When I wrote my basketball book four years ago, I included a section about the NBA’s 10 most unbreakable records. Ranking first: Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points per game for an entire season, something we’re never seeing again unless (a) some lunatic parent pumps enough HGH into his young son to create an 8-foot-2 basketball player, (b) they make 3-pointers worth six points, or (c) LeBron and Serena Williams decide to start having kids. The rest of my NBA Unbreakables, in order …
2. Wilt’s 55-rebound game.
3. Russell’s 11 rings.
4. The ’72 Lakers winning 33 straight.
5. George McGinnis’s 422 turnovers in one season.
6. Wilt’s 100-point game.
7. Chicago’s 72-win season.
8. Scott Skiles’s 30-assist game.
9. Rasheed Wallace earning 41 technicals in one season.
10. Jose Calderon missing just three free throws in 2009 (for a record 98.1 percentage).
I believed those first five records were unbreakable, while the next five were conceivably breakable (even if it wasn’t likely). So yeah, I thought that 33-gamer was lasting for the rest of my life. In nearly seven decades of NBA action, no team had come within two-thirds of approaching it. “That Lakers streak was like Bob Beamon’s long jump in Mexico City,” I wrote four years ago, “only if he jumped 39 feet instead of 29 feet.” Even by falling six victories short of the magical 33, the 2013 Heat made history not just by challenging such hallowed ground, but by making us believe, Wait a second … they might actually DO this.
That’s the ultimate legacy of their 27-game winning streak, as well as Miami cementing itself as one of the most frightening teams in modern NBA history. Just for the hell of it, let’s break down all the streak-related winners and losers.
WINNER: Wednesday night
Just so you know: I doubled up on my anti-hyperbole medication these past two days. I talked to a few hoops junkies whom I trust completely. I considered the consequences of falling into the whole “ESPN dude takes an in-the-moment sporting event and blows it out of proportion” trap that tends to happen in this 365/24/7 era of covering sports. I even gave myself an extra day to chew on the following point (and this column as a whole). And here’s where I ultimately arrived: Wednesday night’s game was the greatest NBA regular-season game ever played.
Repeat: Wednesday night’s game was the greatest NBA regular-season game ever played.
You had the underdog Bulls playing without their two best players against the most famous NBA team since Jordan’s Bulls. You had the best player in 20 years at the peak of his powers. You had a national TV audience and unparalleled stakes: Miami approaching an unapproachable record, the smell of history looming over everything, real greatness in the air. You had an intensely proud Bulls team hoping to turn that game into a street fight (1980s basketball, reincarnated), as well as a genius defensive coach who understood exactly how to beat Miami (or at the very least, make them sweat out no. 28). And you had Chicago’s spectacular crowd, one of the few old-school NBA fan bases left that (a) understood the stakes, (b) would never sell their tickets on StubHub to Miami fans, and (c) knew from experience exactly how to affect such a game.
I can’t remember watching an NBA regular-season game that felt like a Game 7 before. Those Super Bowl Sunday battles in the 1980s between the Celtics and Sixers or Celtics and Lakers always felt special, maybe even like playoff games … but never like a Game 7. Jordan’s return from baseball in Indiana had a special you-have-to-see-it energy, as did Jordan’s first post-baseball game in MSG and Magic’s 1996 comeback game against Golden State. I loved the spectacle of LeBron and Wade joining forces for the first time in Boston (opening night, 2010), and if you’re going back a few decades, I’m sure those first Wilt-Kareem and Wilt-Russell battles stood out in their own ways, as did Kareem’s Milwaukee team ending L.A.’s 33-game run in 1972. Even last week, Miami’s thrilling victories in Boston and Cleveland felt like playoff games. Just not Game 7s.
Wednesday night ballooned into something else. Once it became clear that Chicago wasn’t fading and a sense of desperation started setting in for Miami, that led to my second-favorite moment of the night: LeBron saying Screw this, I’m guarding Hinrich and hounding the aging Chicago point guard everywhere, unwilling to allow that streak to slip away without doing everything possible to save it. In turn, that led to my favorite moment — LeBron allowing Hinrich to keep driving past him so he could block the ensuing layup. And he did it twice!!! I’ve been watching basketball forever … I have NEVER seen that before, not even from Jordan. To be fair, I never saw Russell (maybe he tried that trick, too), but please, tell me the next time I’m going to watch a basketball player so supernaturally confident in his own inhuman athletic ability that he intentionally allows an opponent to attempt layups that he can block.
