Philadelphia, PA – Here's a terrifying reality for fans of the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers or any other team in the NBA - the defending champion Miami Heat may be better than last season.
All the Heat did last season was win the NBA championship in five games against the Thunder.
"I think we're better," said Chris Bosh. "This point last year, I think we were struggling a little bit. We understand each other a lot more."
The Heat are 40-14 at this point on the calendar. In last season's lockout- shortened campaign, the Heat were 39-15 through 54 games. That one game difference surely isn't why the Heat are better.
Defense has a lot to do with it -- a lot.
"The defense, we're working on that," admitted Bosh.
Over the first 20 games of this season, the Heat allowed 100 or more points 11 times. In the last 34 games, Miami has surrendered 100 or more just 12 times.
After languishing in the bottom-quarter of defensive statistical categories through much of the year, the Heat are now ninth in opponents' scoring and 10th in opponents' field-goal percentage.
That's a pretty substantial improvement throughout the season, but they're not quite at last season's numbers. The Heat finished the 2011-12 season fourth in opponents' scoring at 91.9 ppg. This season, they allow 96.1 ppg.
But, the defense is getting better nightly.
The offense has never been a problem.
"The offense is a lot better," Bosh said.
The Heat are fifth in scoring at 103.2 ppg, up from 98.5 ppg last season. They shoot a staggering 49.5 percent from the field to lead the NBA and are tied for second in 3-point shooting percentage.
It helps when you bring in the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history. Ray Allen has helped on many levels, but it's asinine to go any further without mentioning the King.
LeBron James might be playing at a slightly higher level than last season and that thought was borderline unimaginable.
James averaged 27.1 ppg last season compared to 27.0 right now. Assists numbers are up. Rebounding numbers are up. Field-goal percentage is up and 3- point shooting percentage is way up. Turnovers are even down by almost half a miscue a game.
"I think people are recognizing what we're doing," James said after Saturday's victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. "We're playing some good ball right now."
That they are, and they're doing it in a variety of ways.
"We're more of a precision team now. We're adding more elements that we never had before," Bosh said. "That's something that's really taken us over the top as opposed to last year.
"Fast break, the grind it out, slow style - we can do it a bunch of different ways and, of course, on offense, whoever's really rolling well, we can go with them to close out games."
Allen is a big part of that aspect of the team. Allen has shot 45 percent from the 3-point line and is getting them almost 11 ppg.
Perhaps the biggest shift in Miami's philosophy came during last season's playoff run to a title. Dwyane Wade finally seemed to realize he was second banana to James.
When Wade started deferring to James, especially in late-game situations, the Heat became almost unstoppable. Wade is still a top-15 player in this league, if not higher, but James is so clearly the best in the world, that philosophical change made the Heat more dangerous.
Another great move by head coach Erik Spoelstra came in the form of letting James freelance. He plays some point, some small forward and even gets a lot of time at the power forward spot.
"That team, when they go to LeBron as a four (power forward), is impossible to guard," Sixers head coach Doug Collins said. "They have 3-point shooters spreading you out. They are so good offensively when they have their small unit out there."
This kind of versatility makes opponents alternately confounded and awestruck.
We'll all have to wait until June to see if the ultimate goal can be attained. For now, the NBA has to realize the Heat might just be better than the group that won it all last season.
If the statistics don't bare out the notion that the Heat are better now (and defensively, they don't), the players think it. Both James and Wade were asked if the Heat were sending a message to the rest of the league with their play. Both responded they were sending a message to themselves.
You get the sense the Heat, much like Tiger Woods, are chasing history, not concerning themselves with NBA commoners.
But, the league received any message, intended or not, loud and clear.
"I don't see any weaknesses," Collins said of the Heat. "The only thing I could see is if you had two bigs that could try and pound them a little bit. I don't know any team that has that."
- Carmelo Anthony should have been suspended for his slapping incident with Spencer Hawes of the Sixers. He essentially took a swing at him, although with his fist open instead of closed. Can't have that in the league.
- The Derek Fisher signing with the Thunder stinks. Fisher signed with the Dallas Mavericks earlier this season and, after injuring his knee, asked the team for his release to be with his family. Just two months later, the family must be fine because Fisher signed with a legit title contender, instead of the team that brought him in earlier in the season and is outside looking in on the playoff race. It's completely fair to wonder if Fisher just screwed the Mavs
- Mike Krzyzewski announced he will not return as head basketball coach for the USA national team. If the next head of the program isn't Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers or Collins, I'd be floored.
- The biggest question I see in any Andrew Bynum contract talk this offseason is, will he allow language in the contract about terminating it due to injury, or allowing for a team option.
- Movie Moment - I did not see one Best Picture Oscar nominee this year for the first time maybe in my adult life. Having kids really takes movie experiences out of play, so I'll have to wait until he's a little older to watch movies I'll hate.
- TV Moment - I like "Family Guy" and I like Seth MacFarlane. I think he did an admirable job as Oscars host, but maybe I'm getting older, but I thought some of his stuff, specifically the song in his monologue, could've been left out.