This was supposed to be the toughest test for the Miami Heat.
Despite the difficulty of beating the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals to win back-to-back titles, 2013-14 was going to be an even more perilous journey. Chasing a three-peat is always a tall order, but it was going to grow at least a few feet due to the strength of the Indiana Pacers and the returns to health of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls, among others.
But all of a sudden, the path to a title has never been more clear. With the West beating itself up, the Pacers plunging into an abyss of ineptitude and the Heat dominating during the opening salvo of a series with the Brooklyn Nets, there may as well be cairns and runway lights along the path to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
There are still plenty of obstacles—surmountable ones—in the way, but the Heat must worry most about one that's with them at all times: Themselves.
Yes, that's right.
Miami, mentally tough as it's proved to be over the last few seasons, is its own biggest threat during the quest for a third straight NBA title.
The Feeling of Invincibility
It's been a while since the Heat have lost an important game.
They dropped a few contests of significance during the regular season—namely some of their outings against the Indiana Pacers and Nets—but are those truly important? Not to the Heat, who still managed to come away with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
If you actually want to find the last loss in an important game, you have to go back to the middle of the 2013 NBA Finals, when Miami was unable to sweep the San Antonio Spurs but still pulled out a dramatic come-from-behind series victory.
Since then, they've swept the Charlotte Bobcats in decisive fashion—even more decisive than a typical broom-involving series—and won the opening contest in a second-round series with Brooklyn.
Forgive them if they can't help but feel a bit invincible.
Just look at their remaining opponents.
The immediate concern is Brooklyn, who took the Heat to the woodshed during the regular season with a 4-0 series sweep. But that didn't factor into the first contest of their playoff series, as Miami answered any and all concerns with a resounding 21-point victory.
ESPN Stats & Information had a few interesting statistical notes after the May 6 contest:
There have been 25 instances in which a team was swept 4-0 or worse in the regular season and then went on to face that opponent in a best-of-7 series in the postseason. The team that swept the regular-season series went on to win all 25 of those postseason meetings.
Seems bad for the Heat, right?
But then there's this tidbit:
The Heat went 0-4 against the Nets in the regular season, but if they don't seem too concerned, it's because they've been in similar situations before. This will be Miami's 4th playoff meeting in the James-Wade-Bosh era against a team it lost 3 or more times to in the regular season. The Heat won each of the 3 previous series.
Seems bad for the Nets, right?
And to complicate matters, every losing squad in this series always seems to have an excuse. Miami didn't have Dwyane Wade for two of the regular-season meetings; the Nets were coming off a hard-fought seven-game series with only a few days of rest before Game 1, while the Heat were enjoying what seems like a month off after their first-round sweep.
Maybe the excuses will pervade this series. Maybe they won't.
Regardless, Miami is the superior team, especially while well-rested and at full strength. Brooklyn is an old squad already coming off a grueling, lengthy series, which puts them at even more of a disadvantage.
As LeBron said after the victory, via NBA.com's Zachary Paul, "I think the most positive thing was the rhythm that we were in. It seemed like we didn't take much time at all."
Quite frankly, teams will be at a disadvantage against Miami throughout the postseason, especially if they're in rhythm.
The Washington Wizards are an inexperienced bunch, which will make it awfully difficult for them to go up against a battle-tested Heat squad in the Eastern Conference Finals. And that's if they get there, since the Indiana Pacers could still prevent their season from completely derailing.
But do the Heat really have any reason to fear this current Pacers team?
To top things off, the Western Conference representative is going to be worn down as well after going through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. Even a youthful team like the Los Angeles Clippers or Oklahoma City Thunder is going to be gasping for air against the transition attack of the Heat, and the San Antonio Spurs—elite and deep as they may be—will be in even worse shape.
As for the Portland Trail Blazers, they deserve a cursory mention, seeing as they're still alive, but Game 1 of their second-round series put a serious crimp in any title plans.
