Heat begin their toughest stretch

Dwyane WadeDoug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport

The Heat face Chicago on Thursday -- the first in a series of tough matchups.

MIAMI – Now 56 games into their season, the Heat have a sterling record but a bit of an unsteady reputation.

They came out of the All-Star Break with the third-best record in the league, right on the heels of the Celtics for the top mark in the Eastern Conference. But they are 0-6 against the teams with the five best records in the league, and 4-8 against the top five teams in each conference.

According to the raw numbers, the Heat have gotten to 41-15 by playing the second-easiest schedule -- though that is somewhat circumstantial because Miami has played 31 road games, the most of any team. The Heat have also played the third-most total games, meaning they’ve had less time off and practice time than most teams, all of which makes their schedule tougher than it looks.

But all of that is about to get settled. The Heat are about to enter the most favorable yet demanding part of their schedule.

Starting Tuesday night against the Kings, the Heat will play 10 of their next 12 games in Miami. They will play 12 of their next 14 against teams currently in playoff position in both conferences.

This week it’s games against the Bulls and Knicks, and next week it is an Orlando-San Antonio back-to-back. In two weeks the Heat start a homestand that includes the Lakers, Bulls, Spurs, Trail Blazers and Thunder.

In short, the Heat are headed for a graduate-level course load in what could become an intense battle for the top seed and a referendum on their championship hopes.

“We think we’re the most improved team since the end of November,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And people are saying that we haven’t played up to par against the best in the league.”

That is what people are saying, especially after the Heat dropped to 0-3 against the Celtics last week. It is also why there’s going to be some pressure on Thursday’s game in Chicago, a team the Heat have not yet beaten, when Joakim Noah is expected back from injury.

“We look forward to the big games and we’ll make sure our focus is there,” Dwyane Wade said. “It is a good thing. We’re going to focus going into the playoffs.”

Though Udonis Haslem is still on the sideline with a foot injury and Mike Miller is recovering from a serious of head injuries, the Heat are generally as healthy as they have been all season. That health enabled them to go into the All-Star break winners of 10 of their last 11 games. They will also get numerous off days and practice sessions during this challenging period.

They have been together since September and worked out many of their major issues. Now is the time for fairly judge them and how good they truly are.

“We’ll find out in the next few weeks,” Spoelstra said. “I think we’re all looking forward to it.”