That game brought the best out of everyone, most notably a heroic Luol Deng (28 points, stellar defense on LeBron, laid it all out to the point that he could barely stand during one timeout in the final minute) and young Jimmy Butler (a hidden gem who came through on the biggest possible stage). Even Chicago whipping boy Carlos Boozer rose to the occasion, grabbing 17 boards and barely budging when a frustrated LeBron shoulder-blocked him like a tight end coming over the middle. During that final minute, the Chicago fans cheered their boys the same way a crowd would celebrate a clinching Game 7, and only because that’s exactly how it felt. The streak was dead. The underdog Bulls slayed it. Throw in the swelling drama, as well as that incredulous, “Wait, they’re not actually gonna lose, right?” feeling of those last few minutes — shades of Douglas-Tyson, Super Bowl XLII, UNLV-Duke and every other time that’s happened — and that’s the best NBA regular-season game ever played. We’ll only see a repeat if (a) someone else challenges that 33-gamer, or (b) someone challenges Chicago’s 72-10 record. Good luck.
LOSER: NBA TV
Thanks to March Madness, the NBA’s home station had stumbled into a ratings jackpot on Sunday night: Miami going for its 30th straight in San Antonio against Pop, Duncan, Manu, Parker and everyone else on the league’s second-best team. You can’t even come up with a basketball parallel for that one — it would have been like the legendary Bears-Dolphins game from 1985, certainly the most anticipated NBA regular-season game ever played. What a bummer.
Here’s how much I wanted to see that game …
I hate five teams and only five: the Lakers, Yankees, Heat, Canadiens and New York Giants. My children will never be allowed to root for those five teams. It’s just non-negotiable. And even I was rooting for Miami on Wednesday night. It felt icky, it felt weird, it felt foreign … but it had to be done. I wanted that Spurs-Heat game. Only afterward did I realize how dreadful it was to shift to the dark side and root for the Miami Heat — I ended up taking one of those Silkwood showers afterward.
WINNER: The Cavs
LeBron’s old franchise gave Miami two of its toughest streak battles — including win no. 24, when the undermanned Cavs led by 27 points before LeBron flicked on his Dom Toretto honorary NOS switch. Even better, one Cleveland fan benevolently jogged onto the court during a key moment while wearing a “LEBRON 2014″ T-shirt, planting the seeds for his eventual comeback, which has to happen if LeBron has anything resembling a heart beating inside that superhuman body. Just to push this along, you know what Cavs fans should be doing when the Heat play there? Cheering LeBron like a rock star and chanting “TWENTY FOUR-TEEN! TWENTY FOUR-TEEN!” every time he has the ball. Screw tough love, go the other way — open your arms for LeBron, Cleveland. It’s the only way.
(And by the way? If he wins titles this year and next, you might actually get him back. You never know.)
WINNER: Ray Allen
That filthy traitor The former UConn star jumped from Boston’s semi-sinking ship to Miami’s fighter jet, reinventing himself yet again in his quest to be remembered as the greatest long-range shooter who ever lived. (Side note: Even if he already pulled it off by any statistical metric you want to use, it’s amazing how many people automatically assume Reggie Miller holds that belt.) One more ring and a few clutch playoff shots should do it, but Allen’s extended cameo in the second-greatest streak ever certainly helped. Of course, I keep flicking through my cable guide and expecting to see the following movie description on HBO2:
He Got Game II: South Beach
HD, Ray Allen, Michael Douglas (2013) — After stabbing his old teammates from Boston in the back with a 15-inch butcher’s knife, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) finds redemption as a clutch 3-point specialist on a loaded Miami team that’s talented enough to cover up his shitty defense. Directed 70 minutes too long by Spike Lee.
LOSER: The 2008 Rockets
One of the NBA’s all-time WTF moments had always been a good-but-not-great Rockets team improbably ripping off 22 straight wins en route to the second-longest streak ever. They won the last 10 without Yao Ming, with Chuck Hayes and Dikembe Mutombo (somewhere between 40 and 57 at the time) impersonating a center platoon for them. In other words … WTF???????
Now? It’s a little less WTF-ey, right?
