What could stop the Miami Heat from celebrating again?
The Miami Heat have been bigger favorites before.
After a 9-8 start to that 2010-11 season, the Heat found as many skeptics as supporters, skeptics that dogged them until they—as modest underdogs—defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder to win the 2012 championship.
Now you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't deem them locks to advance to the 2013 NBA Finals while assuming that, once there, they will probably prevail.
At the Las Vegas sportsbook Bovada, the Heat's championships odds are down to 2-3, meaning that a bettor would need to lay down $300 to win $200.
That's what happens when a team wins 37 of its final 39 games of the season, and does so with its stars often getting rest.
Still, this is roughly the same roster, with the notable exception of Chris Andersen's addition, that started the season with an 11-11 record on the road.
So what could slow them enough to prevent what so many seem to deem inevitable?
What could stop them from a second straight title?
All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate as of the end of the 2012-13 regular season.
The Pacers are one of the few teams that still play big against Miami.
During the first half of this season, Miami Heat players were constantly asked to speak about their shortcomings rather than their strengths.
Game after game, they were bludgeoned on the boards by bigger front lines, and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and others got a bit defensive when asked whether their lack of size would be their undoing.
A couple of things happened that have since altered the perception that the size deficiency is a major problem:
The Heat added Chris "Birdman" Andersen, who has been the absolute perfect fit. James recently remarked that "we stole Bird," comparing the 34-year-old to Anderson Varejao and Joakim Noah as an energy guy. Wade called Andersen "the midseason MVP for our team," and offered to act as Andersen's agent in the renegotiation of Andersen's contract.
And Andersen, in roughly 15 to 20 minutes per outing, has certainly helped Miami measure up.
But the second thing that happened was that the Heat simply kept winning, exploiting their speed and shooting advantages.
In reality, the rebounding numbers didn't change all that much. The Heat still finished last in the league in total rebounds (3166) and tied for 20th with the Toronto Raptors in rebounding differential (-124).
So, can any potential playoff opponents make Miami pay for playing small?
Unlikely, though the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls (if healthy) and Memphis Grizzlies would seem to have the best shot. The second-best rebounding team in the East, the Brooklyn Nets, lost to the Heat three times by an average of 21 points.
Is it possible that Miami's shooters will endure a collective slump?
To some, the signings of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis may have seemed like overkill.
After all, the Miami Heat had shot the Oklahoma City Thunder out of two different gyms in the 2012 NBA Finals, with Shane Battier on a month-long hot streak and Mike Miller staggering off the bench to splash seven three-pointers in the Game 5 clincher.
Yet what many forget is that Miami endured some shooting struggles earlier in the postseason, especially in the first three games against the Indiana Pacers, when Battier, Miller, Mario Chalmers were off, and too many of LeBron James's perfect passes produced errant attempts.
This season, with Allen and Lewis on board, Battier, James and Chalmers connecting at the best clips of their careers and Miller coming on late, the Heat finished third in the NBA in three-pointers made and second in percentage.
Miami is so deep with shooters that James Jones, who has won an All-Star three-point contest, hardly gets to play, and Lewis and Miller may not be part of the postseason rotation.
So it seems highly unlikely that everyone on this sort of squad would slump at once, especially with James, Dwyane Wade and even Chris Bosh attracting double-teams that free up so many open outside shots, including the relatively easy ones from the corner.
Still, if Miami gets stagnant, then the shots will be more frequently contested.
If more of them are missed, then some confidence may be lost.
And maybe even a game, here or there.
Carmelo Anthony can be a challenge to contain.
As ferocious as the Miami Heat can be defensively, during those times when they're focused, they're not immune to an opponent's offensive eruption.
That was shown during the 2012 postseason, when Rajon Rondo scored 44 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals and Russell Westbrook scored 43 in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
Of course, the Heat won both of those games, and both of those series.
Perhaps that would be true again if Carmelo Anthony accounted for 50 points, as he did April 2 in Miami on a night that LeBron James sat.
But Anthony is the reason that the New York Knicks, at this stage, probably stand as the Heat's most legitimate Eastern Conference competition—after a season in which this writer has put the Indiana Pacers in that place.
It will require teamwork and persistence to beat Miami.
It will almost certainly require a spectacular individual effort...and someone who can create his own shot when it counts.
The problem for most teams, especially in the East, is that they don't have that one player capable of going on a multi-game scoring blitz or carrying a squad down the stretch.
The Indiana Pacers don't have that player, though David West has been incredibly efficient against Miami this season.
The Chicago Bulls don't have that player and didn't even when Derrick Rose was healthy, since the Heat mostly held him in check.
The Boston Celtics don't have that player, not at this stage of the careers of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; it would be too much to expect Jeff Green to repeat the 43-point surprise he gave Miami on March 18.
In the West? Well, there's Westbrook and Kevin Durant on Oklahoma City.
And, as dangerous as they are and as good as they've been, their recent record against the Heat is 0-6.
Against the Bucks—and everyone else—the Heat better be prepared for a fight.
Even before the season ended, the Miami Heat knew what storyline was next.
They knew that the public would show little respect to their first playoff opponent, the 38-win Milwaukee Bucks, a team with inefficient scorers, a lame duck coach and no recent history of postseason success.
Ray Allen, who started his career in Milwaukee, wanted to make something clear, something he learned when his 66-win Boston Celtics team won a championship in 2008: "It wasn't an easy road. It never is. Nothing is guaranteed."
Allen spoke of the "maturity" of this Heat team reminding him of those Celtics.
We can't get too far ahead of ourselves. We talked about playoff flops of guys who thought they had it won, and then they ran their mouths in the media and they said it was a foregone conclusion, 'I'm moving on,' and then you don't move on. So this game will humble you and we've got to all stay humble.
How humble are they?
They won't be measured as much by what they say as how they play.
At times early in the season, the Heat didn't take certain opponents seriously—and after the season ended, some quietly bemoaned that they could have taken a run at the Chicago Bulls' all-time record of 72 victories if they had.
You'd assume they wouldn't overlook any playoff assignment, but the Bucks stumbled badly down the stretch. The talent disparity is apparent to everyone.
Will Miami bring its best from the start, or act like it is saving that for some later stage?
And if that happens, will the Heat make things harder on themselves than it should be?
Can Dwyane Wade stay healthy throughout the entire postseason?
On an ESPN conference call this week, former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Flip Saunders, in making the Miami Heat his clear championship choice, did mention one caveat.
The only thing that could prevent them from repeating are any type of injuries that could evolve over the course of the playoffs, whether it's any of their players. They can't afford to have a Chris Bosh, or they can't afford to have a Dwyane Wade or LeBron (James) get hurt. Last year if Chris Bosh doesn't come back against Boston, Boston probably beats Miami in the series, and Miami doesn't win a championship.
That is the conventional wisdom, though it should be noted that, with their improved depth, the Heat overcame absences from their stars down the stretch. For instance, in the final 11 games, Wade played just four times, James just five times and Bosh just six times.
Miami won 10 times.
The playoffs are different. The teams, at least after the first round, figure to be better than many of those Miami topped in the first half of April, and they will certainly be more motivated.
The Heat probably could overcome Wade's absence for a game or two, with a surprisingly mobile Mike Miller available to fill in, and James accustomed to setting the table for a cadre of shooters.
The Heat are better equipped to deal with Bosh's absence, considering they could plug in Joel Anthony as a low-minutes starter and rely more upon Chris Andersen, who has proven a considerable upgrade from their options (Ronny Turiaf, Dexter Pittman) last season.
The Heat without James?
Well, for the rest of the league, that would equalize everything.