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Judging from the look on the Heat players' faces when the subject was broached recently, they are more amused than intimidated by such prognostications. Chris Bosh summed up the collective attitude best.
"We feel we're the best team out there, during the season, late season, early playoffs, late playoffs," Bosh said. "We're playing our best. We're the best team in the league."
It's hard to argue with that assessment days before the Heat visits the Garden on Sunday for its first meeting with the Knicks since early December. This Heat team clearly is playing at a different level from the one the Knicks beat by 20 points in each of their first two meetings.
While the Knicks have struggled in the past month, the Heat has separated itself from the Pacers, the Knicks and everyone else in the East.
Miami hasn't lost since a 102-89 defeat in Indiana on Feb. 1. The Heat has won 17 of 19, one of its most impressive stretches in the Big Three era. If Miami wins Friday night's home game against Memphis, it will enter the Garden looking to tie the franchise record of 14 straight wins set in 2004-05.
"We understand what this part of the season is all about," said LeBron James, who averaged 29.7 points and made an eye-popping 64.1 percent of his shots in February. "This is go time for all of us. As a veteran ballclub and a championship ballclub, we understand how these games really matter. Not to take away from the first two-thirds of the season or first half, but this is kind of like the final push until the playoffs, our second season, starts. We enjoy this part."
They should. Since Feb. 1, when their lead over the Knicks was a half-game, the Heat has not lost. The Knicks, meanwhile, have gone 5-5 (extending their streak of mediocrity to 16-15). They now trail the Heat by 6 1/2 games.
"We know right now that we have a great chance to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack, and we want to continue to just get better," Bosh said. "It's a tough time to continue to play at a high level, to play well after the All-Star break."
"Turnovers clouded the game," Spoelstra said the morning after his team blew out the Bulls in Chicago last week for its ninth straight win.
The Heat doesn't like to talk about the Knicks when it has another opponent to play first. But it is clear that Miami thinks it has an advantage over Anthony & Co. now that the team has been together for more than two seasons and knows how to deal with adversity.
"Throughout all the trials and tribulations we've had over the years, it's really helped us," Bosh said. "It still does today, helps us to be a better team. That first overall seed is very important. We feel if we have home court throughout the playoffs, it's very hard to beat us four out of seven times."