Essay: The Close Calls During Miami’s Winning Streak
The Miami Heat’s 27 game–and counting–win streak is the talk of the NBA, as it should be. It’s one of the most difficult things to do in a team sport, and it should be cherished like it rightfully has been. They’re beating everyone, and even when it seems like they’ve let down their intensity–ahem, Cleveland–they still find a to right the ship and get the victory.
But they’re still six games away from tying the record held by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 33-straight before falling to a Bucks team led by Lew Alcinder and Oscar Robertson (coincidentally, the Heat’s 34th game would also come against Milwaukee, but Larry Sanders is no Kareem and Brandon Jennings only wishes he was as good as late-career “Big O”).
The Heat are currently in the midst of a 4-game road swing that has them in Chicago Wednesday night, in New Orleans (a team, it should be noted, who ended Denver’s winning streak last night) on Friday and in San Antonio Sunday night. That tough road stretch could spell the end of their historical run.
A lot of people are talking about how this Heat squad is too focused to falter this late in the winning streak, but Chicago is a playoff team, and San Antonio is still the top team in the West, plus now they have Tony Parker back from his high ankle sprain. The Spurs are also 30-4 at home this year, which is just slightly worse than the Heat’s own 32-3 mark in a season of this epic run. Even if the Heat do manage to reach the 30-straight win plateau, the level of difficulty in maintaining their edge cannot be overlooked. And while it might look like the Heat’s final three games to equal the Lakers’ record aren’t imposing: New York at home, Charlotte on the road and Philadelphia at home, it doesn’t matter because even the laughable Bobcats are an NBA team, capable of putting a group on the floor that could end the Heat’s run at any time.
If you were a betting reader, I’d still tell you to take the house; it’s just too hard to bring it for every game, with the travel, the media distractions and that every team you face will be revved up for your visit. The Heat have managed to do it so far, with more than a couple close calls along the way, due to their own streaking commitment to the game at hand. Whether the Heat can keep it up is no foregone conclusion like a lot of observers are writing. It’s just really hard to do this, which is why the Lakers’ consecutive wins streak has withstood Larry’s Celtics, Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, Michael’s Bulls and Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers, all of whom have won three or more titles over the last forty years since Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and Co. went on their run, but none of whom even approached what the Heat are doing right now.
If we look at the way the Heat have won during The Streak, you’ll see that it hasn’t been as easy as it’s appeared over the last week, when they haven’t been significantly challenged since the scare in Quicken Loans Arena.
In just their second victory of the streak, the lowly Bobcats were only trailing by 2 points with 1:38 left in the game after a pair of Ramon Sessions free throws. The Heat went on to score the next three baskets, but they were still challenged, and this is the Bobcats after all, a team they’ll have to beat again in Charlotte if they’re going to match the Lakers’ mark. Also a team that is pretty awful again this season. Even the bad NBA teams can beat the Heat.
After that minor scare, the Heat rattled off four games at home against a few Western Conference playoff teams including Houston, both LA squads and Portland. Houston had the Heat lead cut to 3 with 2:24 left in the fourth after James Harden drew a foul on “Rio” when he pump-faked a 3-pointer and got Chalmers to bite. This cut the Heat lead to 104-101 with a little over 2 minutes to play. The Heat responded with a Battier three, but Harden wasn’t done. He hit another jumper, and then hit a step-back three-pointer with 1:11 remaining to again cut the Heat lead to 109-106.
Over the next minute, LeBron would travel, Harden would get whistled for an offensive foul on Chalmers, James Anderson would forget Udonis Haslem gets his paycheck largely off drawing offensive fouls, and then there was just 18 seconds left and the Rockets had to foul. James and Wade both made a pair and that was it. There are so many what if’s in this game it’s useless to even go through them all, but the Rockets had a chance to win or go to OT and failed to convert. As you’ll see this is a theme running through most of the Heat’s close calls during the streak.
In the last two games of February, a month where they went 12-1, they had back-to-back scares and the first was with LeBron’s old team Cleveland. After getting out to an 18-point halftime lead, the Heat stumbled after the break. They were outscored by the Cavs, 36-17 in the third quarter as Cleveland took a 1-point lead into the fourth. The Cavaliers continued to gain momentum and even led by as much as 8 with under 6 minutes to play before Wade led the Heat back. But the Cavaliers didn’t fold, either. A long Dion Waiters 2-point jumper put the Cavaliers back up by a point with only 1:17 remaining, 101-100.
A Battier three put the Heat back up, but the Cavaliers missed some shots in that last minute (including three of them by a cold Kyrie who was only 6-for-16 on the night) and the Heat made their free throws again to get the win. If Kyrie had been on with his jumper, that could have ended the streak right there, just like if the Rockets hadn’t picked up those offensive fouls in the final minutes, they would have at least stretched that game to overtime.
