According to Marc Stein of ESPN, scouts around the league have been convinced for a while now that Miami is a cut above the rest of its conference. An anonymous scout told Stein:
They can be beaten by no team in the East. Not in a seven-game series. They've obviously started to turn it on and made anyone who was worried about [Miami] early in the season look foolish. I guess you could make the argument that Indiana can take 'em to six games, but they don't have a tested star to get them over the hump when it's tell-all time. That's a little bit too much to ask from Paul George or David West.
That might seem like a bold statement, especially considering that on the season, Miami has actually lost to the New York Knicks twice, the Pacers twice and the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics one time each.
But the recent past matters more than the distant one, and as everyone knows, Miami has hit another gear during its 18-game winning streak. Since the Pacers last beat the Heat on Feb. 1, LeBron and Co. have beaten the Bulls, Knicks and, well, everyone else they've played.
Of particular note during the streak has been Miami's ability to tailor its game to every type of opponent. The Heat run when they need to run, slow down when the circumstances calls for it and lock up on defense, all depending on the situation.
Against the Pacers, Miami took precisely the shots Indiana hoped it would...and still won by 14 points.
Specifically, Indiana tried to limit Miami's shot attempts in the paint and from the corners. That strategy worked to perfection, but as Couper Moorhead tweeted, the Heat simply beat the Pacers by making shots in the notorious mid-range dead zone.
Couper Moorhead @CoupNBA
Only four corner three attempts and 17 shots in the restricted area for Miami: http://t.co/54kWjn2zSm3/11/2013, 12:51:15 AM
Miami crushed the Pacers while playing on Indiana's terms. With that kind of offensive versatility, it's easy to see why nobody has knocked the Heat off in nearly six weeks.
Stepping back from specifics, it's also clear that generally, no team in the East can match Miami's combination of star power, elite athleticism and veteran experience. Based on the regular season standings, it's not even really close.
Part of that massive lead in the East has to do with James, who has basically become the model for the Heat's overall adaptability as a team. His evolving understanding of what his club needs has put him (and the Heat) on another level this season. Just ask his coach:
Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick
Spoelstra on LeBron: "His intelligence, he reads the game, and knows it's not necessarily about his stats."3/11/2013, 12:57:51 AM
But assuming Miami waltzes through the East, does any Western Conference team have a shot to pose a bigger threat to the Heat? The short answer is "maybe."
At this point, it's tough to proclaim anyone is capable of posing a challenge to the Heat, but looking around the West, there are certainly some intriguing options.
Obviously, the Oklahoma City Thunder come to mind first. OKC has a star duo in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that isn't quite as dynamic as James and Dwyane Wade are, but they come about as close as anyone. And it's easy to overlook the fact that, despite Miami's amazing run lately, the Thunder still outpace the Heat in both offensive and defensive efficiency on the season.
The Thunder have the talent, and there's definitely a focus that comes with the sting of a bitter 2012 NBA Finals defeat.
For all that, though, Miami has still beaten OKC twice this year. Combined with the Heat's overall improvement this season, the James Harden trade and the mental edge Miami has because of its NBA Finals win last season, it's awfully difficult to see the Thunder beating the Heat if they were to meet again.
The San Antonio Spurs are another possible challenger from the West. The same scout told Stein: "It's going to take a team, a program, an organization like the Spurs to do the job. That's the only team I see capable. Oklahoma City before the [James Harden] trade, yes, but not after the trade."
Of course, in order for the Spurs to pose a real threat, they'll need maximum health from all of their key players in time to run through the gauntlet of the Western Conference playoffs. With Tony Parker hobbled for another couple of weeks, they're not exactly in prime form at the moment.
The playoffs are tough on everyone, but the Spurs' age makes them increasingly vulnerable as the postseason wears on. They might be able to outthink the Heat for a game or two, but the overall grind of the postseason would very likely wear San Antonio down if it reached the Finals.
There's no doubt that whichever team makes it out of the West will be battle-tested by the time it reaches a potential Finals matchup with the Heat. And all things considered, the scouts are probably right that a West team has a better chance to pick off the Heat than anyone from the East does.
But with the way Miami is playing right now, it's hard to imagine anyone constituting more than a remote threat to the Heat's NBA title hopes.