The blueprint for beating the two-time defending champion Miami Heat is sort of like basketball's version of Big Foot.
There's a certain sect of the hoops world that swears to its existence. There's even some recorded footage of it, as long as you believe what you're seeing over what you know as true.
If any team held the secret to dispatching the Heat, the AmericanAirlines Arena rafters wouldn't undergo a yearly renovation. With a championship banner to show for each of the last two seasons, perhaps the biggest threat to Miami is itself.
There's a difference between stopping the Heat on any given night and doing it four times in a seven-game series. The former is something that eight teams have accomplished already this season. The latter is something only one team (the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks) has managed during Miami's Big Three era.
But let's suspend disbelief for a moment. Let's pretend there is a formula for surviving a seven-game clash with Miami.
What exactly would it look like? More importantly, which teams, if any, could actually put it to use?
The Heat have white-collar talents, blue-collar workers and shooters galore. But they don't have size, a weakness that can dull some of Miami's luster at both ends of the floor.
The Heat are still a two-way machine, but their championship resume starts with their multilayered offense (109.2 points per 100 possessions, second overall). They're so good at generating high-percentage, high-efficiency looks, it often seems as if the opposing defense is simply at Miami's mercy.
Miami places two premiums on the offensive end: dribble penetration and corner threes.
Despite playing most of the game without a true center, the Heat have the league's highest conversion rate inside the restricted area (69.0 percent). Miami also has the best shooting percentage on nonrestricted area shots inside the paint (48.6), via NBA.com.
There's a reason that LeBron James (59.1 percent from the field) and Dwyane Wade (54.1) are enjoying career-best shooting seasons. They work to find great shots, often spinning highlight reels in the process.
Once Miami's drive game gets rolling, then defenses are forced to react. The paint gets more crowded, leaving the Heat's snipers free to take aim. Those shooters understand the benefits of setting up camp in the short corners, allowing Miami to lead the league in three-point makes (4.0), attempts (8.3) and percentage (48.2) on corner threes.
So, where does size enter the equation?
Something, or someone rather, is needed to deter this dribble penetration. It takes a teamwide commitment, but one that ideally uses as few defenders as possible.
Look at the teams that have enjoyed modest success against Miami of late. The San Antonio Spurs (who pushed Miami to seven games in the 2013 NBA Finals), the Indiana Pacers (who had a seven-game slugfest with Miami in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals) and the Golden State Warriors (who have scored road wins inside the AAA in each of their last two trips).
What do those three teams have in common? A physical, intimidating presence under the rim (Tim Duncan, Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bogut, respectively), and long, athletic defenders on the wing (Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio; Paul George and Lance Stephenson in Indiana; Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes in Golden State).
That first line of defense is critical. If dribble penetration is stifled on the outside, then there are no rotations to be made. Helpers don't need to help and therefore can stay glued on Miami's shooters. The more options you can remove from Miami's equation, the (relatively) easier it becomes to slow down this attack:
LeBron James already has three turnovers in the first quarter. In related news, Andre Iguodala is playing.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) January 3, 2014
With James and Wade on the floor, though, that first line can't hold up for a full 48 minutes. That's where the towering rim protectors come into play.
There's a trust factor that comes from knowing these players are lurking under the basket. Not only does that allow the on-ball defender to play aggressively, it also lets the other three players bring help accordingly. If that trust is broken, then the defense goes in scramble mode and Miami just drops wide-open bombs from distance.
At the opposite end, attacking Miami's middle can have that same collapsing effect.
Hibbert looks like an offensive superstar whenever the Pacers and Heat meet (22.1 points on 55.7 percent shooting in the conference finals). Duncan looked like he'd found a time machine at the end of the 2013 NBA Finals (22.8 points on 57.6 percent shooting). David Lee bullied Miami for 32 points on 13-of-17 shooting in Thursday's 123-114 Warriors win.
But hitting Miami with size is only the first piece of the puzzle. To knock off the Heat, it takes all hands on deck.
Power in Numbers
There is no way to beat Miami at its own game. A top-heavy roster will never survive a full seven-game battle with the Heat.
This team knows how to take away an opponent's best weapon. Jeremy Lin's meteoric rise crashed when he hit Miami in 2012 and his superstar credentials have never been returned:
ESPN forgot to show when the Heat killed Linsanity— Umair Khan (@UKhanNBA) July 12, 2012
With a supercharged 6'8", 250-pound Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Miami has an ace up its sleeve no one scorer can match. James can defend anywhere on the floor, with the quickness to stop attacks on the outside and the strength to wage wars underneath.
It takes a village to solve these defensive puzzles.
The more shooters on the floor, the better. The Heat like to swarm defensively, and their on-ball pressure can fuel one of the league's most efficient transition attacks. Turnovers, long rebounds, anything can become a fast-break chance for Miami.
The key is using crisp ball movement to stay one step ahead of that swarm.
It takes a special kind of superstar to combat this type of defense. It needs to be a dominant scorer who commands the most of Miami's defensive attention, but also one who knows how to punish with passing.
Stephen Curry was brilliant in Golden State's win Thursday. His scoring (game-high 36 points) and shooting (13-of-22, 8-of-15 from distance) deservedly jump off the stat sheet.
"One of the best shooters this NBA will see," James said of Curry, via Jimmy Durkin of the Bay Area News Group. "The way he handles the ball -- and the light that he has, it's more than green, it's fluorescent -- you just hope that he misses."
But Golden State doesn't shoot 56.1 percent from the field (and 51.7 percent from distance) if Curry doesn't dish out a game-high 12 assists. Danny Green isn't the recordholder for the most made threes in an NBA Finals if San Antonio's playmakers had forced the issue instead of taking what the defense gave them. Hibbert isn't an offensive weapon if George is unwilling to share the spotlight.
Selflessness is key, and so is having players making the most of those helpers. Ball movement means nothing if the final recipient can't knock down the shot.
Not many teams have this kind of talent. Even the ones that do might not have enough to unseat the champs.
Can Anyone Spoil Miami's Three-Peat Bid?
No team understands the 82-game grind that is the regular season better than the Heat.
This team is taking all the necessary precautions to be ready for the second season...and still sitting comfortably with the NBA elites. The Heat don't have to be their best to be the best. It's a luxury that doesn't exist outside of South Beach.
But Miami isn't invincible, just as close as the league has seen to it in a long time.
The Heat aren't going to grow between now and the season's end. Even if 7-footer Greg Oden ever makes it back, it's hard to put any faith in someone whose last NBA appearance came in 2009.
Who do you like in the 2014 championship race?
Size will continue to be an issue. Balanced offenses will continue finding air against Miami's suffocating defense.
But the Heat aren't going to lose James. Not yet, anyway. His All-Star running mates (Wade and Chris Bosh) aren't going anywhere, either. Miami's snipers will keep gunning around this three-headed monster.
Will Miami's weaknesses prove too great to overcome? They haven't in either of the last two seasons.
There's always going to be a blueprint to end this reign. At least, that's the story the hoops world will continue to sell.
For now, we'll have to settle with photos, videos and firsthand accounts of those who swear they have seen it. Basketball's Big Foot watch shall continue.