Lesser teams have caused the Miami Heat some trouble lately during their astounding winning streak. The Milwaukee Bucks are clearly inferior, but they've given the Heat all they could handle over the past two years.
The Heat look to break a tie with the Bucks for the third-longest win streak in NBA history as they head to the Bradley Center seeking a 21st consecutive victory Friday night.
"I mean, that's a fourth of the season that we've won in a row," LeBron James said. "We should all be blessed to be in this position, be honored to part of such a great team."
His team's next contest could be a first-round playoff preview, considering Miami has built a 9 1/2-game lead atop the Eastern Conference while Milwaukee has an eight-game cushion for the No. 8 seed. Some might think a sweep would be a strong possibility if that series happens; after all, while the league-best Heat have not lost in their last 20 games, the Bucks are 8-12 in theirs and would fall to .500 with a loss Friday.
However, Miami (49-14) has lost four of the teams' six meetings since April 2011, and one of its wins came at home in overtime -- 113-106 on Nov. 21. The Bucks (32-31) evened the season series with a 104-85 home victory Dec. 29.
Teams well below them in the standings have continued to give the Heat problems even though their win streak is now just the fourth ever to reach 20 in a single season. That's the same streak the 1970-71 Bucks had, and the only teams with longer ones were the 1971-72 Lakers (33) and the 2007-08 Houston Rockets (22).
"Throughout this whole streak and throughout this season, we've just been resilient. We've been able to win all types of games," James said after scoring 27 points in a 98-94 victory at Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Miami blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of that game, five days after trailing early in the fourth against the last-place 76ers.
That 102-93 win came a night after the Heat needed James' late layup to beat Orlando, which owns the league's second-worst record. Miami also struggled to win home games against two of NBA's worst teams to close February, going two overtimes to defeat Sacramento after trailing in the final minutes against Cleveland.
"We don't panic no matter what's going on in the game. When you have a streak like this, you have to have some luck," said James, 11 for 30 from the field over the past two games after shooting at least 50 percent in 19 of 20.
Dwyane Wade, though, has found his groove in the latter half of the win streak. He's scored at least 20 points in a season-high 11 consecutive games, shooting 59.1 percent.
"Win 20 games in a row, it's awesome," Wade said. "You can't get around it. We're going to try to go for the next one."
That one comes against a Milwaukee team coming off back-to-back losses following a 6-1 stretch.
Brandon Jennings has totaled 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting in those defeats, but he's keyed the Bucks' success versus Miami with 22.0 points per meeting in the past five. He's averaging a league-best 11.6 assists in March.
Monta Ellis has gotten hot, averaging 26.8 points and 7.4 assists over the last nine games. However, he's totaled 23 points on 10-of-34 shooting in the season series with Miami.
His 26 points couldn't prevent the Bucks from falling 106-93 at Washington on Wednesday to drop 2 1/2 games behind seventh place in the East.
"We haven't secured anything," said J.J. Redick, who scored 16 points. "To me, I'm not going to be happy if we end up with the eight seed."
Milwaukee is giving up a league-worst 109.4 points per game this month, compared to 90.0 by Miami as defense has keyed the streak continuing.
The Heat are scoring an East-leading 103.3 per game this season but have surpassed that mark only once in eight March games.
The Heat are on pace to become just the fourth defending NBA champion to record a higher net efficiency (difference between points per 100 possessions and points allowed per 100 possessions) than in their title season the year before in the last 20 seasons. Of the previous three teams to accomplish that feat over that span, only the 2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers repeated as NBA champions.