Some believe the Miami Heat won't lose a game in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Others feel they'll sweep every series en route to another NBA Finals appearance.
The defending champion Heat will take it one game at a time and are set to host the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday night on Biscayne Boulevard in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Miami cruised through the regular season with an NBA-best 66-16 record and captured home-court advantage throughout the postseason. The Heat are the first defending champion to finish with the best record in the league since the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. A No. 1 seed for the third time in franchise history, Miami set a team record in wins (66) and even established the second- best winning streak in NBA history at 27 games from Feb. 3-March 27.
It was the usual suspects who galvanized Miami's excellent season as MVP candidate LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh led the way. James, who recorded more than 2,000 points for the eighth time in his career, set career- bests in shooting (56.5), 3-point percentage (40.6) and rebounds (8.0). He led the team in scoring (26.8 ppg) and finished fourth in the league in that category.
James, who is a perfect 7-0 during a first round playoff series, averaged 27.5 ppg in four meetings against Milwaukee this season and has faced the Bucks plenty of times in his career from his Cleveland days. In 37 all-time contests against the Bucks, the one known as "King James" is posting averages of 29.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.0 assists.
Wade was second on the Heat with 21.2 ppg and had his best season shooting wise, making 52.1 percent of his shots. Bosh established a career high shooting by making 53.5 percent from the field.
"To finish the season winning 66 games is a testament to straight consistency and commitment to what we needed to do everyday," Wade said recently. "It's a professional team, it's a veteran team and I think it showed throughout this year."
Wade did admit he was playing with some discomfort at season's end, but reiterated that he feels great and is pleased where his body is at with the playoffs here.
The playoff-tested Wade talked about the importance of making switches and for the other players to be ready to step up.
"That's the thing about this team, we have multiple guys that can step in and be able to help," said Wade, who will play his 21st postseason series as a member of the Heat. "You're going to need that throughout the playoffs. You never know what's going to happen."
Coach Erik Spoelstra isn't timid when it comes to using his reserves. Norris Cole, Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Anderson all contributed to the cause for the Heat, who went 31-1 this season when their bench outscored the opposing reserves.
Spoelstra is currently tied for the franchise postseason record in victories (34-22), winning percentage (.607) and series won (7) and his 56 postseason games coached rank second on Miami's all-time list.
Miami is in the playoffs for the fifth straight year and closed out the regular season on an eight-game winning streak. The Heat won three of four meetings with the Bucks this season. The two clubs have never met previously in the postseason.
Milwaukee benefited from a lousy bottom of the Eastern Conference standings to grab the eighth spot and is in the playoffs for just the second time in the previous seven seasons. The last time the Bucks reached the playoffs was back in 2009-10, when they ended a three-year layoff.
It will be a longshot for the Bucks to topple the Heat and pull off a first- round upset, something guard Monta Ellis is familiar with when his former team, the Golden State Warriors, sent top-seeded Dallas packing in six games during the 2006-07 postseason. Ellis, who led the Bucks with 19.2 ppg, said that Warriors team finished the regular season strong and was confident.
"Everybody just had to continue to do what they did best to get us in that position. We took the best of the opportunity," Ellis reminisced. "It's all about how we approach the game, the series (with Miami) and limit the mistakes. I think we're ready for the test. I think it's going to be a great series. We just gotta go out and play our game."
Milwaukee, which went 2-7 to close the regular season, had to make a move in the coaching ranks, firing Scott Skiles in favor of Jim Boylan back on Jan. 8. The team seemed to respond well to the coaching change, finishing in the top five of the NBA for offensive rebounds, blocks, most opponent turnovers and total rebounds per game.
Boylan's team allowed 100-plus points on defense and that does not bode well against a Miami offense averaging 102.9 ppg.
"I think for us it's not even playing against the Miami Heat. I think whenever we play aggressively, like most teams, if a team comes out and plays aggressive they usually play their best," Boylan said. "For us we're playing the Miami Heat right now in this series; we gotta play well and the way you play well is to be aggressive. I'm sure that they're thinking the same exact thing is be aggressive. That will be our approach."
Boylan said the way to beat the Heat is by fundamentals: shoot well, rebound well and pass well. Playing at a high level in different areas helps, too.
Bucks defensive stalwart Larry Sanders is nursing a sore back, but Boylan said his shot-blocking specialist is "fine." Guard Brandon Jennings (foot) should be ready to go Sunday and was second on the Bucks in points with 17.5 ppg.
The Bucks are one of four teams in this year's playoffs that did not reach the postseason in 2011-12, joining Houston, Golden State and Brooklyn. They are only 39-71 in road playoff games.