LeBron James has fallen two games short of Joe DiMaggio. James' streak of 54 straight playoff and regular-season games of scoring 20 or more points ended when he was held to 15 Thursday at Portland on 6-of-16 shooting. So he won't top one of the most legendary streaks in history, the 56-game hitting run DiMaggio had in 1941. James talked about DiMaggio earlier this season when he said he shared the philosophy the New York Yankees legend had about never relaxing in a game because it might be the first time someone is seeing him play. "I feel like when I go out there, if it's someone's first game they've ever seen me play. I want them to remember and say, ‘That was a great game,"' James said. Thursday was hardly great by James' standards, but he did barely miss a triple-double with 10 rebounds and nine assists.


2. Heat forward Rashard Lewis has not played in 11 straight games due to Spoelstra's decision, hardly what one would expect from a two-time All-Star. But Lewis is keeping a good attitude. He believes Spoelstra simply feels more comfortable going with the rotation that brought the Heat an NBA title last season. "We got a very talented team," Lewis said. "If anything, I got to be patient. I can't get frustrated. I got to be ready to go whenever my name is called. I knew what I signed up for. Spo is going with the team that pretty much won the championship last year. I can't argue with that." Actually, there is one new player this season in Miami's rotation. But guard Ray Allen is a 10-time All-Star.


3. Perhaps Allen needs to trademark it, the way Heat president Pat Riley has patented "threepeat." Allen has come up with a term to describe what teams that didn't win the title the previous season have. "What (the Heat had last year was) that chase juice," said Allen, who watched Miami drink that juice last season when he was with the Celtics. "You were chasing somebody else for it. Now, other teams have it… We're the ones being chased and hunted." Stay tuned to see if Oklahoma City, which lost to the Heat in the Finals last season, is talking about chase juice should the teams meet again next June.

 

Quotes of the week

 

"You can beat yourself up because you want it so bad, but there are the kind of games where you say, `Listen, a team beat us when we played our game.' So you pat them on the back and say, `Good job."

 

— Wade, determined not to get down about Thursday's 92-90 loss at Portland.

 

"We'll have to change some things and own this to get a big first win on this trip."

 

— Spoelstra, whose Heat have lost the first two games of a six-game trip and next play Saturday at Sacramento.


"The opposing teams' locker room is getting the best speech of the year when they play us."

 

— Allen, on teams fired up to play the defending champions.

 

"Right now, the East is the defending champion."

 

— Wade, on talk the West is the NBA's stronger conference.

 

Numbers game

 

6.0: Rebounds averaged by Bosh in the three games in which he has vowed to count his boards "so everybody will get off my back" for not hitting the glass. The stretch has lowered Bosh's average from 7.6 to 7.5, in line to be the lowest since his rookie year of 2003-04. Bosh averaged 7.4 that season, so he's close to having the worst rebounding season of his 10-year career.

 

9: Times in 34 games this season the Heat have outrebounded the opponent.

 

13: Times James has missed a triple-double in his 10-year career by exactly one assist, the latest Thursday at Portland. James has 33 career triple-doubles.

 

What's Next?  

 

James made his NBA debut Oct. 29, 2003 at Sacramento, scoring 25 points for Cleveland. He might make his last trip there Saturday if the Kings end up moving after the season. The Heat then close out their six-game trip with games Monday at Utah, Wednesday at Golden State and Thursday at the Los Angeles Lakers. While the game against the Lakers had been greatly anticipated before the season, it's lost much of its luster due to their numerous problems.


Tower of Power?

 

At home, yes. On the road, no. The Heat are 16-3 at home and often look like a team that should have no problem defending its championship. On the road, it's been a different story. The Heat are just 7-8. The difference between their home and road play could put a premium on the Heat trying to secure the No. 1 seed in the East. Having the best record in the NBA could be a much tougher task since four West teams currently have better marks.

 

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson