By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - The Miami Heat may not be entering the playoffs as the top seed but they are still very much the team to beat, and anything less than a third consecutive NBA title could lead to the breakup of their Big Three.
No club has won three straight titles since the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s, and the 16-team field for this year's playoffs, which begin on Saturday, has no shortage of contenders for the NBA's Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
The San Antonio Spurs, who were a whisker away from winning last year's NBA Finals, and the Indiana Pacers, eager to avenge last season's loss to Miami in the Eastern conference finals, are just two of the many teams feeling good about their chances.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in 2010 with the goal of creating a dynasty in Miami by stockpiling NBA titles but enter the postseason facing questions about team chemistry and depth.
Anything less than a championship could determine whether James, Wade and Bosh make themselves available to the highest bidder this offseason as they have early-termination options in their respective contracts.
Unlike last year, Miami failed to secure the top seed in the East, which means they will not have home-court advantage after the second round. That could prove costly as Miami were forced to seven games in last year's conference final and NBA Finals.
Wade, 32, missed a quarter of this season with various injuries given a style of play that has punished his body over the years and his health may be Miami's biggest concern as they navigate a playoff schedule that offers little time for rest.
But James, who was named the most valuable player in each of the last two NBA Finals, has proven himself as a big-game player who can rise to the occasion.
However you slice it, the Heat are a dangerous team stocked with veteran talent and a proven track record of winning tough games.
Miami will open their playoff campaign on Sunday against a seventh-seed Charlotte Bobcats team that they beat in all four regular season meetings.
The Pacers had the best record in the East and boast one of the league's top defenses along with a potent mix of size, speed and versatility, but they struggled the last couple months and will need to regroup.
While Indiana should get by the eighth-seed Atlanta Hawks in the first round, a potential second-round series with a Chicago Bulls team that also has a stingy defense could prove difficult.
The Toronto Raptors, fresh off a franchise-record 48-win regular season, will open their first playoff series in six years when they host the Brooklyn Nets.
Whichever team represents the East in the NBA Finals will be in tough against the Western conference representative. The West is so deep that the 49-33 record of the Dallas Mavericks, who earned the conference's eighth and final playoff seed, would be good enough for third place in the East.
The Spurs, who appeared to have their fifth championship in hand last year until squandering a five-point lead in the final seconds of Game Six, returned this season to secure the NBA's best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
In one of the most dominant runs in NBA history, the Spurs have captured four championships since 1999 and, despite critics calling them too old, will not be taken lightly.
San Antonio open their playoff versus Dallas on Sunday.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a popular pick to represent the West in the final given the scoring prowess of Kevin Durant, sidekick Russell Westbrook and one of the league's most underrated defenses.
Add into the mix that they lost to Miami in the 2012 Finals, had their championship dreams crushed last year due to an injury to Westbrook and have been playing second fiddle to the Spurs in the West for years, the Thunder could be ready to bring a first NBA title to Oklahoma City.
Up first for the Thunder will be a Memphis team that reached last year's West final.
The Los Angeles Clippers, coming off a franchise-record 57-win regular season, will also be liking their chances when they bring a solid front court and mix of veteran and young players into their series versus the Golden State Warriors.
The Houston Rockets, who have one of the NBA's top centers in Dwight Howard and the best shooting guard in James Harden, should ease by the Portland Trail Blazers in the opening round but then face a possible matchup against the Spurs.
The NBA playoffs will conclude in June.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Steve Keating)