There are very few records held in such high regard as that of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. The Miami Heat’s 27-game winning streak fell 6 games short of the ’71-’72 Lakers 33-game winning streak, the longest winning streak ever in any of the four major sports (NHL, NFL, NBA, MLB). Instead of trying to diminish the Heat’s greatness, which I know I have personally done for far too long, we should embrace what this team has accomplished.
The Heat are the epitome of greatness. Previously I refrained from using words such as great, excellent, or exceptional to describe Lebron James and the Heat. This is mainly because I grew up in an era of unheralded basketball superiority on the part of Sir Michael Jeffrey Jordan. When Jordan was in his prime, he led the NBA in nearly every individual statistic every year: points, triple-doubles, MVPs.
But this was simply not enough if he wanted to be the greatest of all time or even the best in an era.
Jordan taught us that one who is truly great makes others around him great (cough, cough, Scottie Pippen). Ultimately, greatness comes down to winning (most importantly, winning championships), something Jordan and his teammates achieved six times. As former NFL player and coach Herman Edwards said, “You play to win the game,” and right now, no one is doing that better than James. We should all embrace his accomplishments from a team standpoint because in the end that is the true judge of greatness.
Although James’ Heat failed to break the record of the ’71-’72 Lakers, they got closer to 33 consecutive wins than any other team in over four decades. The Heat’s 27 game-winning streak will most likely be the greatest winning streak any of us will witness in our lifetimes. It also makes one appreciate even more the extraordinary feat accomplished by the ’71-’72 Lakers, a record that may never be broken. But the same may be true for the Heat’s 27-game winning streak. To put this in perspective, one needs to understand just how difficult it is in professional sports to win 27 consecutive wins, let alone 33.
The largest regular season winning streak in NFL history is held by the New England Patriots, who recorded 21 consecutive wins from 2003-2004. The largest winning streak in NHL history is held by the ’92-’93 Pittsburgh Penguins, who recorded 17 consecutive wins. And then there are the 1916 New York Giants, who hold the record for the longest winning streak in major league baseball with 26. All of these numbers fall short when you compare them to what the Heat just accomplished, which means the Heat’s 27-game winning streak would be the longest in the history of all four major sports if it weren’t for the ’71-’72 Lakers. Even though I’m an avid Heat hater and fiery New York Knicks fan, I must admit greatness when it is upon us.
Many basketball fans were disgusted with the way James handled his exit from Cleveland (as I was), which led fans to hate the Heat. But growing up a Knicks fan, my hatred runs much deeper than LeBron James. From the days of Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, to the days of Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neil, and now to Wade and James, Knicks fans and Heat fans have never quite seen eye to eye. Forever lingering in my memory is the image of Jeff Van Gundy hanging from the ankles of Alonzo Mourning as Larry Johnson and Alonzo exchanged blows towards the end of a highly competitive playoff game that quickly got out of hand. But with all that, even I must recognize the Heat’s extraordinary accomplishment, put my individual agenda aside, and give praise to those who deserve it most.
In the game last Wednesday night when the Miami Heat lost to the Chicago Bulls to end the streak, I was shocked at how the fourth quarter unraveled for the Heat down the stretch. Up until the Bulls game, the Heat always found a way to win even when down, sometimes by more than 20 points late in games. Earlier in the Heat’s streak, they came back from a 27-point deficit on the road in the fourth quarter against James’ former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. When the Heat didn’t have another miraculous finish this time against the Bulls, I simply couldn’t believe it. What made the loss even more unbelievable was that the Bulls were playing shorthanded without two of their best players, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose. I was actually somewhat disappointed. I came to respect what James and his teammates accomplished. The Heat even became fun to watch. I expected the Heat to keep winning and, in fact, wanted them to win so they could challenge and ultimately break the Lakers record. I wanted to see history made.
Instead of witnessing history, we were all given a dose of reality. Wednesday night was the first time James appeared, at least to me, to be somewhat human during the course of the 27-game winning streak. James was frustrated all game with hard fouls and voiced his displeasure post-game. I honestly don’t think James needed any more motivation to win, but the Bulls taunting and aggressive play on James might have done just that. James felt Kirk Hinrich’s foul in the first half and Taj Gipson’s foul late in the second half were “not basketball plays.” But neither of those plays resulted in a technical or flagrant foul. The following possession after Gipson’s hard foul, Carlos Boozer set a screen on James James was called for a flagrant foul (a flagrant 1) for hitting Boozer with an elbow. The Bulls got James and the Heat off their game.
The lesson learned from this game seems to be just that. If they want to beat the Heat, teams need to play physical tough defense and get James to use his strength and aggression against himself by getting him to commit foolish and unnecessary fouls.
We will see if this loss is only a blip on the road to another championship season for the Heat or a blueprint for other teams to beat the Heat and prevent the repeat. I’m inclined to believe we will be seeing James hoist up that Larry O’Brien Trophy once again.
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