With the Miami Heat riding more than a month's worth of perfect basketball, coach Erik Spoelstra's team has pushed itself into elite regular-season company.
Their 107-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on March 15 was their 21st straight win, pushing them into sole possession for the third-longest winning streak in NBA history. Although the defending champions have appeared to be on cruise control at times during that stretch, they're somehow still gaining momentum.
But how much of this regular-season success will translate over into the year's second season? What, if anything, does it actually mean toward them becoming the first team not named the Los Angeles Lakers to orchestrate a triumphant title defense in the last 15 years?
Considering that the teams that were supposed to represent their toughest competition in the Eastern Conference (Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks) have struggled to keep the Heat in their sights, Miami may have the conference crown wrapped up before its next loss.
With LeBron James still leading the MVP charge and Dwyane Wade proving those early-season talks of deteriorating skills (via NBA.com) were grossly premature, the Heat look too fast and too strong for any of their conference peers to keep pace.
But Heat fans would be wise to put their championship parade plans on hold. There are still some heavyweights lurking in the shadows out West, anxiously awaiting an NBA Finals prize fight.
Even if they haven't presented themselves of late, there are still flaws in Miami's roster.
Spoelstra's "position-less basketball" (via ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh) was his way of saying two things.
For starters, it was his attempt to best define James' game. The "King" has more perimeter savvy than any of the league's previous "point forwards." Once he started brutalizing defenders in the post and became one of the league's premier perimeter shooters (39.7 percent from three), James had simply lifted himself to a plateau unseen by any of his peers or predecessors.
But Spoelstra's approach was also a sly way of admitting that the Heat lacked a traditional center. Chris Bosh (6'11", 235 lbs) had the best look for the part, but he was far more comfortable operating away from the basket.
The midseason addition of former Denver Nuggets spark plug Chris Andersen helped fill that void to a degree. But he's playing just 13 minutes per game and even optimistic outlooks can't push him clear of the 20-minute mark moving forward.
Considering the daunting size that could be greeting the Heat in their third straight finals appearance, there's some legitimate cause for concern.
The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies—the four favorites to emerge from the West—employ far more traditional lineups than the Heat. Their frontcourts have a variety of feels (from the high-fliers in Denver to the savvy vets in San Antonio), but they've got a few things in common. They're all big, all nasty and all more than willing to grind for 48 minutes.
It's easy to think that the Heat may never lose again when they're rolling as smoothly as they have been.
But postseason basketball is an entirely different animal to tame. In a seven-game series, a night or two of poor shooting can be enough to change the outcome.
Team president Pat Riley knows this—he's close to filling both hands with championship rings, after all.
That's why he's made a concerted effort at the negotiating table to do everything in his power to prevent those series-changing slumps. He's assembled a collection of shooters that some divisions have a hard time matching. Six different Heat players have shot better than 36 percent from deep this season, with four of them (Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Rashard Lewis) shooting above 40 percent from long range.
He's done enough to make his club the odds-on favorite to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
But championships aren't won on paper, either. The Heat may well win another title, but I wouldn't be looking for any sustained winning streaks come playoff time.