Great respect: Miami's stars have high regard for Tim Duncan.
We are well past the point of wondering whether the Miami Heat can handle the best of the West when it matters most.
After all, Miami was a slight underdog entering the NBA Finals last season, started that series with a loss in Oklahoma City and then ripped off four straight wins to capture the championship.
And this Heat team, on paper, is better than the one that won that title.
Still, buried inside the Heat's 11-3 start is another number, a 1-2 record against the established elite of the Western Conference. Nor was either loss, in Los Angeles against the Clippers or in Memphis against the Clippers, especially close. Even Thursday night's five-point victory over the Spurs, who are currently tied for second in the West, wasn't decided until the final minute—not to mention Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green didn’t even attend the game.
"They only come so often, so just to have that opportunity to play a good team like San Antonio," Bosh said.
It was the first of two opportunities this season. Said Bosh:
It's always a measuring stick. We win the games we are supposed to win, and then when it's up against the juggernauts of the league, it's always a good time to establish yourself and see where you are. And guys don't forget. Later on in the postseason, that gives them them confidence—you might see them again.
Assuming the Heat get out of the East, which is a reasonable assumption considering the current flaws of recent contenders like Boston, Chicago and Indiana, which team would the Heat least like to see?
Note: All quotes were collected throughout the course of the author's work covering the Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate entering Nov. 30, 2012.
Tony Parker's quickness presents problems for the Heat.
Miami's Record Against Spurs in "Big Three" Era: 3-1
Sometimes, it sounds like love.
Heat players, coaches and executives have tremendous admiration for the Spurs, with Erik Spoelstra acknowledging Wednesday that Miami sees San Antonio as a model—of stability, of sacrifice, of establishing a culture and then sticking to it. Said Spoelstra:
Their sustained success has really been remarkable. Changed a lot of faces. Changed their game. But they've found a way to continue to evolve and not stay the same, because the game continues to change, the competition gets better.
Since Tim Duncan entered the league in 1997-98, the Spurs have not had a winning percentage below .610. Chris Bosh called Duncan "a timeless classic." LeBron James called Gregg Popovich "one of the best coaches in the history of the league."
With that said, the Heat have handled the Spurs easily in three of the four matchups since 2010-11, with the Spurs winning a blowout in the Heat's sole loss—during a 2011 stretch in which Miami was still struggling to find itself.
Plus, these days, the Spurs like to push the pace, and that can play into the Heat's hands.
Does San Antonio present some issues? Absolutely. There's Tony Parker's penetration against Mario Chalmers and Manu Ginobili's ability to make Dwyane Wade work defensively. And while Kawhi Leonard won't stop LeBron James, he's at least physical and athletic enough to occasionally annoy him.
Still, James has a far superior cast than he did when the Spurs swept him with the Cavs in 2007.
He'd likely be too much.
Chris Paul has a tendency to take over games against Miami.
Miami's Record Against Clippers in "Big Three" Era: 1-3
The only person on the Miami Heat who can defend Chris Paul?
That's LeBron James.
And that's more off the court than on.
They have been friends for more than a decade.
Before Miami's most recent loss to Paul's Clippers, James said:
After he had the knee injury, people said he was not as fast anymore, that he's not going to be the player that he is. And he comes back, and he's better. And it's not like he's running past people. But he's doing it with mind and his determination to win.
James likened doubts about Paul's size to doubts about the Heat's size. "There's not too many guys he's taller than," James said. "But on any given night, he's the biggest guy out there."
He's given the Heat big trouble, even on nights he hasn't shot well, as was the case in the Clippers' 107-100 victory on Nov. 14. Paul was just 3-of-9 from the floor, but those three makes were all three-pointers, including two as the Clippers stretched their lead late in the third quarter.
While he's been Miami's primary problem, there are some other difficult matchups— an improved DeAndre Jordan can make Chris Bosh work inside; Blake Griffin, as raw as he remains, has an unfair athleticism advantage against Shane Battier; and, of course, there's Jamal Crawford.
Crawford's reputation as a Heat-killer is a bit exaggerated. He's averaging 16.6 points on 43.8 percent shooting in 32 games compared to career averages of 15.3 and 40.9, respectively.
Still, he showed in the most recent contest that he can be a dynamic complement to Paul against a team that doesn't always do the best job of containing the ball.
Dwight Howard remains an imposing presence the Heat would prefer to avoid.
