Forget the Miami Heat's recent stumbles, conceded No. 1 seed or even their shuffled and reshuffled rotations for a minute. They've all been part of an elaborate eight-month dress rehearsal leading up to this moment.
The curtain rises for the first time this weekend, ideally kick-starting a two-month run on the NBA's grandest stage.
Sure, that puts plenty of trust in the wiring of the switch the Heat have flipped countless times before, in the strength of a set of knees with a decade-plus of problems and in coach Erik Spoelstra's ability to do more with less. It completely dismisses a turbulent stretch longer (the Heat are 11-13 over their last 24 games) and later than anything they've experienced before.
But it's not unfounded or even unwarranted. It's a formal recognition of the two title belts they've acquired in as many seasons, and of the fact that Miami retains the "champion" label until proven otherwise.
Potential pitfalls dot the path to the podium, as deep and potentially damaging as any the Big Three have come across in their four seasons together. The friendly confines in the East look unfriendlier by the day, and the West has been downright terrifying all season.
So, is it possible these dry runs have shed light on a potential point of derailment? Are any teams equipped with the tools it will take to dethrone the kings of the hoops world?
The Small Scares
The existence of Miami's vulnerability is debatable. It's hard to judge a team's performance in a race it never actually ran.
"They didn't care about this regular season, not seriously, not sufficiently, not consistently," Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick wrote of the Heat. "They never saw it as anything other than parsley before the prime rib."
That's why Miami's recent woes have been met with an indifferent shoulder shrug, while similar stumbles by the Indiana Pacers (9-13 in their last 22) have sparked doomsday talks. Maybe they're one in the same, maybe they're as different as we think. That truth will only come with time.
One certainty has arisen of late, though. Miami's cakewalk through the East has disappeared.
Locked in at the No. 2 spot, the Heat still don't know their first-round opponent. Either the Washington Wizards or the Charlotte Bobcats could be on the docket depending on how the last night of regular-season hoops plays out.
Charlotte requires unique preparation. If its lockdown defense wasn't hard enough to contend with (101.3 defensive rating, sixth overall), there's also the matter of containing throwback center Al Jefferson (22.0 points, 10.8 rebounds). Big Al's back-to-the-basket skills have frustrated defenders across the league, but he's been an even bigger nuisance in South Beach (25.3 points, 15.3 rebounds in three games against the Heat).
"Steve [Clifford] has done a great job with the team, but the young players have really stepped up with more confidence this year with a system they believe in, and [Al] Jefferson was a big pickup," Spoelstra said, via Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald.
Of course, the Wizards are far from a pushover. In fact, they split their four-game series with their Southeast Division rivals.
Washington can attack in waves. All-Star point guard John Wall is a nightmare matchup (19.4 points, 8.8 assists), and he's only grown more dangerous with the collection of shooters around him (Washington's 38.0 three-point percentage is tied for fourth in the league) and the scorers he has under the basket (Nene, 14.3 points, and Marcin Gortat, 13.2).
"With the backcourt they've got, John Wall and [Bradley] Beal, that's solid right there," Dwyane Wade said, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "And then you've got Nene, [Marcin] Gortat and Trevor Ariza playing the roles they need to play."
Neither the Wizards nor the Bobcats possess true upset capabilities, but both can make the Heat work harder than they would like. As the competition stiffens in the later rounds, Miami will want that energy back.
Behind tough-as-nails point guard Kyle Lowry (17.9 points, 7.4 assists), the Raptors have posted elite efficiency marks since the calendar change (plus-4.8 points per 100 possessions, seventh-best). With athleticism on the wings (DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross) and skill (Jonas Valanciunas) and energy (Amir Johnson) under the basket, the Raptors could challenge the Heat more than Miami's four-game season series sweep would suggest.
The Bulls have been a thorn in the Heat's side for years, and they seem to be getting pricklier. Chicago is a conference-best 36-15 in 2014, thanks in large part to the MVP efforts of Joakim Noah (12.6 points, 11.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists). Tom Thibodeau's team can dictate tempo by limiting mistakes, spread the defense with unselfish ball movement and control the glass—three keys to surviving a postseason slugfest with Miami.
These teams have the weapons to knock off Miami if taken lightly, but they'd need plenty of help from the Heat to pull off the upset.
The True Threats
When it comes to the Brooklyn Nets and the Pacers, though, their best might actually be good enough.
