Fresh off a 4-0 demolition of the Milwaukee Bucks, LeBron James and the Miami Heat look like a team primed to waltz into the NBA Finals with an undefeated postseason record. But history, better opponents ahead and the team's clear focus on health mean that an unblemished run through the Eastern Conference playoff schedule almost certainly won't happen.
The Heat are a team, at least as presently comprised, unfamiliar with sweeps. Until now, anyway.
Miami's four-game dispatch job on the Bucks was the first sweep of the Big Three era. And while it may not be the last, it doesn't mean the Heat are suddenly going to scorch all of their opponents in similarly perfect fashion.
History shows us how difficult a perfect pre-finals record truly is. In the modern playoff era that requires teams to win three series before making the finals, only the Los Angeles Lakers—once in 1989 and again in 2001—have ever amassed three undefeated rounds in a row.
Objectively, though, Miami is at least on par with those historically great teams. And relative to the current competition in the East, the talent gap might even be wider between this year's Heat and their opponents than it was between either of those Lakers teams and theirs.
On the season, the Heat's 66-16 record was a full 12 games ahead of the Eastern Conference's second-best team, as the New York Knicks finished at just 54-28.
But the fact that Miami has spent a huge portion of the 2012-13 season coasting doesn't really make it seem as though this is a team interested in pushing itself when it doesn't have to. For evidence of Miami's "health first, dominance second" approach, look no further than the way it handled Game 4 with the Bucks on Sunday.
Dwyane Wade sat out with a sore knee after playing in the first three games of the series. By coach Erik Spoelstra's own admission, the knee had actually been improving day-by-day for nearly three weeks. So logically, Wade was actually healthier in the game he sat out of than any of three previous ones in which he played.
But he rested because he could.
Miami figured it would almost certainly be able to handle the Bucks without Wade, and even if the unthinkable happened and the Bucks stole Game 4, Miami knew the series was in no danger of slipping away.
The 3-0 advantage the Heat had heading into the fourth game probably won't be the last one they enjoy on their road to the finals, and it's safe to assume they'll treat the luxury of a big cushion the same way in the future.
Put simply, Miami knows it's better than every team it's going to play in the East, and eventually, someone will take advantage of that confidence by stealing a Game 4 when the Heat are looking ahead to the next series.
And really, the Bucks are one of the worst gauges to measure how the rest of the postseason is going to go for the Heat. Most teams muster some small measure of pride to avoid a sweep. In fact, we saw the Boston Celtics do that very thing against the New York Knicks mere hours before the Heat took on the Bucks.
No team will go as quietly as Milwaukee did.
Moreover, Miami's next opponent is likely to pose the biggest challenge of the entire postseason.
The Chicago Bulls not only ended the Heat's 27-game winning streak this year, but they also split the four-game season series between the two teams. Assuming Chicago takes care of business by winning just one of its next three games against the Brooklyn Nets, it'll advance to play the Heat in what's sure to be a much tougher series than the one Miami just finished with the Bucks.
The Bulls will ugly up the game, throw a combination of Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler at James and generally make things much more of a pain for the Heat.
And if Derrick Rose finally musters the courage to get himself onto the court, who knows how interesting this series could get?
By no means is this an argument that the Bulls have a chance to dethrone the Heat in a seven-game series, but it's hard to imagine Tom Thibodeau's gritty, resilient squad rolling over for four straight contests.
Even if the Bulls somehow failed to notch a win, Miami's likely opponents in the Eastern Conference finals would also pose real threats to a perfect run.
The New York Knicks took three out of four from the Heat during the regular season, and the Indiana Pacers won two out of three. If either of those teams is the Heat's conference finals opponent, a sweep could be tough to come by.
With all of that said, the Heat are the clear front-runners in the East and the league as a whole. They're the best team on the planet by a healthy margin and will always have the best player in the series, no matter who their opponent is.
Barring a shocking turn of events, Miami is going to win this year's NBA title.
But it's not going to get to the finals without dropping a game or two along the way.
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