WINNER: Erik Spoelstra
Let’s say LeBron sucked in Game 6 in Boston last spring. You know what Spo is doing right now? Probably sitting on a First Take set listening to Skip Bayless crush LeBron, smiling thinly and bemoaning what happened to his career. Instead, Spo captured a title and enough leeway to experiment with Miami’s offense — radically, I might add — flipping small ball around in ways that just didn’t seem possible. Five shooters on the floor at once? No center whatsoever? A slew of interconnected high screens running 25 feet from the basket? Perimeter players posting up and low-post players shooting 20-footers?
Again — this was a risk. And I think Spoelstra took it for two reasons. One, he never totally embraced what he had in LeBron until those final few playoff games, when LeBron created the never-before-seen position of power point guard. You can almost imagine Spo saying, Wait, so you’re going to run the offense like Magic, post up like Bird, run the floor like Barkley and score whenever you want like Jordan? And you’re going to do this for 40 minutes a game while defending the other team’s most dangerous scorer? The least I can do is make basketball as fun as humanly possible for you, my friend.
And that’s how this played out. Eschewing shot blockers and rebounders, asking Shane Battier to defend bigger players, giving LeBron an inhumane two-way responsibility and hoping he never broke down, appealing to their competitiveness and sense of history … these were all calculated risks, and nobody knew better than Spoelstra that he’d get the credit if it worked. News flash: It worked. As Zach Lowe broke down in Tuesday’s Grantland piece, these 2013 Heat are already one of the best ball-movement teams ever assembled — along with the Russell-Cousy Celtics, Holzman’s Knicks, Walton’s Blazers, Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, and on a less successful level, Webber’s Kings and Nash’s Suns. They’re reinventing offensive basketball as we know it.
In the old days, movement was everything. That’s why people still wax poetically about Bill Bradley throwing back-door passes to Walt Frazier, or Portland mixing Bill Walton’s potent outlet passes with his equally devastating half-court passing. Without a 3-point line, everyone played the same way — you kept moving, you kept setting picks, you kept trying to get layups, and you ran every chance you could. And that spilled into the 1980s with Magic’s Lakers (who blended fast breaks with half-court basketball better than anyone ever) and Bird’s Celtics (at their apex, an oversize, comically intelligent team that treated possessions almost like they were hockey power plays), as everyone came to believe size and speed mattered most (in that order). Jordan’s Bulls flipped it the other way — putting a bigger emphasis on defense and one-on-one scoring — and as the league became more diluted, you needed only two elite scorers and a good defensive foundation to contend.
These last 15 years, teams started valuing 3-pointers more and more, leading to the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and even Orlando’s 2009 team (basically, Dwight Howard and a bunch of shooters). Now we have Miami, a team that has figured out how to blend that old-school movement with the new trend of embracing long-range shooting, corner 3s and everything else that a computer program spits out with “DO THIS!!!!!” in big bold letters. If you can shoot 3s well enough to take more than 20 a game, here’s what happens: You score more points, and you get more offensive rebounds off the long bounces. There’s no downside. Look at the 3-point attempt leaders right now: The top nine teams (except Portland) are all headed for the playoffs, and no. 6 and no. 9 are battling for home-court advantage. For the 3-point percentage leaders, the top five teams are headed for the playoffs (including Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, the three best teams right now). Spoelstra sniffed this out, embraced it and made it a crucial part of Miami’s game.
2012: 15.6 attempted 3s (23rd), 35.9 percent shooting (ninth).
2013: 21.2 attempted 3s (ninth), 39.1 percent shooting (second).
And look, emphasizing more 3s … that’s replicable. You know what isn’t replicable? LEBRON JAMES. Nobody has anyone remotely like him, and when you watch the way LeBron makes his teammates better game after game after game — always getting them the right shots, always finding the right balance between his offense and getting everyone else involved — you’d have to say that Spoelstra succeeded here. He wanted to build a special limited-edition Formula One race car, something that only the league’s most uniquely skilled player could drive … and he did it. Watching LeBron run this Heat team feels like Bird and the ’86 Celtics or Magic and the ’87 Lakers all over again. In other words, the team fits the player. And that’s why Erik Spoelstra has to be the Coach of the Year. Has to. Has to.
