MIAMI -- Yes, even a defending NBA champion riding one of the longest winning streaks in franchise history has insecurities and plenty to prove.
For the Miami Heat, Friday night's game against the rugged Memphis Grizzlies represented an opportunity to prove they could go blow-for-blow with one of the best inside punchers in the league and still emerge on their feet.
"Anytime you have a matchup like that, you always want to win," Heat center Chris Bosh said after the Heat's 98-91 victory against Memphis. "Not only to send a message to the team but to send a message to the league, as well. And send a message to ourselves. We have to assure ourselves that when we're locked in, we can play with anyone."
If February's priorities were to find a groove and hit their collective stride, then March's mission for the Heat is to strike back at opponents against whom they've struggled.
Not only did Miami have to overcome a Memphis front line that is one of the toughest in the league but the Heat also had to do it with catalyst LeBron James having his worst shooting night of the season. But with Dwyane Wade taking over and the supporting cast stepping up until James got going, the Heat extended their winning streak to 13 games on the strength of arguably their toughest effort of the season.
James had just four points entering the fourth quarter but scored 14 down the stretch -- including a 3-point dagger that pushed the Heat's lead to four with 24 seconds left. He shot just 4-of-14 from the field, but still flirted with a triple-double on a relatively off night to finish with 18 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds in 42 minutes.
The same Heat team that went 12-1 in February and made winning look easy at times last month entered March looking forward to a chance to respond to adversity. First up was a Grizzlies team that hammered the Heat 104-86 in Memphis in November. On Sunday, the Heat travel to face a New York Knicks team that beat them twice by 20 points earlier this season. A week later, the Indiana Pacers visit Miami having also routed the Heat twice this season.
James stopped well short Friday of buying into the notion that the Heat are in the midst of the redemption portion of their schedule. But James, named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for the fourth consecutive time Friday, suggested that the Heat are motivated to prove they aren't the same team that last faced the Grizzlies, Knicks and Pacers.
"It's always good to kind of even the score out," James said. "We're a team that loves to go against teams that have beaten us before, just to see where we are."
The Heat now find themselves within a victory on Sunday of matching the longest winning streak in franchise history. But players and coaches weren't as satisfied Friday with extending the streak as with how they survived the struggle against the Grizzlies.
"We never got into our normal flow on either end of the court," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We had to work for everything. So we had to find a different way to win, deal with frustration, find ways to collectively find some resolve and some toughness and make plays down the stretch. We've proven now that we can play and compete and ultimately beat teams playing different styles."
Friday's result contradicts the notion that regular-season games don't really matter for a Heat team that won't truly be judged until the postseason. It's a small sample size considering the two compete in different conferences, but no team in the league had fared better against the Heat in the regular season than the Grizzlies since James and Bosh joined Wade in Miami before the 2010-11 season.
Memphis won three of the four meetings between the teams by dictating the pace and dominating the paint. Indiana plays from that same script and believes the formula for beating the Heat in the playoffs starts with beating them up and challenging their toughness.
After Friday's loss, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said his team executed the game plan and played the style and pace it wanted throughout the game -- and still lost. In other words, the Heat beat Memphis at its own game.
"[Miami] had 10 fast-break points we played at our pace, and I thought we defended them pretty decently through most of the game," Hollins said. "They have superior talent out there, and we're scrambling all over the place. They earned the win."
And it's a victory the Heat hope will better prepare them to face similar slugfests in April, May and June -- particularly against bigger teams that run their offense through the post. Not many opponents play that type of style, but the Heat could face it against Chicago and Indiana in the East.
"These kind of games really prepare you for what the playoffs are about," Wade said. "I like it. We knew it was going to be a tough, grind-out game. These are the kind of games where, at some points, you get frustrated and you have to fight through it all. I'm glad we were able to do that and come away with a good home win."
And it couldn't have happened without Wade and Bosh making huge shots in the second half to help ride out a sluggish start from James.
"We always find other ways," Bosh said. "We know he's the best player in the world, but we're [the] best supporting cast."
"We know what we've got," he said. "It's not a surprise. We know we've got guys who do the small things, the big things and everything in between."
The Heat's preferred style is to win with speed and skill.
They took pride this time in grinding one out the ugly way.