LeBron James Leads as Miami Heat Maintains Division Lead over Atlanta Hawks

Matt ParkerContributor IIIDecember 10, 2012

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 10:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat dunks during a game against the Atlanta Hawks at American Airlines Arena on December 10, 2012 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

A great team playing a lesser opponent is often more so a mental challenge than physical or strategic.

Getting up for a December game against a young New Orleans Hornets team missing its two best players is not the same as hosting a team you could see in a spring playoff series.

This is the human nature of sports. 

A quality foe proved to be just the barometer the Miami Heat needed after consecutive losses last week to the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks.

The Atlanta Hawks, just a game back in the win column for the Southeast division lead, would be a test for the champs.

Challenge accepted. 

The teams competed from the tip, combining for six ties and 10 lead changes in the opening stanza, capped by LeBron James' end-to-end buzzer-beating layup as Miami finished the quarter up two.

Coming in the winners of nine out of 10, Atlanta's defense had yet to surrender a 50 percent shooting night. 

Miami entered the game sporting a league-best 49 percent clip. Something had to give.

Led by LeBron James, the Heat shot 58.2 percent, its most efficient effort of the season, just percentage points ahead of Saturday's win against New Orleans.

Miami's defense clamped down after intermission, allowing just 38 Hawk points in the second half to pull away for a 101-92 victory.

“For the most part, we won it on the defensive end," said James, who finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists. 

Early on however, Miami's season trends continued with crazy efficient offense and not-so stout defense, especially guarding the three. Atlanta shot 7-15 from the arc in the first half en route to 54 points.

The second quarter was a draw with the teams scoring 28 points apiece. Midway through the period, James put back a missed Mike Miller three with a vicious left-handed slam.

A third quarter block by Joel Anthony ignited the break for Miami with Norris Cole finding LeBron for a highlight reel mid-air connection, part of a 17-4 run that broke the game open. 

"He made me go get that one," James told team sideline reporter Jason Jackson after the game.

Atlanta All-Star Al Horford finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds for his sixth consecutive double-double.

Cole, essentially splitting point guard duties of late with Mario Chalmers, came off the bench to score 10 points on 4-4 from the field with four assists and stellar defense.

Current Eastern conference player of the week Josh Smith matched a career high with four threes but largely struggled from the field, finishing 7-18 including a missed dunk.

Dwyane Wade's 11-13 shooting yielded 26 points for the second straight game as Miami improved to 14-5. 

The Heat host the up-start Golden State Warriors Wednesday night.