Miami Heat's Elite Consistency Still Separates Them from Everyone Else

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2014

USA Today

For the Golden State Warriors, Thursday's road clash with the Miami Heat is all about opportunity.

It's the chance to put an exclamation point on the league's longest winning streak. It could be the validation needed to remove the velvet rope keeping the Dubs (20-13) on the outside looking in at the NBA's elites.

For the two-time defending champion Heat (24-7), this is simply game No. 32. It's just one of 82 tuneups preparing Miami for the start of its real season.

The Warriors hope they haven't reached the apex of their latest climb, that there's enough magic left to make this a second straight successful trip to South Beach. The Heat would just like 48 injury-free minutes. When this group has a full cast of characters, it exists on a higher plane than the rest of the Association.

Going Streaking

The Warriors, winners of six straight, are riding as high as any team in the league. The Rudy Gay-less Toronto Raptors are the only other team sitting on more than three consecutive wins (four and counting).

Not coincidentally, this torrid stretch started shortly after Swiss Army knife Andre Iguodala returned from a nearly four-week absence (strained hamstring).

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 19: Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors gets introduced into the starting lineup against the San Antonio Spurs on December 19, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The 29-year-old doesn't initially jump off the stat sheet (10.7 points, 5.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds). But if you know the right places to look, his presence is unavoidable.

He's worth an extra 19.5 points per 100 possessions using his on/off splits. With him, the Warriors have a 109.2 offensive rating and a 93.2 defensive rating. Stretched out over the whole season, that would give Golden State the second-most efficient offense and the top-rated defense.

Without him, those numbers move to 98.4 and 102.0, respectively. These figures would leave the Dubs sitting 25th in offensive efficiency and 12th at the opposite end.

Golden State is 7-1 since his return and 15-3 when the regular starting lineup (Iguodala, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andrew Bogut) is intact.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 3: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrates with teammate Klay Thompson #11 during the game against the Toronto Raptors on December 3, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknow
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Of course, that means this team is just 5-10 when one of those starters is removed from the equation. The offense grows stagnant, the defense becomes overly generous and there isn't an apparent sense of urgency when at least one of these constituents is missing.

That's what happens to most teams when a prominent piece is plucked from the picture. The absence grows glaring as a team struggles to find its familiar form without the fallen player.

Sustained Excellence

The Heat aren't one of those teams. They're not like anything the league has seen for a while.

Reserve guard Norris Cole is the only player to appear in all of Miami's 31 games this season. But whenever one or more of Miami's players goes down, the Heat simply call on the next man up and rarely miss a beat.

A strained groin kept four-time MVP LeBron James out of Miami's trip to the Moda Center on Saturday, a place where the Portland Trail Blazers had lost just twice in their first 14 home games. The Heat handed them loss No. 3, as Chris Bosh (37 points, 10 rebounds) played the role of miracle worker for a night.

Miami has split the eight games that it's been without Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh skipped a return trip to Toronto after the birth of his daughter, and the Heat responded with a nine-point win.

The Big Three dominate the headlines, but the supporting cast helps fill the win column. There are floor-spacers, hustlers and defensive specialists, a wide-ranging collection giving coach Erik Spoelstra whatever he needs at the time:

Miami knows how good it is and has a pair of championship banners validating that belief.

The Heat know their "B" game is enough on most nights, but they have an "A" game that no other team can match.

This group might not dominate for a full 48 minutes, but it knows how to stay on the right side of the scoreboard. The Heat could have their fourth winning streak of at least three games with a victory on Thursday and haven't been worse than 7-3 over any 10-game stretch this season.

Good teams can generate the big waves like the Warriors are riding right now. Great teams never get off of them.

Statement Game

The last time the Warriors strolled through AAA, they were very much an unproven commodity. You could even say they still belong in that category, as a second-round playoff exit and the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference aren't exactly signs of full-fledged arrival.

Last season, Golden State snuck up on Miami and left with a thrilling 97-95 win sealed by a Draymond Green point-blank game-winning basket in the final second of regulation.

There won't be any surprises in Thursday's meeting. The Heat know they have a good team coming into their building.

"They're a versatile team," Spoelstra said of the Warriors, via Jimmy Durkin of the Bay Area News Group. "Big, athletic, shooting, they've got it all. We have great respect for them."

What Miami doesn't know is which players it will have available. This team has had injury problems all season, and they didn't go away with the turn of the calendar:

But the Heat have experience on their side. At this point, filling a void might feel like second nature.

So, too, should downplaying the significance of a regular-season meeting. This game just doesn't mean much in Miami's grand scheme. A home win over the Dubs is hardly a resume-builder. A shorthanded loss to a scorching-hot team won't sound any alarms.

For the Warriors, though, this is about as big as it can get before playoff time.

Golden State is woefully short on signature wins. Statement victories aren't made any more clearly than inside the home of the reigning champs.

This is also an elite team that will be ready for the challenge. Miami expects to be pushed. Golden State needs to make sure that initial hit sends this team reeling, and then stay at full throttle to avoid the late-game recoveries that the Heat have mastered.

Right now, the Warriors are simply a strong team in a crowded pool of top-shelf swimmers. Winning streaks almost feel like treading water in the Western Conference.

Nothing about Golden State stands out above the rest of that crowd right now. Stealing a road win inside Miami's home for the second straight season could be the breakthrough performance that helps the Dubs separate themselves from the pack.

It's much easier said than done. It takes a combination of 48 minutes of execution, gallons of elbow grease and a favor or two from the basketball gods.

There is no way to catch the Heat on a bad night. Those simply don't exist in sunny South Florida.

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of


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