Here's what I heard while on the road lately ...
• From Miami coach Erik Spoelstra:
"We're facing the same types of pressures you face during the playoffs. For us to be able to experience those now during the season is invaluable. A lot of these emotions are what you experience in the playoffs after a tough loss in Game 5 or Game 6, when all of the media are writing you off and pointing fingers from outside. We get to experience that now, and that's exactly what we're going to need to persevere this spring."
Spoelstra was telling me this last week following the Heat's 94-88 win over the visiting Lakers. His team had lost five straight amid the continuing failures of his three stars to play as one. At that time Spoelstra was being asked routinely if he was losing control of the team, but that line of questioning is suddenly irrelevant.
Now that the Heat have won three straight against the Lakers, Grizzlies and Spurs -- all headed to the playoffs, with each Miami victory more emphatic than the last -- the trend now veers in an opposite and more optimistic direction. The Heat now trail the East's co-leaders (Boston and Chicago) by two games. Yes, the Heat have lost six times to those contenders, by an average of four points per loss. Miami had a chance to win every one of those games despite inefficient play. Now that the Heat are beginning to play more cohesively, a breakthrough in the postseason is becoming more of a threat.
"I feel more comfortable about the process we're going through right now -- and the last two to three weeks -- to get ready for the playoffs than I felt in December when we won 21 of 22," Spoelstra was saying last week. "I didn't feel we were building enough playoff habits and a game that was ready for the playoffs. It's still not there. We need to still take another step forward and improve."
One crucial improvement is the assertiveness of power forward Chris Bosh (I was in Miami to write about him in the magazine this week). Last week when he preceded the Lakers victory by demanding the ball inside, he wasn't acting selfishly; he was realizing his importance as an interior scorer on a team that is loaded with perimeter stars and shooters. Bosh doesn't need to live in the post, but he or LeBron James need to spend quality time down there in order to turn Miami's otherwise hollow half-court offense into an attack of substance.
Bosh had 30 points on 16 shots against the Spurs, leaving the rest of the league with the strong impression that Miami will yet emerge as a credible threat to reach the Finals. Aside from the troublesome end-of-game situations -- which should be the next breakthrough for this team -- the half-court offense isn't so bad: The Heat rank No. 2 in shooting without depending inordinately on easy baskets (No. 10 in fast-break points), which suggests good shots are being created.
The defense lacks a rim-protecting center, and yet the off-the-ball athleticism of James and Dwyane Wade has positioned Miami among the top 10 shot-blocking teams. The defense is championship worthy: No. 5 in scoring and No. 2 in terms of field-goal shooting. Since halftime of the win against the Lakers, Miami has held three of the league's top-shooting teams to a combined 36.9 percent (76 of 206) from the field.
"We'd talked about it all summer long, that there was going to be a lot of media pressure and that things would be blown way out of proportion," said Spoelstra. "You don't really know how you'll respond and what to expect. November was a great testing ground for us -- it all hit at once out of the gate (when the Heat struggled to a 9-8 start). We all had to experience those kinds of pressures immediately, and we didn't break.
"That won't be the only storm. There will probably be two or three more. But those storms are strengthening our bond. We're not through it yet, and we've all seen a lot worse in this league, where it absolutely dismantles the inner fabric of a team. We've been able to do a very good job of keeping our locker room close and closed while we've all been in the storm."
No rival wanted to see Miami peaking toward the playoffs. The Heat face one more title contender -- an April 10 rematch with the visiting Celtics -- and along the way they could use a couple of last-second wins in order to dispel its last big issue.
• From Lakers assistant Brian Shaw:
On the Celtics deadline trade of defensive center Kendrick Perkins: "I didn't understand it, because the size thing is the advantage we have over everybody. I thought in the East, Perkins was a guy who was able to pretty much handle Dwight Howard when they would match up against Orlando, and the advantage they would have when they played the Heat by having some big guys. And the fact that Shaq hasn't been healthy and Jermaine O'Neal hasn't been healthy, and then they trade [rookie center] Semih Erden, too. But maybe they know something we don't know."
The Lakers' frontcourt advantage grew more intimidating than ever as center Andrew Bynum was cleaning up against Orlando for 18 rebounds and four blocks while forcing Howard into nine turnovers in a 97-84 win Monday over the Magic. The Lakers have now won nine of 10, including victories against the Spurs and Mavericks: All but two of L.A.'s victims are headed to the playoffs next month.
There has been a lot of talk about how much the Celtics were set back in the last Finals by the Game 6 knee injury to Perkins, as well as by the lingering knee issues of Kevin Garnett (from which he has now recovered). But what if Bynum had been healthy last June? The Celtics had trouble finishing at the rim when he and fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol were on the floor together, but Bynum's knee problems diminished his role over the course of that series.
Now he's back and the Lakers are funneling drivers his way. After refocusing on his defense following the All-Star break, Bynum is averaging 12.6 points (while shooting 64.2 percent), 14.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. The Lakers are looking forward to a postseason in which two of their three big men -- Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom -- will be on the floor at all times. No postseason opponent can expect to control the boards against L.A. with nothing less than an enormous team effort.
• From Nuggets forward Al Harrington:
"I think about what if I would have went to college and been a top-five pick, how different my career could have been. When I think about that, sometimes I have a little bit of regret."
Harrington was the No. 25 pick in the 1998 draft as a graduate of St. Patrick's High School in New Jersey. He made his NBA debut as an 18-year-old, but played only 71 games over his first two years. "Usually it's the top 10 picks -- those guys always get a fair shake at becoming a star," he told me recently. "I had to prove it. I got sat pretty much my first year, my second year I played a little bit [before suffering a knee injury]. I had to earn my stripes instead of being given stuff."
Though 6-9 and never an All-Star, Harrington believes he received a strong NBA education by growing up with the Pacers. He is now coming off the bench to contribute to the Nuggets' surprising 8-2 record since the trade of Carmelo Anthony. "Coming to a veteran team taught me how to be a professional, how to survive, and I think a lot of guys don't get that when they go to young teams," he said. "They just don't know how to handle it -- I'm not meaning they get into trouble, but just in terms of basketball."
That explains Harrington's other regret: His 2004 trade to the Hawks, which he embraced for the opportunity to be a starter in Atlanta. "I should have stayed," he said. "When you're young you don't realize how important it is getting to be part of a good team, compared to one where you can spread your wings. Going to Atlanta I learned a lot, but it was tough. I went from winning 61 games at Indiana to winning 13 the next season and then 25 [with the Hawks]. That's one thing I wish I would have never done."
That move enabled Harrington to miss the 2004 brawl in Detroit that ruined the Pacers' championship hopes. Yet he embraced a return to the Pacers when team president Donnie Walsh brought him back in a trade two years later. "It has to do with chemistry," said Harrington. "Donnie did a great job of getting guys to complement each other, and I didn't know that at 23."