LOSER: Kevin Durant
With 10 games remaining in the season, he’s averaging 28.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game (borderline Bird territory). He’s headed for his fourth straight scoring title, something only Wilt and MJ have pulled off. He’s shooting 50.2 percent from the field, 41 percent on 3s and 90.7 percent from the charity stripe, giving him a phenomenal chance to become just the sixth player ever to make the 50-40-90 Club. (The others: Bird, Nash, Dirk, Reggie and Price.) Oh, and he’s the best player on a 60-win team.
How efficient is Kevin Durant? He’s going to lead the league in scoring without leading his own team in field goal attempts. Can we get an old-school ECW-style “HO-LY SHIT! HO-LY SHIT!” chant going please? Here’s the point: Poor Durant’s MVP campaign wasn’t just overshadowed by LeBron and this Miami streak, it was steamrolled and left for dead. Too bad. As Whitlock would say, keep doing the damn thang, KD.
WINNER: The concept of NBA adulthood
You know the biggest reason the Heat won 27 games? You know, other than the part where the greatest player in 20 years suits up for them? Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis, Juwan Howard, even LeBron and Wade and Bosh … these guys are all professionals in the truest sense. When you’re grinding out win after win after win for almost two solid months — with the media spotlight shining brighter and brighter, with every opponent playing you like it’s a playoff game, with the stakes swelling just a little more every game — the professional routine becomes more crucial than anything. You need adults. You need guys who can stay focused, keep grinding out those workdays and say things like, “It’s 3:30 a.m., we have a game tomorrow, you need to go home.” The 2013 Heat have an overload of adults. Don’t think it was an accident.
In 2010, I wrote that Miami couldn’t win the title without quality role players, that every lesson from NBA history told us three guys wasn’t enough, that it absolutely HAD to be a team effort (at least eight guys). Think of all the different ways that Battier, Allen, Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen slid into their roles, chipped in and affected that streak. That’s just the way the NBA works. You can’t stack the deck without building something around it, too. And by the way, the fact that Battier and Allen signed for major discounts to play in Miami absolutely has to be considered part of LeBron’s 2013 MVP candidacy.
(Speaking of Battier … )
LOSER: The mystery of Shane Battier’s inspiring speech
And maybe Hackman …
And maybe even Pacino …
What did he say, exactly? We’ll never really know. Wade called it “famous.” Bosh said, “You had to be there.” Battier dodged any details, explaining, “It’s like a rainbow. When it’s gone, it’s gone.” Only Haslem gave any real details, explaining to NBA.com that the concept was about “Just touch the people. People want to be touched. Sometimes it’s going to be uncomfortable. Sometimes they might get carried away. But touch the people. The fans. And enjoy these moments, because they’re going to come to an end some day.”
How good is Battier in these moments? We only have this semi-inspiring 29-second YouTube clip from before a 2009 playoff game … and I gotta say, it’s right up there with some of James Van Der Beek’s best work.
WINNER: Dwyane Wade
He was already the fourth-best shooting guard of all time (trailing only MJ, Kobe and West), but the streak and a second straight title probably nudges him into the top 25 players of all time. Would the streak have ended in Chicago if Wade wasn’t banged up? We’ll never know. But after people wondered in November if Wade’s prime had come and gone (well, I was wondering, anyway), Wade reinvented himself as LeBron’s sidekick, became a more efficient scorer (54 percent shooting during the streak), started crashing the offensive boards in big moments again (like he did back in the day), protected his body by not barreling recklessly to the hole (he’s on pace to shoot nearly half as many free throws as he did in 2006), and generally seemed like an older, wiser version of Dwyane Wade.
I never thought Miami would truly embrace its basketball destiny until Wade gave the car keys to LeBron (or vice versa), and that’s what happened here. You have to give Wade credit. How many great basketball players would have been able to suck it up and say, That guy’s better than me, he gives us a better chance to win. It’s been beautiful to watch. And since I’m a Celtics fan who just spent the past two paragraphs praising Dwyane Wade, lemme just add that he’s delivered more sneaky/dirty/cheap bullshit plays over the years than any Hall of Famer since John Stockton (just so I can fall asleep tonight).
LOSER: Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony …
And everyone else who briefly thought they had a chance to own the 2012-13 NBA season. Thanks for coming, guys.
