By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - LeBron James and Chris Bosh feel the defending champion Miami Heat have work to do if they are to reach peak form in time for the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs, but both embrace the challenge.
The Heat (16-6) trail only the New York Knicks (19-6) in the Eastern Conference just past the quarter-mark of the NBA's regular season but Bosh is well aware his team is not playing at the same level compared to this point last season.
"No, not right now. We have to pick it up a little bit to catch ourselves from last year," Bosh, Miami's third-leading scorer and top shot-blocker, told Reuters.
"It's a new year, we just have to slowly build and get back to that place. As long as we continue to win games now and then we are primed and ready come playoff time, I'll be happy."
Of Miami's six losses in the 2012-13 season, two have come at the hands of a Knicks team that made some key offseason moves with the hopes of denying the Heat a trip to the NBA Finals.
For Miami, a key issue that needs attention is defense, particularly rebounding. The component of the game was in clear evidence during Tuesday's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, where the Heat were outrebounded 52-24.
"There are some improvements, we do have to get better at a lot of things - defense, defensive rebounding, three point field goal percentage, we have to do a better job," said Bosh.
The 6-foot 10-inch Bosh, who switched from power-forward to center this season, says having areas to improve on keeps the team from getting complacent throughout the NBA's long, 82-game regular season.
"I'm glad that we have things to work on because, especially coming off a championship win, you don't want to be 'oh, we are a perfect team, it's perfect everything is great,'" said Bosh.
"You want to have something to work on, you don't ever want to get comfortable, you want to feel like someone is chasing you."
Bosh says he applies a "one more for the championship" motivational approach in training and James, the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player, has certainly taken that notion to heart.
James, who has been pushing himself physically this season by adding extra workouts and cycling to games and shootouts, agrees the Heat have lots of room for improvement.
"Everything, defensively continue to grind, continue to communicate, continue to rebound, offensively don't turn the ball over, be efficient looking for shots," he said.
"Right now we are getting better, we are going to use each and every game, we aren't going to cut any corners to get better, right now.
"We are not where we want to be in April for sure, but that's OK. We don't want to be peaking now, the thing for us is we don't want to be taking steps back".
There are certainly no signs of James going backwards or even easing off - he has scored at least 20 points in every game this season and as well as his cycling, has taken to the gym after defeats, such as this month's home loss to the Knicks.
"I'm just challenging myself. I feel that if I can be in the best condition I can be in that it is going to help the team automatically," said James. "I feel like if I am in the best shape and keeping my game under wraps, then we are going to be a better team."
The Heat visit the Dallas Mavericks later on Thursday and face biggest test of their form yet on Christmas Day when they host the Oklahoma City Thunder in a rematch of last season's final. The Thunder (21-4) own the NBA's best record and are riding a 12-game winning streak.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)