Behind all of the outrage over their empowering, player-orchestrated union, the uproar over their premature lasers-and-smoke celebration, and the giddy reaction over their NBA Finals loss to Dallas, there was always a fear that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would dominate the league when – or if – they ever developed the chemistry, confidence and resolve to stretch the possibilities of greatness.
Back in December, when the Miami Heat visited Washington, Coach Erik Spoelstra spoke about his desire to make sure that his squad never grew complacent after winning the championship last June.
“You can still strive for perfection,” Spoelstra said then. “You’re never going to obtain it, obviously. But why try to accept something less? I don’t see how that benefits you from building a habit of not playing your best or not attempting to play your best. We can’t accept it. It’s a reality you’re not going to play great every night. But striving and pushing is part of it.”
Somehow, the Heat lost to the John Wall-less Wizards that evening, but more than three months later, the habits that Spoelstra was pushing his players to form are suddenly beginning to manifest. Miami hasn’t exactly been flawless, but its current 24-game winning streak puts the team within serious range of accomplishing a feat that once seemed impossible.
Only a few records in sports have been considered unbreakable – Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941; Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962; the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972; and the Los Angeles Lakers’ 33-game win streak in 1971-72.
Since that vaunted Lakers team – led by Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich – went on their historic tear from Nov. 5, 1971 to Jan. 9, 1972, only one other team in NBA history had won at least 20 consecutive games before this season. But the Heat is the first team to truly threaten the Lakers. The 2007-08 Houston Rockets won 22 in a row but never had a real chance with just Tracy McGrady and a cast of journeymen and role players (Yao Ming broke his foot during the 12th game of the run and was replaced by a 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo the rest of the way).
With the Heat closing in, West didn’t sound overly worried as he declared that the Lakers’ long-standing record could fall.
“Honestly, they’ve got an incredible chance to do it,” West, now an executive with the Golden State Warriors, said of Miami. “I think it could very easily be broken this year. I really do.”
West marveled over James’s brilliance as a three-time most valuable player and Wade’s ball-hawking defense. But West also credited Heat President Pat Riley, his former teammate and a member of that record-setting, championship Lakers team, for assembling a roster built to exploit the weaknesses within a league that has 30 teams – including some that West called “very poor” – instead of just the 17 in existence when West claimed his only NBA title as a player.
“I just don’t think these teams are capable of coming close to them,” West said. “Expansion has diluted talent. It hasn’t made talent better. They had one of the great players in the game. They go out there and add the crowning jewel who was LeBron. They have assembled three players that most teams don’t have today.”
West added, “Miami has a unique team. They’ve got great 3-point shooting and they’re never out of a game because of that. Then they’ve got the best player in the game that does all the little things. I’m sure any coach would love to coach him because he does so much…Having him as a teammate has to be very special for all the other players. He makes it easy for them. He’s one of those unique players that comes along, a Kobe Bryant, players like that. [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar, some are truly great, great players that will live forever. He’s in that class and Michael Jordan is, obviously.”
The NBA created a new collective bargaining agreement to discourage the establishment of super teams and encourage more parity throughout the league, so the probability of such a run being duplicated is slim. Even with a decided edge in talent on most nights, the Heat still hasn’t exactly steamrolled through the competition.
It has had nine games decided by six points or less or in overtime, and had to come back from a 17-point deficit in Boston before rallying from a 27-point deficit in James’s old stomping grounds of Cleveland to extend the streak to 24 games. By contrast, during the Lakers’ 65-day demolition of the NBA, they won 24 games by double-digits, with 17 by at least 15 points and only had one game decided by four points or fewer.
Miami has a sizable cushion in the Eastern Conference, but it doesn’t necessarily have the luxury of letting up with the postseason still a month away. After the thrilling win over the Cavaliers, Wade showed how much Miami is more concerned about playing better than chasing a winning streak when he stated, “You start losing count.”
Despite the incredible roll, the Heat still has only a slight lead over the San Antonio Spurs for the league’s best record and possible homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. The Heat will face the Spurs on March 31 and would be arriving in San Antonio on a 29-game win streak if they are able to defeat Detroit, Charlotte, Orlando, Chicago and New Orleans. Miami could have an opportunity to break the record against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Lakers’ streak actually came to an end in Milwaukee, where Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson teamed up to thump them, 120-104. If the Heat can get past the Bucks, it will finish the year against Washington, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Orlando with a decent chance to enter the playoffs having won 39 consecutive games.
“It may not end,” West said. “It may not end. That’s why I think it’s so remarkable.”