Will Anyone Beat the Heat?

You don’t have to be a basketball fan, casual or fanatical, to be in awe of the run that the Miami Heat are on at present. It looked like their run might come to an end last night, as they trailed by 27 early in the second half at Cleveland, but they rallied and then held on for a 98-95 victory to take their current win streak to a remarkable 24 games.

As it stands, the streak is already the second-longest in NBA history, and if they can tack on nine more, they’ll match the 1971-72 Lakers, who won a record 33 in a row from November 1971 to January 1972 on the way to a 69-13 record and an NBA title. And if they do equal that hallowed mark, they’ll have a chance to break it on April 9 against the Milwaukee Bucks, the same franchise that ended the Lakers’ streak on January 9, 1972. Road games against the Bulls and the Western Conference-leading Spurs loom in the next nine games, so having a chance to tie or break the record likely won’t come without a challenge, but it’s fair to assume that sportsbooks around the world will have the Heat favored to win even those games if the streak continues.

As much as it will be done this year and well beyond, especially if it surpasses the Lakers’ record, comparing this streak to that one or to others in other sports is a fruitless endeavor, given the mass of factors at play, but from a statistical standpoint, it’s hard to argue against it already having a lofty place in NBA history and in the history of sport in general.

Of course, the streak, even it hits 34, 44, or more, won’t matter much if the Heat don’t finish the season with a second straight NBA title. And therein lies a question that’s far more important in the short term than long-term immortality: Will the Heat be stopped?

If a challenge to their throne is going to come, it likely won’t come until the NBA Finals. The East has several good teams, but it’s woefully short on realistic challengers. It’s a realistic possibility that Derrick Rose doesn’t play for the Bulls at all this season, and even if he does return, it‘d be a tough ask for him to produce to the level required for Chicago to take down Miami.

Among the rest of the East’s likely playoff participants, the only team that inspires any confidence are the Boston Celtics. Sure, their record isn’t sparkling, and there’s a chance these two could meet in the first round, but were it not for the Heat rallying from a 13-point deficit in the final eight minutes in Boston on Monday night, the Celtics would have won the last two meetings between these two. Boston pushed Miami to seven in the Eastern Conference finals last season, and while one of the key parts of that series, Ray Allen, is now with the Heat, the Celtics still maintain that same confidence and experience that would give them a chance to pull off a postseason stunner.

But as mentioned, the toughest challenge is likely to come in the NBA Finals. Any of the top five teams in the West could make a run to the Finals, and it’d be foolish to discount the Lakers as long as Kobe Bryant is around. But out of that mix, the Spurs, with their experienced core and the hunger as high as ever, and the Thunder, provided the right Russell Westbrook shows up, rival the Celtics as the most credible contenders.

That being said, it’s hard to see anyone but the Heat taking home the title this season. When they assembled their talented trio three summers ago, many speculated that they could be set to dominate the NBA for some time. For those hoping that wouldn’t happen, their worst fears are looking a good bet to come to fruition.