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Are Miami Heat Toying with Competition at This Point?

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Are Miami Heat Toying with Competition at This Point?
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The Miami Heat have carried a dangerous trend throughout their now-24-game winning streak.

Well, dangerous on the surface at least.

Considering the Heat now hold the second-longest winning streak in league history, it's hard to grow overly concerned about anything they're doing right now.

Still, even the most ardent Heat supporters would have to admit that their inability to open games with anything close to the same energy level that they're closing them with doesn't lend itself well to sustained success over the long haul.

Wednesday night's performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers was forgivable...to a point.

The Heat were playing their last game of a five-game road trip. They were facing a Cavaliers team that carried just a 22-45 record into the contest and was missing its top three players (Anderson Varejao, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters). 

Miami had to force itself to get up for this game that only grew more challenging when fluid leaking onto the court from the scoreboard delayed the start by 35 minutes (via Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald).

All that aside, the Heat had no business being in the position they found themselves in early in the contest. An eight-point Cavs first-quarter lead ballooned into a 21-point halftime advantage, thanks in no small part to Miami's putrid 10-point showing in the second quarter.

The lead grew to as great as 27 points in the third quarter, before Miami embarked on a streak-saving 58-28 run over the game's final 19:03 (via Brian Dulik of NBA.com) to escape Cleveland with a 98-95 win.

The game was eerily reminiscent of the Heat's come-from-behind 105-103 win over the Boston Celtics on Monday night. That Celtics team was missing three key performers as well (Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger), yet still amassed a 17-point lead in the first half only to have it torn away by the Heat over the game's closing minutes.

But what should the concern meter be reading for Heat fans at this point? Wednesday night marked the fourth time in their last five games that they have trailed after the first quarter, after all.

But could this actually be by design? Could Miami, almost assuredly without coach Erik Spoelstra's approval, be purposely sleepwalking through the early stages to give themselves a greater challenge down the stretch?

The theory lies on the extreme end of the realm of possibilities. The Heat have too many NBA historians on the roster (with LeBron James and Shane Battier leading that group) to willingly risk a successful stretch that now puts them just nine games back of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers' record-setting mark of 33 straight wins.

The 1971-72 Lakers had their own trio of superstars, led by Jerry West (above) and Gail Goodrich in the backcourt and Wilt Chamberlain anchoring the interior.

Yet it's something that can't be entirely written off, either. The Heat have clearly established themselves as the class of the NBA. Their .791 winning percentage is nearly 20 points higher than the Eastern Conference's second seed (Indiana Pacers, .618) and nearly three points higher than any other team in the league (San Antonio Spurs have the second-best percentage at .765).

Their ability to flip the switch down the stretch isn't some intangible concept for analysts to debate over. It's simply a statistically based fact.

Should the Heat be concerned about their slow starts?

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During their 24-game surge, they have now logged 52 minutes of clutch basketball (final five minutes of a five-point game), just four minutes more than a regulation game. During these clutch situations, they are outscoring opponents by an astounding 70 points (via NBA.com), shooting 50.5 percent from the field and holding their opponents to a measly 35.0 field-goal percentage (via NBA.com).

Somewhere in the depths of their subconscious, the Heat know that they're the best team in the NBA. They also know that 12 or 24 minutes of inspired play from them can overcome 36 or 24 minutes of lethargic play. Games like these last two are fascinating to behold, but they only strengthen those beliefs.

Whether this is a serious issue for this club won't be decided over the next nine games. A regular-season record is nothing to scoff at, but it lacks the same captivating power without a championship ceremony following it.

I've still got the Heat as runaway favorites to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy this July. But these unsavory starts are doing nothing to strengthen that position.

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