Miami's Record Against the Lakers in "Big Three" Era: 3-1
Long ago, when LeBron James was a Cleveland Cavalier and Kobe Bryant was still playing for Phil Jackson, everyone envisioned this matchup in the NBA Finals.
That possibility even inspired Nike to produce a series of puppet commercials.
It never came to pass, and it's one of the anomalies of this NBA era that two stars who have played in a combined 10 NBA Finals have never faced each other with everything on the line.
The early evidence is that it's not bound to happen this season, either, even with Bryant still scoring at an elite level. The Lakers are already on their third coach, a coach who doesn't appear to fit some of their personnel, most notably Pau Gasol. Even when Steve Nash returns from a leg injury, and even with Dwight Howard protecting the paint, Mike D'Antoni's team is unlikely to have the will or skill to be dominant defensively.
So this slide isn't included to suggest the Lakers will make the Finals.
Oh, but if they did.
The Heat certainly wouldn't be eager to see them, in part because it would mean the Lakers had gotten their act together. Otherwise, how would they survive the unforgiving West bracket?
Only Memphis shares the Lakers' ability to make the Heat adjust. Miami wants to play small, but doing so last season without Chris Bosh, who missed the Lakers game due to the death of his grandmother, was disastrous. And even with Bosh available to bang with Howard, Miami would need to ask Shane Battier or LeBron James to deal with Gasol in the post.
Of course, Gasol may be gone by then.
And the Lakers may be long gone before the Finals.
Miami likely wouldn't mind that.
The Heat's size issues inside put more pressure on LeBron James to dominate Rudy Gay.
Miami's Record Against Grizzlies in "Big Three" Era: 1-3
There will be some who see the Grizzlies as a fluke, who don't trust a team that couldn't come through in the clutch against the Clippers in the playoffs, and still seems a bit short on shooters.
But the Heat take the Grizzlies seriously, and did so before a 104-86 throttling on Nov. 11, a game in which castoff guard Wayne Ellington hit seven three-pointers.
It's not just that the Grizzlies have size, as in height; they have wide size, active size. That differentiates them from most of the frontcourts that Miami faces, frontcourts that the Heat can beat with quickness. Further, while Rudy Gay isn't LeBron James, he is one of the game's more multidimensional small forwards, meaning that James isn't freed to help as much in other areas.
The Heat's concern about the Grizzlies' bigs can lead to overcompensation, as was the case in that game.
"We were really aware of their interior game," said Shane Battier, who gives up more than 40 pounds to his matchup, Zach Randolph.
That led to less focus on the perimeter players. Mike Conley got loose. Ellington and others made shots. It's a formula that could give the Heat fits again.
"We wanted to compact the lane," Battier said. "We were willing to live with some of the jumpers. But they got hot, and we weren’t able to slow them down."
If the Grizzlies' fast start holds up, they'll be a team the Heat will watch in the West bracket.
Kevin Durant will be even more driven, if given a chance to even score with his close friend.
Miami's Record Against Thunder in "Big Three" Era: 2-2 (6-3 including NBA Finals)
On the day after the Thunder traded James Harden, Dwyane Wade still declared the Thunder the team to beat in the West.
"I'm one of those who thinks they haven't slipped that much," Wade said.
So far, he's been proved correct. Kevin Martin may not be Harden's equal as a playmaker or defender, but he's a crafty scorer who moves better than Harden without the ball.
Oklahoma City's chemistry figures to improve as the season progresses, especially as backup point guard Eric Maynor works his way back from injury. Kevin Durant is doing everything—rebounding, defending, passing—a little better than he did last season, and Russell Westbrook's assists are up and shots are down, both welcome developments for the Thunder.
So Durant's team is still the one the Heat are most likely to encounter in June and, even after Miami swept through the final four games in the NBA Finals, still the one that would present the greatest challenge.
It's not that the Thunder will dominate the Heat in the paint or force the Heat to go bigger and take shooters off the floor. Kendrick Perkins was such a liability against the Heat in the last NBA Finals that it's likely Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison would be playing plenty at center, with Durant at the 4-spot.
It's that, at this stage, Durant still hasn't hit his ceiling. As he gets closer to it, his additional experience will make him even more difficult to eliminate.
Durant badly wants what James has, and he has the gifts to go get it.
That makes the Thunder the most dangerous opponent for the Heat, not just from the other conference, but in the league.