Heat's next three games true litmus test
By BILL REITER
MIAMI -- After a week of wins, it's time to be tested.
For Miami, that means facing Dallas on Monday, Phoenix on Thursday and the Lakers on Christmas Day.
For those Western Conference teams, it means finding out how they match up against the most hyped team in the NBA.
For the league, it means getting a measure on how good, really, the Heat are this season.
Monday's Dallas game is the first step. The Heat boast a 12-game winning streak, but the teams they've beaten on that run have won only 43 percent of their games. Nine of the 12 are losing teams.
Dallas, Phoenix and the Lakers have won a combined 69 percent of their games.
Both Dallas and the Lakers look very, very strong. And Phoenix will for the first time play with its new collection of talent after acquiring Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus from Orlando in exchange for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark.
Phoenix will be rejuvenated, Kobe ready for blood and Dallas, with its 9-1 record on the road, quite formidable.
Dirk Nowitzki is averaging 24.8 points, Jason Kidd nearly eight assists and Tyson Chandler more than nine rebounds.
That means Dallas has a legitimate star, an elite point guard and a solid big man -- all of whom would have spelled big trouble for the struggling Heat of a month ago.
How this Heat team, the squad of the winning streak, responds will say a lot about how far the Heat have really come.
But the game against Dallas, like the two to follow, will offer more answers than just how the Heat stack up against real competition.
It will reveal how they respond to potentially championship-caliber teams (Dallas and the Lakers), teams as star-studded as their own (Lakers) and the few players who might be as good, or better, than any of their Big Three (Lakers, again).
Many questions about this Heat team have been buried by their winning streak. Facing the Mavericks, Suns and Lakers should begin to unearth them.
-- Is Chris Bosh a key player in a championship team or an excess part that doesn't quite fit?
-- How will the Heat fare against a string of opponents that does not include easy targets?
-- What kind of alchemy takes place when Mike Miller returns and, upon his return, what player in the rotation finds his minutes squeezed?
-- How does this Heat team, lately the bigger kid on the playground, react when someone with the same size and strength punches Miami squarely on the nose?
-- How does LeBron respond to playing a superstar as good as -- or better than -- himself? Kobe Bryant, regardless of what he says, has this game marked on his calendar. During this winning streak, LeBron has played with a very large and effective chip on his shoulder. Who wins the grudge match?
Kobe or LeBron?
Lakers or Heat?
In less than a week, we'll know the answer.
By the end of NBA business Monday, we'll see how the Heat stack up against Dallas.
After a bumbling start, after a turnaround that brings us to the Heat's 12-game winning streak and newfound chemistry, truer tests awaits them.
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