The Nets swept their four-game season series with the Heat, but that success has no guarantee of carrying over to the playoffs. That doesn't mean those four games should be dismissed, though. They proved this team isn't the slightest bit afraid of the two-time defending champs.
"We are not concerned with what he's doing or thinking or laughing about," Deron Williams said after LeBron James laughed off a question about Brooklyn becoming Miami's toughest test in the East, via Roderick Boone of Newsday. "We are worried about us."
The Nets don't have a glut of consistent scorers (Joe Johnson leads the healthy players with 15.8 a night), but they have a horde of streaky ones. Should Williams, Johnson, Paul Pierce or even Marcus Thornton catch fire, they can put up points in bunches.
Brooklyn is hungry to make good on owner Mikhail Prokhorov's nearly $200 million investment in this roster. If this veteran-laden group smells blood, it could forge a vicious attack:
If Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko are healthy enough to log significant minutes, Brooklyn could throw some unique defensive challenges Miami's way.
"I don’t think Miami will be the toughest to beat," Nets rookie Mason Plumlee told Aicha Fall of the Washington Square News when discussing potential playoff opponents. "...We are 4-0 against the Heat, so I think that matchup, just based on the regular season, looks better."
When the team's rookie is preaching fearlessness, it's hard to imagine his veteran teammates don't share that sentiment.
That said, Miami's biggest conference rival may still call the Circle City home.
In their current form, the Pacers don't look capable of unseating the Heat. Between chemistry concerns and a stagnant (if not completely stalled) offense, Indiana looks more like first-round fodder than a conference contender.
But we've seen this team at its best and know just how high its ceiling extends. We know that Indiana's strengths (see: size) can hit Miami at its weakest point.
Paul George has as good a chance as anyone to limit James' production, at least to the extent the best player on the planet can be contained. Roy Hibbert, if he can ever rediscover his confidence, has the tools to thrash Miami in the middle. Lance Stephenson's motor and David West's intensity can both change the outcome of a game.
With the No. 1 seed officially in their back pocket, the Pacers also have the added edge of hosting a potential Game 7 should this series come to fruition. Perhaps reaching that transparent goal will be the emotional lift Indiana needs to get its season back on track.
Should the Heat escape these waters, those that lie ahead will grow even more treacherous:
It's tough to tell which Western Conference team Miami would want to meet in the Finals. Of the eight playoff teams, the Heat split their season series with all but two of them (sweeping the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks).
Each heavyweight brings something a little different to the table.
The San Antonio Spurs, who were a Ray Allen miracle away from snapping Miami's title run last season, can shred Miami's swarming defense with crisp passes and off-the-ball movements. The Oklahoma City Thunder check off as many (or more) of the speed, length and athleticism boxes as Miami. The Clippers boast a difference-making point guard (Chris Paul), an impactful frontcourt (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan) and a deep collection of perimeter snipers.
Even the second-tier contenders are tough outs.
With James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Houston Rockets posses a lethal one-two punch. The Portland Trail Blazers have enough hands in the pot to keep pace with Miami's explosive offense. The Golden State Warriors win with defense, yet they have one of the premier scorers in the league (Stephen Curry, 24.0 points a night).
The road to the NBA Finals is rough, and it only gets worse upon arrival. Yet, none of the teams mentioned above are the one that should most concern Miami.
The Biggest Playoff Challenge
The Heat's postseason journey isn't so much a fight with external forces as it is an internal struggle.
No longer wide-eyed, ringless stars, these are battle-scarred veterans on the doorstep of history. They've faced inclement weather before and typically found their way out of the storm.
"While delivery methods have varied, the message has remained the same: Doubt Miami at your own risk," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale noted.
Wade's health is a concern, as always, but he's stuffing stat sheets whenever he plays (19.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds). The team doesn't look like a champion now, but looks can be deceiving.
"Once we get our full group of guys back, and we get into that playoff atmosphere, and that competitive spirit starts to rise and that blood starts to boil, I anticipate us coming out and playing Miami Heat basketball," Udonis Haslem said, via Skolnick.
The Heat know this journey well. They've successfully traversed it each of the last two seasons and fell just short the year prior. Nothing will surprise them from this point forward.
Health and energy: that's the extent of Miami's concern list. It won't grow or shrink over these next two months.
The other 15 playoff teams have spent the season building their case as the club capable of upsetting the champs. As for the Heat, well, their season hasn't even begun.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference and accurate as of April 15, 2014.
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