Again, forgive the Heat if they can't help but feel invincible right now.
But there's a certain problem with feeling that way when no such untouchableness actually exists. Think back to Achilles, the legendary hero of the Trojan War.
He—thanks to being dipped in the river Styx after he was born—actually was (almost) invincible, and he took advantage of that by carving his way through swathes of Trojan soldiers, Hector being chief among them.
However, Achilles wasn't actually invincible. An arrow shot by Paris proved that when it found the heel of the Greek champion—his one weak spot.
If you feel too cocksure, an opponent will find that weak spot. And the Heat do have one, even if they want to pretend they don't.
Perils of Complacency
The world has largely been assuming that the Heat have a switch they can flip, one that magically ups the level of performance and intensity.
But what if they can't? What if they grow too complacent for their own good?
Bleacher Report's Josh Martin wrote about a similar situation with a team that's quite familiar—the 2011 Miami Heat:
Those Heat may have unwittingly demonstrated the potential perils of skating through the playoffs largely unscathed. They were challenged infrequently on the way to the Finals, where they found a Dallas Mavericks squad that was undaunted by Miami's prodigious talent. Instead, the Mavs smothered James on defense and sliced up the Heat's defense with quick passes and deadly perimeter shooting.
As Martin goes on to explain, the 2011 version of this squad is rather different than the current one. Even though the three leading stars have the same names and looks (save a little bit less hair in some cases), it's impossible to make a direct comparison between the team that lost the first NBA Finals of the LeBron era and the squad that's shooting for a fourth consecutive appearance in that same series.
Nonetheless, a similar concern exists.
Complacency is dangerous, because flipping a switch isn't as simple as, well, flipping a switch. It doesn't take an effortless flick of the finger, but rather a complete shift in mentality and an enhanced focus on both ends of the court.
There's danger in relying on that mental transition, and the Heat are going perilously deep into the playoffs without having to turn their engines on at full strength. What if the Nets are too worn out to challenge them throughout the second-round matchup? Could Miami actually try to turn on the switch during the NBA Finals?
Compared to the swarming unit that played in 2012-13, these current Heat have been a step slow. They're not closing out on spot-up shooters as quickly, their rotations behind the vaunted perimeter traps aren't as crisp and their first steps don't carry as much speed.
Is it really possible to change that overnight?
As NBA.com's John Schuhmann wrote after Game 1 against Brooklyn, it certainly seems like it on defense:
Defense is where the Heat can really flip the switch, as they did Tuesday.
In fact, Miami forced a 24-second violation on Brooklyn’s first possession, doing a nice job of helping and recovering. The Heat took away the Nets’ primary options, like Shane Battier denying Joe Johnson here …
… a play that resulted in another 24-second violation.
Their rotations were on point. They took away the paint and contested on the perimeter.
But the Nets—despite what their payroll would have you believe—are not a championship-caliber team. They're capable of competing with the Heat on a game-by-game basis, but it's hard to imagine them posing as much of a threat as some of the other teams Miami could face during their quest for another Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Flipping the switch is a dangerous game against an opponent of Brooklyn's caliber; it's a potential death knell against a squad like the Spurs.
But Miami is entrenched in its ways after spending much of the regular season in a somnambulant state, and it's unlikely Erik Spoelstra can convince his team to turn the intensity up to 11 without an opponent on the court who demands that level of focus.
On top of that, injuries have the ability to devastate this team.
Will the Heat complete the three-peat?
That's a statement that applies to virtually every contender in the Association, but there's more reason for pause given the history of Wade's knees and the fact that he spent so much time preparing them for this stage. If he goes down, everything changes.
That's the minefield the Heat have to tiptoe through during the 2014 playoffs.
No disrespect to their current opponent and the teams they may face in the future, but the biggest threats are all internal ones—health, mistaken feelings of invincibility and complacency.
Even one can derail the three-peat.