Heat look ahead, seek consistency

MIAMI -- That long-awaited first trip to Cleveland with LeBron James in enemy colors now behind them, the Miami Heat might now start plotting their first trip to another new destination.

Like first place, for example.

The Heat haven't woken up in first place on any day since this season began, and that largely stems from a simple trend that's disturbing to James, coach Erik Spoelstra and just about everyone else in the Miami locker room. The Heat feast upon the NBA's losing teams and struggle with the league's winning clubs.

Miami is 8-2 against teams below .500, 4-6 when it faces teams that don't have losing records at the time of those matchups. And a winning team -- the Atlanta Hawks, albeit without injured guard Joe Johnson, who may miss six weeks with an elbow issue -- comes in for a visit on Saturday night.

Entering Friday, the Heat are 1-6 against teams currently with winning records.

"We know we haven't played up to par against some of the best, the plus-.500 teams," James said after the Heat rolled past Cleveland 118-90 on Thursday night. "So we've got an Atlanta Hawk team that's coming into our building on Saturday, which is a plus-.500 team, and we're going to try to keep this momentum going."

There does seem to be some real momentum now for Miami.

At 12-8, the Heat have matched a season best by moving four games over .500, and have won three in a row after a loss in Dallas last Saturday night. It was after that defeat that Miami held a players-only team meeting for about 40 minutes, clearing the air and talking about what works best on the floor.

All three of the wins since -- over the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons and Cavaliers -- came against sub-.500 clubs.

So Atlanta might provide the first true test since that sit-down. Spoelstra has been pleading with the Heat to play at a faster tempo for the past couple weeks, and he'll do the same on Saturday, thinking that's the formula Miami needs to beat the better clubs around the league on a regular basis.

"It became abundantly clear, we need those relief opportunities, particularly for our attackers to get to the rim," Spoelstra said. "That paint is so packed in the half court that it really opens things up for us. It's a symbiotic relationship: us defending, rebounding, then getting out in the open court. You can't do one without the other."

In Cleveland, it all worked.

The Heat left Cleveland hoping getting through the emotional rigors of James' homecoming might provide a springboard for the second quarter of the season.

James set a season high for points with 38, matched a season best by hitting 60 percent of his shots, plus put together the sort of dominant stretch in the third quarter that Cavaliers fans got used to in his seven years in Cleveland -- and that Heat fans have waited to see.

The NBA's two-time reigning MVP hit his first seven shots of the third quarter, scoring 19 points in just under 6½ minutes. He was 10-of-12 from the floor in the quarter, his only misses coming from 26 and 31 feet out, and gave a knowing look to the Cleveland bench when his 24-point period was done.

Meanwhile, the Heat bench was thrilled, with good reason.

"Brothers in arms," Spoelstra told the team in the locker room afterward.

He'll expect the same approach on Saturday, even without 20,000 hostile fans there to provide some sort of motivation to James and the rest of the Heat.

"We've seen it at times," Spoelstra said. "So we've been here before. Now we need to do it consistently."