MIAMI -- Leave it to the Miami Heat's youngest player to make the boldest statement regarding the challenge his team faces entering Wednesday's game against the historically dominant Golden State Warriors.
"No one in this locker room is intimidated by them," 19-year-old rookie Justise Winslow said about the defending NBA champions. "We respect them. That's what this game is about. Earning respect and giving it. But no one is intimidated."
And no one will accuse Winslow of speaking out of turn.
The Heat might very well get run out of their own gym by the time Wednesday's contest is over. But they certainly won't be rattled heading into it. Miami hopes the right combination of steady defense and downright defiance will be enough to pull off an improbable upset of a Warriors team on pace for one of the most prolific offensive seasons in NBA history.
Golden State is the fastest team to reach 50 wins, and its 50-5 record has the team on course to surpass the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls' mark of 72-10 from the 1995-96 season. These Warriors and those Bulls could have an intriguing connection to this Heat franchise.
Exactly 20 years ago this week -- a month before Winslow was born -- a ragtag, shorthanded Miami team planted one of the few blemishes on the Bulls' stellar record. Rex Chapman scored 39 points on a magical night when the Heat, with nine available players, stunned Chicago 113-104 on Feb. 23, 1996.
As fate would have it, the Heat are in a similar position now.
The old Miami Arena has since been replaced by AmericanAirlines Arena. The task of curtailing Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman back then is every bit as daunting now when it comes to slowing Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. And also just like then, the Heat won't have anywhere near their full complement of personnel.
The day before playing the Bulls in 1996, the Heat had traded to acquire Tim Hardaway, Chris Gatling, Walt Williams and Tyrone Corbin, none of whom would be available until days later. This time around, the Heat will only have 10 healthy players against the Warriors, with the roster reduced to 13 players after last week's trades and the injury absences of Chris Bosh, Tyler Johnson and Beno Udrih.
Yet, the connections don't end there. Both head coaches in Wednesday's matchup played roles in the game that ended with Miami handing Chicago its sixth loss of the season. Golden State coach Steve Kerr, then a Bulls sharpshooting guard, missed a 3-pointer late in the game that secured the win for Miami. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was then an assistant and video coordinator on Pat Riley's staff.
Reflecting on that game in his session with reporters on Tuesday, Spoelstra said the 1995-96 Bulls and this season's Warriors have very little in common other than their virtual invincibility.
"They play a totally different style," Spoelstra said of the Bulls and Warriors. "I was with the Heat during that run. It's hard to compare the two teams. What they've [both] proven is they can play anywhere at an exceptionally high level, and do it consistently."
Nevertheless, the Heat (32-24) will proceed with an opportunistic mindset.
"You can't be afraid of competition; that's what you want as a competitor," Spoelstra said of the Warriors. "You want to face the best teams. That's who they are right now. They've earned it. They've built something special there. When you're on the outside playing against teams like that, you want to play against them. You don't want to run and hide."
Spoelstra said Golden State's prolific 3-point shooting, nightmarish mismatches with smaller lineups and rankings at or near the top of the league in offensive and defensive efficiency can be overwhelming to the point where "they have a great way of collapsing a team's spirit."
But that wasn't the case for the Heat when the teams met last month in Oakland, where Miami trailed by just three points heading into the fourth quarter before falling 111-103. The Warriors shot a relatively modest 47 percent overall but missed 16 of 23 attempts from 3-point range against the Heat, who were without NBA shot-blocking leader Hassan Whiteside. Point guard Goran Dragic also suffered a calf strain during the Jan. 11 setback that sidelined him for the next eight games.
"I hope they don't play [Andrew] Bogut as much. I would love to get after some of the smaller guys. I take pride in my defense. I don't really think it's too much of an adjustment."
Whiteside is relishing his first crack at Golden State since he sparred with Green over social media last summer about the contrasting styles of their respective teams. At 6-foot-6, the versatile and gregarious Green, who leads the NBA with 11 triple-doubles, declared himself last week as the league's best center. The 7-foot Whiteside, whose three triple-doubles this season includes at least 10 blocks, sees otherwise.
"It's going to be really interesting," Whiteside said Tuesday of the matchup. "I hope they don't play [Andrew] Bogut as much. I would love to get after some of the smaller guys. I take pride in my defense. I don't really think it's too much of an adjustment."
Even with the absence of Bosh, the Heat's leading scorer who is out indefinitely with an undisclosed medical condition, Miami's players are a more confident and resilient group than they were a month ago. Injuries and adversity have been commonplace for Miami, which emerged from the All-Star break with three consecutive wins and more committed to a balanced and faster-paced offense.
"I think it's going to help us a little bit that we're playing the last few games at a higher pace," Dragic said of a Heat offense that has averaged 103 points over the past 11 games. "So maybe because of that we'll be more prepared. We need to prove ourselves against the best teams in the league. That's going to be our main goal against Golden State: Try to see where we're at."
Two weeks ago, after the Heat were blown out at home by San Antonio before the All-Star break, Wade said his team wasn't ready to compete with the NBA's elite. Now, with Miami in the midst of its most productive stretch, Wade still stops short of declaring Wednesday's matchup as a measuring stick of any sorts.
"What are we measuring?" Wade responded. "Like we did at Golden State, you just want to give yourself a chance. We're not affected by being down. We're not affected by teams coming out hitting shots. We're just a grind team. We've been through a lot these last two seasons. Mentally, it's made us tougher. Some nights, you're not able to come back. Some teams are just better than you that night. But we always feel we have a chance to impose our will, fight and keep battling."