Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra summed up the efforts of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in three words: 'Video game numbers,' he said.
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Yet here stand the Miami Heat, seven weeks into the season, about to play the Atlanta Hawks for first place in the Southeast Division.
Because with the Hawks entering as winners of nine of their last 10, coming off a Saturday road victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Southeast no longer is the South-least.
"In the division and the conference, it's lonely at the top. So you don't want to be by yourselves up there," Heat center Chris Bosh said in looking ahead to Monday's matchup at AmericanAirlines Arena. "You have to have somebody that makes you come and work constantly every day, because you can say all the right things and say, 'We're going to challenge ourselves.' You have to have competition, too.
"It just makes it a little bit easier to really challenge each other, push each other, because you're always looking in your rear-view mirror, so you're more on edge."
Oh, there will be a challenge, all right. Because the one thing the Hawks are very good at is one of the things that the Heat have struggled against, dribble penetration by quick guards.
And with Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver still sidelined by back issues, the Heat will see plenty of those quick guards, with Jeff Teague, Devin Harris and Lou Williams likely to again raise the issue of Mario Chalmers' on-ball defense and possibly to again lead to Heat backup point guard Norris Cole playing as the Heat's closer at the position.
"The biggest shift is probably is the speed and quickness," coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Hawks' offseason makeover. "They have three guards that can really break you down. It's significant now, their team quickness."
To a degree, the Hawks' success, save for an early-season loss to the Heat in Atlanta, has come through addition-by-subtraction, with the offseason trades of Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets and Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz. Except for receiving Harris in exchange for Williams the Hawks added little to their primary rotation in those deals.
"That ball definitely moves a lot more," Bosh said. "Joe, he's a heavy iso guy and he's very talented at what he does, but sometimes you can sit on the ball and you can get your defense set. With these guys, they're more sporadic, moving the ball, random screen and rolls and a lot of pin-downs."
Factor in Josh Smith having another breakout season and Al Horford remaining a pillar of consistency in the post, and the Heat could be facing their most significant challenge during this extended runs of home games. This is not the San Antonio Spurs sitting their starters, the New York Knicks arriving without Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, or even the New Orleans Hornets playing in Saturday's loss to the Heat without Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon.
"It's not surprising to see," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of the Hawks standing among the league's elite.
"Obviously they have Al Horford and Josh Smith, who took a big step forward last year and really showed that he can become a leader of their team. And with the guys that they brought in, they got quick guards with Lou Williams. So, they got a good team and I think they know what they're doing. Obviously, Joe's not there, but they brought in guys that can fill the role and give you a different look."
A speedier look. A transition look. A look that either could expose the Heat's shortcomings or allow them to take the type of step forward they have been unable to make against many other elite teams this season.
"They're a really good team," forward Lebron James said. "They've got three point guards that are very quick, three guys that are very quick, in Lou Williams, Devin Harris and Jeff Teague. And those guys really speed the tempo up, and an All-Star in Al Horford and Josh Smith is playing at a high level, as well.
"So we have to do a good job of slowing their point guards down, try to contain the point of attack and then put a little pressure on those other two guys."
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