Basketball / Sports

Intense Heat in schedule's forecast

The rhetoric is universal when the NBA schedule is released: "Everyone has to play 82, 41 at home and 41 on the road." "It all balances out." "It's the same for everyone."

But just as teams sort themselves out over the course of the season, so do schedules.

Based on where the Heat already have been this season, they've played what is tied for the second-softest schedule in the NBA, opponents to this point with a combined .479 winning percentage.

Based on what's next, the true tests only now are about to arrive.

To a degree, the NBA has saved the best (in terms of level of competition) for last, with the football slate cleared after Sunday's Super Bowl. The result? Intense Heat in the upcoming forecast.

"That's how it's worked out," Chris Bosh said.

Still remaining are eight road games against Western Conference playoff contenders, when factoring in the Clippers, Suns, Warriors, Mavericks, Thunder, Rockets, Spurs and Grizzlies. The lone Western Conference playoff contenders the Heat have faced on the road to this point have been the Trail Blazers and Nuggets. There also is a remaining game in Indiana, the best team in the East.

"It's a challenge," Bosh said. "Eventually we say we've got to be better, we've got to win on the road. We're going to have our chance."

It's just about to begin, in a big, road-weary way.

After Monday's game against the Pistons at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat don't play at home again until Feb. 23. In the interim are six Western Conference road games, broken up by the All-Star break. With the Heat scheduled to practice in Dallas the day after the break, some Heat players who leave Tuesday for Los Angeles won't step foot back home for 17 days.

"It's very tough, especially going right from the West Coast, All-Star break and then back," LeBron James said. "We're a veteran ballclub and we understand what the schedule is about, and we've just got to make sure we handle business."

The last time the Heat went on the road for an extended period, a trip that opened Jan. 9 in New York and ended Jan. 20 in Atlanta, coach Erik Spoelstra put Dwyane Wade on an extended break upon the team's return, saying his All-Star guard needed the opportunity to maximize his time at the team's training facilities.

"Our schedule hasn't been great for us, as far as how they've placed it," James said. "But at the end of the day, you just play the games."

There is, of course, no other choice.

Then again, considering the Heat's struggles against second-tier competition, tests against the league's best on their home courts could prove galvanizing.

"You hope," Shane Battier said. "We'll be challenged, no questions. It'll be interesting to see how we respond."

Even with Wednesday's loss to the Thunder, the Heat stand 12-3 this season against the Western Conference, with victories in 24 of their last 27 against the West.

After the Pistons game, it will be nothing but West for nearly three weeks.

"Those are all really good teams at home," Battier said of the looming Los Angeles (Clippers)-Utah-Phoenix-Golden State-Dallas-Oklahoma City trip.

Last season, the Heat made their late-season statement with a 27-game winning streak. Over the next two weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities to make nightly statements.

"We've got to build the mental toughness," Bosh said. "We have to build our habits, of course. And we're going to have to rely on those habits to win on the road."

To some, the Heat to this point have not been who we thought they were. These upcoming weeks will either confirm or dismiss those concerns.

"We're going to have our tests," Bosh said.

In the lane

ELECTORAL PROCESS: So how do NBA coaches vote for NBA All-Star Game reserves? For the Heat, as with almost every matter, it became a collective process. "I work on it with my staff," Erik Spoelstra said, with the selections announced this past Thursday. "They've done a lot of the grunt work. I had to oversee a few of 1/8the selections3/8. But it does get tough, because a lot of players are playing well, and you don't want to leave guys out. That's always the tough one." Asked if he had ultimate veto power, Spoelstra said with a smile, "Yeah, minimal. They spend a lot more time on it than I do, to be quite frank." Don't be surprised if Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel reminds guard Lance Stephenson that Eastern Conference coaches were the ones who snubbed him when selecting the reserves.

BATTIER BOOSTER: During a question-and-answer session with fans, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey spoke of possibly bringing Heat forward Shane Battier back to the organization in a front-office role. "Of the players we've had," Morey told the gathering, "Shane Battier is a guy I felt could be a great head coach. He's so smart, though. He's told me maybe he doesn't want to do it because it's too much work. He hasn't decided what he wants to do later, but he might be interested in personnel, and that's something we would be interested in talking to him about." Battier is in the final year of his contract, frequently mentioning retirement as a possibility at season's end.

DEADLINE PASSES: The Jan. 31 deadline for the Heat recalling second-round draft pick James Ennis from Australia has come and gone, much to the delight of the Perth Wildcats. "Going back to day one, Miami wanted to place him overseas for a year," Perth coach Trevor Gleeson, the former NBA assistant coach, told Ninemsn.com. "They didn't want to bring him back, otherwise he would have played in the D-League. They have a long-term future with him and I think next year is a prime time for that." Ennis, an athletic swingman out of Long Beach State, was taken at No. 50 in last June's NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks and then dealt to the Heat. He is the front-runner for Most Valuable Player of the National Basketball League.

FUTURE SHOCK: Amid the Cleveland Cavaliers' struggles, General Manager Chris Grant spoke to reporters this past week about the delicate balance of weighing the present and the future, with the Cavs currently in possession of enough offseason cap space for a potential free-agency bid for a LeBron James reunion tour. "We're not going to make any irrational decisions," he said. "We have a team with a lot of talent on it and a ton of flexibility, so I don't think we should sacrifice those things. I think we're in a tough stretch. We have to get through that." The question is whether impending free agents would look more favorably on a Cavaliers team that finally makes a playoff breakthrough or one that retains its cap, draft and youth flexibility.

FAMILIAR FACES: Kevin Durant's first 3-pointer of Wednesday's victory over the Heat made him the fourth player in Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder history with at least 800. Interestingly, the three Thunder/Sonics franchise leaders all have Heat ties, led by current Heat forward Rashard Lewis (973), Heat 2006 championship-winning guard Gary Payton (917) and current Heat guard Ray Allen (869).

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