Heat on path to greatness
Almost three years ago the in-your-face summer spectacle at Miami's American Airlines Arena, celebrated the arrival of LeBron James. He was asked if he took his talents to Miami to win a championship and he famously proclaimed, "Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven." This came on the heels of James and ESPN partnering for the tasteless special, "The Decision," leaving him and the Heat as public enemy No. 1. In the ensuing months the team was booed in every arena, ripped to shreds all over the Internet, and crushed by most talking heads.However, when Miami’s Team President Pat Riley was recruiting James to the Heat during the summer of 2010 he sold the reigning MVP on the chance to be the focal point of not just a Champion, but a dynasty.
James heard pitches from six different teams, but Riley separated himself from the others during his meeting with the superstar. During their meeting “Mister GQ” impressed the free-agent by placing a box full of his championship rings on the table, which included seven at the time. Of course Riley encouraged the then ring-less LeBron to try them on, making it clear that he could one day have a collection of his own if he signed with Miami. Only LeBron knows, but it’s quite possible that right there is the moment he decided his talents would indeed be going down to South Beach. Riley envisioned a dynasty that would hang multiple banners in the rafters of American Airlines Arena and James was sold. Now, fast-forward to March of 2013, and it seems as if the super-team Riley dreamt of is upon us, and all that waits is the ring collecting and banner lifting.
On Wednesday night Erik Spoelstra’s seemingly-unstoppable group was in pursuit of their 28th consecutive victory and a chance at moving within six wins of surpassing the mythical 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers for the longest winning streak in NBA history. In what was arguably the greatest NBA-regular season game ever played, Miami fell short to an undermanned Chicago Bulls squad, who were playing without their two best players against quite possibly the most renowned NBA team since Jordan's Bulls. Miami’s 27-game winning streak will go down as not only the second-longest in NBA history, but as the second-longest in the history of major professional North American sports, surpassing Major League Baseball's New York Giants, who won 26 consecutive games in 1916.
Over the last few weeks it was beginning to feel more and more likely that this Miami team would surpass the legendary run put together by Hall of Famers Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Gail Goodrich, and a bench player who was none other than Riley.Even though Miami didn’t surpass the Lakers streak, they made history not just by challenging such hallowed ground, but by making us believe that they were actually going to do it. It's just not realistic to win 33 straight in today’s NBA and I can't see 27 happening again, much less 33.
The Lakers’ streak, which occurred during the first half of a championship season, was remarkable for many reasons. Other than the fact they flew coach and at one point played eight games in 10 days — in five different cities, the streak began immediately after Laker legend Elgin Baylor retired. And the team didn’t just win, but they routed opponents, winning 23 games by double digits.
"We had one of those teams that comes along every once in a while," West, now an executive with the Golden State Warriors said last week. "The only bad thing about it is we were really too old to be able to sustain it. But it was easy. And when we lost, it was like, 'I can't believe we lost.' It was like two-and-a-half months. It was a very special time."
Few records are deemed untouchable, but the Lakers’ streak is one that is seemingly engraved on that list. Fueled by the dominance of LeBron, Miami was the first team to truly threaten the Lakers’ record, as only three other teams have even reached 20 straight wins, including the Houston Rockets, who had a 22-game streak in 2007-8.
Each night brought someone's best for Miami , as opponents wanted to be the one to preserve history, which was the remarkable nature of their pursuit. In Chicago on Wednesday it felt more like May than March, and the Bulls played inspiring basketball behind their raucous fans.
Many were thrilled to see the hated Heat finally lose, but I think as a fan of the game you should appreciate these things when they are happening, because there’s no telling when we’ll see another run like this. This Heat team shouldn’t be the most hated, but rather hard to hate. For this team, winning really matters on a nightly, game-to-game basis. This group that consists of four legitimate Hall of Famers may also be the hardest working, most unselfish, humble, and fun-loving team we've ever seen – just watch their Harlem Shake rendition. That doesn't even take into account the money that James, Wade, and Bosh sacrificed to play together. Let’s not forget veteran role-players Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller, Chris Andersen, and James Jones all scarified money or playing time for a chance to be part of something special. Heck, even 40-year old Juwan Howard came off his couch to play cheerleader.
Some thought Miami would suffer from a Championship hangover and be complacent, but all these guys in the locker-room are professionals in the truest sense and everyone in the organization was back to work immediately after the Championship parade ended in June. Most teams are content with winning one title, as one Championship puts them in the history books and separates them from the 13 franchises that have yet to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. However, that’s not enough for this Miami team as they want to string together championship after championship. But, the streak they realized, wasn’t just about raising another banner. It was potentially something they could call their career achievement and talk about in 40 years from now, like those Lakers still proudly do today.
When it comes to the NBA regular season, the only thing that would surpass the Lakers streak is Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point night. Winning 33 or even 27 in a row might be slightly more difficult than finishing 72-10, the feat Michael Jordan's '95-96 Bulls accomplished. Yet, the best those Bulls could do was win 18 straight. That doesn’t mean these Heat are better than those Bulls, but that argument is for another day. It’s tough when comparing different eras. But, there is no doubt that there are plenty of striking similarities, and one can make the case that this Miami team has superior depth and talent.
Before making any comparisons though, the Heat must finish the job. Their berth in the finals is seemingly all but a given playing in the weakened Eastern Conference, and their route to the Finals looks to be much easier than the one they faced last year, when they were nearly upset by Indiana and Boston.
Almost every team is without a key piece as Indiana remains without Danny Granger, the Knicks don’t have Amar'e Stoudemire, the Bulls are still without Derrick Rose and the Celtics don’t have Rajon Rondo for the season. For all the compelling storylines the NBA has produced this season, there is no convincing evidence that any team -- not the Pacers, Celtics, Knicks, Bulls, Clippers, Spurs or even the Thunder -- can beat the Heat four times in seven games.
But, perhaps the Heat are just that good. James is having the best season of his life, Wade has been a phenomenal sidekick, Bosh has gotten comfortable in his role and the supporting cast is better than ever. Miami’s weaknesses from past seasons – such as their mediocre three-point shooting and poor late-game execution – are gone. And more importantly the pressure that crumbled them against Dallas in the 2011 Finals is gone with last year’s title run.It’s hard to imagine Miami losing four of seven games in a playoff series, probably because they didn’t lose a single game for nearly two months and haven’t lost more than two games in a row all season.
The streak made the reigning champs larger than life, even drawing attention away from college basketball's postseason during what's usually a quiet time in the NBA schedule. At a time where the Heat could have been coasting before the playoffs, they relentlessly pursued immortality. In the end they fell just short, but it’s a run they should be greatly proud of and no matter when it ended the goal remains to win a Championship.
"I'm going for the championship every time," Bosh said when asked earlier in the week if he’d prefer the record or another ring. "You don't get a plaque, a ring or nothing for 34 wins in a row. You get a record that'll probably be broken one day. Records are meant to be broken. But championships last forever. As a team, we know that. Somebody was telling me it would be way cooler to win 33 in a row. I'm like, 'Man, please. Get out of here with that.' They won't be throwing confetti after . I'll guaran-damn-tee you that."
If all goes as planned this team will enjoy another parade come June and go down as one of the greatest ever, and it will be just a matter of time before James, Wade and Bosh have jewelry boxes of their own.