Just two nights after the first Cleveland scare is when they had their 2 OT thriller against Sacramento. I repeat, Sacramento, a team in about as much disarray as you can be without actually folding as a franchise (rooting for you KJ!). But a hot Marcus Thornton (8-for-12 from deep and 36 points), an engaged Cousins (24 points, 15 boards), and a slashing Tyreke Evans (24 points, 5 steals) forced the first OT after the Kings stormed back from an eight point deficit with 1:39 left in regulation.
In the first overtime, an Isaiah Thomas three-pointer with 1:07 left gave the Kings a 124-123 lead. Thomas missed a potential game-winner in the lane after Bosh blocked it. A blocked James shot and a miss from Bosh meant the second overtime where the Heat blew the Kings out, but Thomas had a good chance at it in the first overtime. This is the only overtime game during The Streak, but the Heat handled it well against an inferior team.
The Heat’s next brush with mortality was at Madison Square Garden in early March. J.R. Smith shot 5-for-18 on the game and yet the Knicks were within range after a driving Raymond Felton lay-up cut the Heat’s lead to 93-91 with 2:27 left in the game. From there, Smith missed a three to take the lead, Felton turned the ball over then hit a couple free throws, Smith turned the ball over and missed a late three-pointer that wouldn’t have even tied it.
You’ll notice Carmelo Anthony, who scored 32 points on this day (on a respectable 9-for-19 shooting), didn’t shoot the ball once in those final two minutes, but Felton and Smith sure did. If the Knicks had found a way to get their star the ball, this might have been the end of the Heat streak before we even got into the second week of March.
The next scare was just 3 days later when the lowly Magic came to American Airlines Arena. It was a common pattern, similar to their first scare against Cleveland: The Heat got out to a 15-point lead in the first half, but Nikola Vucevic’s domination of the glass (21 boards to go with 25 points) led the Magic back as they outscored the Heat 34-22 in the third quarter to get the momentum in their favor heading into the fourth quarter only tailing by 3. The Magic even extended a brief lead late after a Jameer Nelson fadeaway with 1:16 left put the Magic ahead 96-93.
After James missed a 3-pointer and Battier got his only offensive rebound of the game, James again missed a tying 3, and the Magic had a 3-point cushion inside of a minute to play. A pair of Bosh free throws after both Wade and Allen missed game-tying three’s cut the Magic lead to one with just 38 seconds remaining and the Heat’s streak in major jeopardy. A DaQuan Jones shot in the lane was blocked (or maybe fouled) by Wade, saving the Heat the improbability of coming back from a three-point deficit with 20 seconds remaining. Here’s the play in question:
Personally, I think Wade got enough of Jones’ right hand to necessitate a foul, but I’m not an NBA referee. Regardless, the Heat were down by one with the Magic in possession and only 20 seconds remaining. After the in-bounds, Bosh got dragged down low on Vucevic, and that left Al Harrington open. Bosh just recovered in time to contest Harrington’s 3-point attempt that would have all but ended the game, and the streak, if it had fallen, but the shot drew too much iron and the Heat had the ball down 1 with 12 seconds remaining. That’s when LeBron did his LeBron thing, driving for the game-winning lay-up with just 3 seconds remaining.
An Aaron Afflalo prayer from half-court bounced impotently off the backboard and the Heat had their 16th consecutive win.
After three more wins at home against the middling mediocre class of the Eastern Conference, the Heat went on the road again in Philadelphia and experienced their next scare as they sought to get their 20th consecutive win.
In a lot of ways it was the same old story with another opponent. The Heat built a 12-point lead going into the half after blowing the Sixers off the court in the second quarter. Then, like against Cleveland and Orlando, the Heat relaxed in the third, and the Sixers got 7 of those points back to go into the fourth down just 5. The Sixers continued to play Miami tough, and with just 1:20 left in the game, an athletic dunk by first time all-star Jrue Holiday tied the score at 91-all. After Nick Young fouled LeBron, he hit just 1-of-2 free throws and the Sixers had the ball down 1, with just 1:12 remaining. That’s when Jrue Holiday dribbled the ball off his leg and out-of-bounds.
After a series of misses at the rim for LeBron, Wade finally grabbed a rebound and laid the ball up for a 94-91 lead with just 29 seconds remaining. A pair of Dwyane Wade free throws extended that lead to 96-91 before a Dorrell Wright 3-pointer with 18 seconds remaining cut the lead back to 2 with 18 seconds remaining. But LeBron hit both of his free throws after the Sixers were forced to foul, and they weren’t able to score again. But if Jrue Holiday hadn’t turned the ball over with the score tied and just outside of a minute remaining, that could have been it for the Heat streak. Holiday turned it over though, and the Heat got their 20th victory as they were looking ahead towards equaling the Rockets’ second best mark of 22-straight from the 2007-08 season (of which, Battier was also a member).
