If the season ended now--and of course it doesn't, but that's what you are required to say in these situations--the Heat would be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. That's not exactly what Miami had in mind last summer during an unprecedented free agent spree that added LeBron James and Chris Bosh to a re-signed Dwyane Wade.
Yet third place is where the Heat stands with 12 games to go. Miami is 2.5 games behind the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls, who are tied for first.
However, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says it is still too soon to become concerned with the standings. He just wants his team to concentrate on playing wall.
"We understand the race," he said. "There's plenty of time. I'm not thinking about what happens if it doesn't work out."
Still, finishing third would have to be considered a major disappointment for a team that was expected to challenge strongly for the best record in the NBA. However, Wade says the Heat's players won't be upset to wind up No. 3 and still believe they are strong contenders to win it all.
"Our expectations were to be the best team we could be," he said. "If we're the third seed, then that's the best team that we can be. It's all that we can control and worry about. No matter what seed we are, one, two or three, we feel that we can win, we can win anywhere. So if you're not the No. 1 seed, then it doesn't really matter, because you don't have that home-court advantage, so you've got to figure it out. Obviously, right now, we're the third-best team in the East. We've got some great individual players, and we're still trying to put it all together to become a great team."
James says the Heat has enough time to close ground on the Celtics and Bulls but the main concern is being in top form when the playoffs begin.
"It is possible we can still do it," he said. "Does it mean the season is over without it? No."
New York Struggling with Anthony
When the New York Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony, it sparked hope in New York that they could contend for the NBA title this season. Uh, not so fast.
The Knicks are in good position to go to the playoffs as they are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and 6.5 games ahead of the Charlotte Bobcats and Milwaukee Bucks, who are tied for ninth. However, New York's home loss to the Celtics on Monday night was their third in a row and they have dropped five of their last six games to fall to .500 at 35-35.
"We're trying to get this done, we'll get it done," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's just a matter of staying calm and knowing our problems and working through them."
Anthony admits it might take some time for the Knicks to put it all together. While the star forward said he feels New York is "almost there," he also indicates that 2011-12 is a more realistic timetable for being a title contender.
"For everybody to get 100 percent on the same page, it might take next season," he said. "But right now in this short period of time, we just got to come together as a unit and just figure out what we're going to do and just do it."
Despite the Knicks' recent losses, they remain upbeat and seem certain things will work out for over time.
"We're just fighting our way through, and honestly, I think we're getting better," guard Chauncey Billups said. "Even though you can't tell with the wins, we're losing games, but I feel like we're inching and getting better every single time."
That being said, Billups also cautioned about expecting too much from New York this season.
"We're a ways away from where we need to be," he said. "We have got a ways to go on both ends getting familiar."
Denver Doesn't Miss Anthony
There were dire predictions for the Denver Nuggets when they traded Anthony and Billups to the Knicks in the three-team deal on Feb. 22 that brought back five players. Some pundits felt that the Nuggets would become the Cavaliers of the West, seeing the kind of demise Cleveland has suffered this season in the aftermath of James leaving. The Cavaliers are a league-worst 13-56.
However, the Nuggets are doing quite well without Anthony. They are 10-4 since the trade and in fifth place in the Western Conference.
"Were we supposed be like Cleveland? That's what you (the media) all think?" forward Kenyon Martin said. "We're a basketball team. What are we supposed to do? Lose 20 games in a row?"
"We got a lot of guys with a lot of pride, and we got some good players (in the trade)," forward Al Harrington said. "So we're just going out with a chip on our shoulder for sure. The New York guys (acquired in the trade) are definitely (ticked) off that they were moved, and stuff like that. We're just going to make the best of the situation."
The key players who came to Denver from the Knicks were forwards Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari and guard Raymond Felton. Coach George Karl's biggest objection to trading Anthony was that the Nuggets might not get fair value in return but he is very pleased with the play of the newcomers.
"I just think two months ago at this time, I was more worried about the worst that could happen," Karl said. "In a lot of ways, I think what has happened is the best."
While guard J.R. Smith has great respect for Anthony, he believes Denver is a better balanced team since trading him.
"We gave him a lot of opportunities to excel because he was the best scorer on the court," Smith said. "But now, at any given night, anybody can be the best scorer on our team."
Rockets Making Playoff Push
The Houston Rockets have been one of the league's hottest teams since the All-Star break, going 11-3. That has thrust them into the Western Conference playoff race as they are ninth, two games behind the eighth-place Grizzlies.
The Rockets are winning despite not having any All-Stars. Instead, players like undersized center Chuck Hayes and tenacious point guard Kyle Lowry are leading the charge.
"We don't have that typical stud, star horse," center Brad Miller said. "But we have guys that want to win and play hard to do that. Chuck takes pride to defend every guy he goes against. Kyle takes a lot of pride in what he does. People don't look at them as flashy, but I'll take a grind-it-out, gritty, kick-you-and-go-after-you guy."
Houston has embraced the role of scrappy overachievers.
"We don't have a superstar, but we're in every game," Hayes said. "We're competitive. We push teams to the limit. We're not star-studded. We're not going to bring fans on the road. Our play is not going to be impressive. Everybody is taller than us. Everybody is bigger than us. Our willpower and our commitment is what are going to get us over the top and win these battles."
Lowry is starting for the first time in his four seasons in the league and Rockets coach Rick Adelman says he has been a difference maker.
"He makes very good plays and what I really like about Kyle is he knows the strengths of the guys he's playing with," Adelman said. "Kyle has been the guy that we've leaned on. He's been the playmaker. He's just been terrific. You can't say enough about him."
In fact, Adelman can't say enough about his entire team.
"These guys are laying it on the line. They're laying it out there," Adelman said. "Everything they've got, they're laying it out there. They know what's ahead of them. They know what's going on. They're busting their tails."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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