Miami Heat's telling 10-game stretch

The NBA season just passed the three-quarters pole. By the end of a 10-game gauntlet the Miami Heat finish in two weeks, we'll see whether this lineup is capable of beating championship-level basketball teams this year, or is just beaten down by more proof that it can't. This season is running out on the Heat, and frankly all their backpedaling talk recently, after the Boston Celtics improved to 3-0 against them this season, about how everyone, even Michael Jordan, had some big-brother team they struggled to get past is beyond trite. It's also a cop-out.

The Heat aren't just a bunch of peach-fuzzed kids trying to beat their dads for the first time in their driveways. They start three of the top 10 players in the NBA in Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Wade has a title ring and James has already been to an NBA Finals, something Jordan couldn't say when he was still trying to leapfrog Boston and Detroit.

The blunt and more correct way of measuring the Heat as they start their most significant stretch of their regular season Thursday night -- a diabolically tough stretch that includes the playoff-bound Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs (twice) -- is the Heat still haven't accomplished the most important thing they set out to do this season, which was prove themselves the front-runners for the 2011 NBA title.

"Hopefully we'll turn the corner," Wade said a few days ago, as if he's tired of waiting himself.

The Heat have a clear-eyed view of what's at stake, all right. So why can't I shake the feeling the Heat aren't going to establish in these next 10 games what they haven't shown in their first 60?

Why does it feel like the verdict on them a week from now will be unchanged: Look out, Miami, the end of the 2011 title talk is near.

Before a game was played, Wade, James and Bosh had cornered the market on hype, and they have the league's best new nickname, The Heatles. They embraced Vegas-style, smoke-filled introductions and their villain's role beyond South Beach. They've attracted blame for creating the superstar package-deal mentality that is quickly cleaving the NBA into two castes, the magnetic big-city franchises and the drearier mid-majors like Cleveland and Utah and Indy who now fear they may never be more than the Gonzagas of David Stern's rapidly changing league. It's not good, considering the NBA already was hurtling toward owner unrest, summer labor problems and even talk of contracting a team like New Orleans.

But forget all the big, overarching themes for now. For the next 10 games, this cacophonous NBA season is -- once again -- just about the Heat. Eight of those games are at home, and it's time for the Heat to prove themselves or be punked. Collect some pelts or be further exposed. Show that their 1-7 record against top-five teams doesn't ensure trouble in the playoffs. Rather, liftoff is coming instead.

The gangplank the Heat are preparing to walk goes like this: at home tonight against Orlando, at San Antonio, then home vs. Chicago, Portland, the Lakers, Memphis, the Spurs and Oklahoma City, then at Atlanta and back home against Denver on March 19.

The early, charitable view of Miami's struggles against elite teams this year was it was just a matter of time until all the new pieces meshed.

Now? It's more damning -- but about time -- to concede they're just not good enough as presently constituted. Not with Bosh fading in and out of Miami's Big Three like he's auditioning for Charlie Sheen's vacated role on "Two and A Half Men." Not with opposing point guards like 34-year-old Chauncey Billups -- not just younger All-Star point guards like Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo -- repeatedly giving Miami trouble.

When the Heat can get out and run, they're scary, all right. But when they have to play physical or win the sort of half-court games the playoffs typically become? Not so much. If during these next 10 games they flop again as they did in January, the sky-is-falling grumbling will be louder than ever in South Florida about LeBron not trusting the offense, or head coach Erik Spoelstra's over-the-rainbow promises that "Our day is coming." Spoelstra repeated that optimistic mantra after Sunday's galling home loss to the re-tooled Knicks, who had rolled into town hyping the matchup as a "statement" game. Once again, Miami had blinked first.

Even if Miami emerges strong, more confident in 10 games, there will still be these unresolved issues: No one exposes the Heat quite as surgically as the wise, old, wonderfully ornery Celtics do. No one has closed ground on Miami as fast as Chicago has.

Boston's head-scratching trade of big man Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City could help Miami if Shaquille O'Neal can't fill the void. But look: Miami couldn't beat Boston this season even when Perkins was hurt. Couldn't do it there. Couldn't do it at home. Couldn't do it on a night Paul Pierce shot 0-for-10 or Rondo was fuming so much about the Celtics' first-half sluggishness in that same game, he demanded to guard LeBron though he was giving away seven inches and 80 pounds. Boston outscored the stunned Heat by 17 in the third quarter and the hoots that James isn't a great end-game finisher grew louder when he made only one of two free throws that could've tied the game with 12 seconds left.

Rondo's stunt just might go down as a pivot point in both teams' seasons, if only because it showed how Rondo and the Celts are tapped into the sort of obsessive, almost maniacal will it takes to win championships -- and how the Heat wilt under it.

Miami is now hoping Mike Bibby, a two-time castoff from other teams this season, will be the playmaker it has lacked.

The Heat would be better off hoping some other playoff team knocks off the Celts before they have to face them in the playoffs.

If Boston was all the Heat had to worry about in the East, it would be enough.

But the Chicago Bulls have a chance to pass Miami, too.

The Bulls were second-guessed at the trade deadline when they didn't go after another scorer to help Rose, who is making an even better case for MVP this year than James -- or so says LeBron's teammate, Juwan Howard.

That lack of more offensive options may yet come back to bite the Bulls, even though Joakim Noah is back.

But if Chicago improves to 3-0 against Miami this season when the teams meet again on Sunday, how do voters not give the MVP to Rose before James?

Watching the Bulls storm back against Miami on Feb. 24 behind Rose's contact-absorbing slashes to the basket and Luol Deng's outside shooting (while Bosh wobbled again, finishing 1-for-18 shooting), it was hard not to wonder if the Heat aren't overcome with some fatal paralysis or flop sweat when the going gets toughest precisely because of all their expectations.

"The first time people said, 'OK, the Bulls won, but LeBron didn't play,'" Rose said. "Well, what are they going to say now?"

The answer after Miami's next 10 games could be this: Look out, Heat. The end of the title-run talk is near.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.