It would not come easy, either. It’s not long enough ago that many will have already forgotten, but Boston had Miami on the ropes in the
Boston Garden TD Bank North Garden while Miami sought to best the Rockets mark and win their 23rd consecutive game. Unlike in scares past, the Heat came out sluggish. They were outscored 31-19 in the first period, as Jeff Green was on his way to a career night 43 points on 14-for-21 shooting. After their slow start, the Heat cut the Celtics lead to 6 by the break, and cut the lead even more–to 4–by the time the fourth period rolled around. But after a pair of free throws by Pierce, the Celtics had kept their 4-point lead, 100-96, and there was only 3:25 left in the game. A rare Avery Bradley 3-pointer put the Celtics up again 103-101 with 1:49 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, a LeBron drive resulted in two missed lay-ups, partially blocked by Jeff Green (whose defense on James shouldn’t be overlooked despite James’ big game) before LeBron finally converted after grabbing all those offensive rebounds. It was now tied 103-103 with 1:21 remaining. After both team’s failed to score, it was still 103-103 with under a minute to play. Brandon Bass missed a driving shot before James connected on that cold-blooded 21-foot jumper in Green’s mug to give Miami the lead 105-103 with just 10 seconds remaining; still plenty of time for Boston to answer. That’s when Shane Battier blocked Jeff Green, we all spent 20 minutes making jokes on Twitter as they reviewed whose ball it was, and Pierce missed a fadeaway off the in-bounds after they gave the ball back to the Celtics. The Heat collected the rebound and that was it. The Heat had won their 23rd straight game and now owned the second longest winning streak in NBA history.
Then came the Cleveland comeback in the very next game where, down 27 points mid-way through the third quarter, a couple Shane Battier three’s and some cold Cleveland shooting allowed them to get the deficit under 20 before Bosh, ‘Bron and Wade throttled the Cavaliers through the rest of the third and fourth quarters. They had gotten their 24th victory in as dramatic a fashion as you’ll find. During Cleveland’s incredible first two and a half quarters, Twitter was lit up with prognostications that this was it: the end of The Streak. Sure, the Cavaliers got cold at the right time, but the ability of Miami to switch it on and amp up the defense while finally starting to connect on their outside shots (LeBron had three-straight 3′s in the fourth to tie the score) was impressive, to say the least.
But as we’ve just shown you, the Heat are human. They’re not infallible even if they’re playing without the dint of a loss over the last two months. Something to keep in mind: the 1995-96 Bulls team that won 72 games, never had more than an 18-game winning-streak that season. They also had a streak of 13-straight earlier in the year, but nothing approaching what the Heat have done so far during the last couple months. Last year, the San Antonio Spurs ended the regular season on a 10-game winning streak (even as Popovich was resting his starters in the final couple games) and won their first 10 playoff games before losing in four straight to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals.
Good, even great teams like MJ’s first full post-retirement season for Chicago, and last year’s offensively dominant Spurs team, lose sometimes. It’s the nature of the NBA, the highest level of basketball in the world. This is also important when the LeBron vs. MJ discussion starts to get written about in light of what we’re watching.
Comparing LeBron to Jordan isn’t as ridiculous at it once was. LeBron’s 55 plus percent shooting percentage this season, a PER over 30—plus his MVP, Finals MVP and Gold Medal all in 2012—at least puts him in that discussion now; I write that as someone who is old enough to have remembered all of Jordan’s titles vividly (unlike the slightly younger, Mr. Sharp). But while individual comparisons are fun for bloggers and analysts, what’s truly remarkable about this streak is that it’a team record, which we don’t get to enjoy as often. Comparing LeBron and MJ or LeBron and Kobe or LeBron and Durant isn’t as much fun as talking about what the Miami Heat team has done.
Still, there’s a long way to go before the Heat win 33-straight to tie the Lakers’ record, and it’s even longer before they reach their ultimate goal: a championship, because they don’t want to be stuck with an asterisk next to this incredible regular season run. On any given night, against any given opponent, the Heat can be defeated, just like Jordan’s post-first-retirement Bulls teams.
That’s why you shouldn’t miss any of the Heat’s remaining six games to tie the record because they could falter at any moment, despite the win-loss record of their opponents. But it’s that same any given night dice throw, which is also why we should revel in what we’re witnessing™ (sorry). The Heat are doing something most of us weren’t even alive to remember watching in the early 1970′s (although Jerry West was and so was former Boston Globe reporter, Bob Ryan).
The Heat are winning every game, sometimes in dramatic fashion, and until they lose it’s unlikely we’ll come up with any qualitative reason for why it will end; the streak itself is without much precedent despite how a few of those earlier games mentioned should—and could—have been lost. I want to see the Heat eclipse the Lakers’ record because who doesn’t like to experience something that—even as we’re watching—we’re also aware that we’ll be talking about it for the rest of our lives? I know I do, even as I know they’re still a long way (maybe not in terms of games, but in terms of hype and pressure) from reaching the record.
Like DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games streak, Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in a single season, the Chicago Bulls’ 72-win season, Bob Beamon’s old long jump record, and all the other records that appear unbreakable, . That’s the same for the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers 33-game winning streak. But—knowing that, and even believing that—doesn’t make it any easier to actually do so when so many years have passed without no one able to pull it off. We’ve finally got the team and the player who could break this particular unbreakable record.
We’re not likely to see another run by an NBA team like this in a long time, so savor it even while knowing it all might end tomorrow.