Let’s start by getting this out of the way: The Miami Heat is not invincible.
Sure, the Heat is the defending NBA champion and will roll into the United Center on Wednesday with the second-longest winning streak in American professional sports history at 27 games.
Miami might very well coast to another championship and string together a few more in the future, but the team is not unbeatable.
Let’s go back a short distance in history. The Bulls lost to Miami 4-1 in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, but don’t forget they were 2 made free throws away from leading that series 3-2.
Derrick Rose’s knee injury ruined the anticipated rematch last year. Boston stepped in and pushed the Heat to seven games in the conference finals, with a tie score heading into the fourth quarter of Game 7.
The Tom Thibodeau assistant-coached Celtics knocked out LeBron James and a 61-win Cleveland team in the 2010 second round.
This Miami group has been beaten and been challenged. The biggest reason the Heat has stepped it up this year, though, is by playing better as a team.
During the 27-game streak, there haven’t been many nights when the Power Trio of James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh combined to score 75 percent of their team’s points, which used to happen frequently.
These days the Heat always seems to find enough contributors from the supporting cast, whether it’s Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Norris Cole or some combination.
During the past two games — victories over Orlando and Charlotte — Miami drained 28 baskets from 3-point range. Allen went 8-for-11, Cole 6-for-8.
The team runs hot and cold from long range, but that might be the Heat’s most dangerous weapon. When teams are trying to slow down James, it’s difficult to contest outside shooters. When the shots are going in, it’s streak on.
“I think you go into a game, when you’re defending great players, you have to decide how much you’re willing to commit,” Thibodeau said following Tuesday’s practice. “Any time you overcommit in one area, you’re going to leave another area open.
“I think we have to be smart. I think they’ve seen every type of defense you can see, so you can’t give them a steady diet of anything. I think we have to give them different looks.”
Here’s another problem with the 3-point theory: When Miami last played in Chicago, on Feb. 21, it went just 3-for-13 from 3-point range. That’s not the worst effort during the streak (1-for-12 vs. Charlotte on Feb. 4 takes that honor), but shutting down the 3-point pipeline did the Bulls no good.
The biggest problem in the Feb. 21 game was turnovers. The Bulls finished with 27. So even though they held Miami to 86 points, they lost by 19.
Kirk Hinrich didn’t play in that game and is healthy now, so maybe having a steadier point guard on the floor will help along those lines. Nate Robinson had just 3 of those turnovers, though, and led the Bulls with 14 points.
“It’s an impressive streak,” Hinrich said. “Obviously, they’re playing at a very high level every night. We just need another win. We’ve been playing better the last couple games, need to keep building on it.
Stopping the 3-point shooters doesn’t guarantee success against Miami, but there are other reasons to believe the Heat can be beat, whether it’s in this game or a full playoff series.
ŸThe Eastern Conference is not particularly strong this season, and many of Miami’s victories have come against injury-depleted, questionable competition.
Twelve of those 27 wins have been against Philadelphia, Charlotte, Orlando, Toronto, Cleveland and Detroit.
There have been just 2 Western Conference road wins in the streak, although one was an impressive 110-100 triumph at Oklahoma City on Feb. 14. After stopping in Chicago, the Heat visits New Orleans and San Antonio.
ŸMiami still ranks last in the league in rebounds per game. When the Bulls won in South Florida on Jan. 4, they controlled the second-chance points 20-7. The addition of Chris “Birdman” Andersen has helped a little, but he’s averaging just 13 minutes per game.
ŸDown the road, age could become an issue. Among the Miami regulars, Allen is 37, Battier 34 and Wade is 31 with plenty of NBA mileage on his body. Nine players on the Heat roster are 30 or older.
LeBron seems to have the indestructible physique of a superhero, but an injury to another of the key guys could be costly — as the Bulls demonstrated during last season’s playoffs.
Another example is the 72-win Bulls losing consecutive Finals games in Seattle after Ron Harper got hurt.
The streak will end sometime, maybe even Wednesday at the United Center. Miami has earned the right to be considered among the NBA’s greatest teams of all time.
Make no mistake, though, the Heat can be beaten.
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