WINNER: The 1972 Lakers
Not just because they kept their streak, but because Miami’s run pushed people to start considering the magnitude of that 33-gamer again. Was that streak underrated, overrated or properly rated? The case for each …
THE STREAK WAS OVERRATED BECAUSE …
The NBA expanded from nine teams to 17 over a five-year span from 1966 to 1971, adding Portland, Cleveland and Buffalo for the 1970-71 season. At the same time, the renegade ABA was cranking through its fifth season with an 11-team league that included legitimate stars like Artis Gilmore, Rick Barry, Julius Erving, Roger Brown, Dan Issel, Charlie Scott and Mel Daniels. So in five years, we went from nine professional basketball teams to 28, a mega-dilution that allowed juggernauts to become JUGGERNAUTS. In a four-season span from 1970 through 1973 …
• The ’72 Lakers won 69 games, the ’73 Celtics won 68 games and the ’71 Bucks won 66 games.
• We had four of the eight longest winning streaks ever to that point: the ’72 Lakers (33), the ’71 Bucks (20, the second-longest), the ’70 Knicks (18) and the ’71 Bucks again (16).
• Kareem and Oscar joined forces on the ’71 Bucks and unleashed the greatest start-to-finish NBA season ever on paper, riding those two crazy winning streaks to a 64-11 record before resting everyone down the stretch. They led the league in field goal percentage, points, assists and defensive field goal percentage. They finished 42-2 at home (including playoffs). They beat teams by 12.26 points per game in the regular season and 14.5 points per game in their 12 playoff wins (losing only twice).1
So the ’72 Lakers came along at the perfect time. It’s worth mentioning that Wilt and West were two of the 10 best players ever, but they had passed their primes by 1972. Two years later, they retired. How good could that team have been? The ’72 Lakers were outliers.
THE STREAK WAS UNDERRATED BECAUSE …
They annihilated everybody during that 33-gamer, winning 23 games by double digits and beating every team by four points or more. They only had one real scare: win no. 20 over Phoenix, which extended into overtime before the Lakers eventually won by nine. And guess what? That streak happened during an era that didn’t have chartered airplanes, direct flights, good exercise equipment, good medical care, arthroscopic surgery, smart dieting, personal trainers (you don’t know how badly I want to throw a PED joke in here, but I won’t), first-rate sneakers … actually, the deck was stacked against anyone winning that many games.
And I didn’t even mention the NBA’s brutal schedule back then. Early on in their streak, the ’72 Lakers played eight games in 10 days — in five different cities — including consecutive Friday-Saturday-Sunday back-to-back-to-backers. Later in the streak, they played five games in six days in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Buffalo and Baltimore (and won all five). And again, they were flying coach. I didn’t really consider this until Len Elmore dropped into our NBA Countdown production meeting on Wednesday, then told us what it was like to travel as a basketball player in the 1970s: few direct flights, most of the team crammed into coach seats (and these weren’t short guys, obviously), everyone angling for any first-class seats that opened up (which always went by seniority), players inhaling secondhand cigarette smoke in those cramped cabins and eating terrible food, and many times, planes arriving at 4 a.m. with the players having to rally for a noon game.
After listening to Elmore for two minutes, I wanted to assign a Grantland oral history tentatively titled, “NBA Travel Horror Stories From the ’60s and ’70s.” So winning 33 straight during THAT era? Has to cancel out the positive effects of a diluted league, right?
THE STREAK WAS PROPERLY RATED BECAUSE …
It was the perfect basketball storm: a hungry Lakers squad that wanted to capture a championship for West, one of the most driven superstars we’ve ever seen; a comically diluted league; two of the best basketball players ever (West and Wilt); and a schedule quirk that didn’t have the Lakers traveling to Milwaukee until the 34th game of the streak (which, of course, they lost). That streak was a testament to talent, luck and sheer will, probably in that order, and I just can’t imagine we’re seeing anything like it ever again. I think of that 33-gamer like this …
WINNER: Jerry West
Not just for keeping his streak, but for being so damned magnanimous during Miami’s run. When I interviewed him for NBA Countdown last week …
… West claimed he was rooting for the Heat and wanted them to break the streak. He was like the Bizarro Mercury Morris. It was also clear that West had real affection for LeBron, if only because — once upon a time — West spent 12 seasons trying to get over The Hump (like LeBron last season). Nobody knows all the ways that pressure can weigh on somebody like Jerry West.
Quick tangent on this: I have been lucky enough (and that’s an understatement) to spend six hours talking hoops with Bill Russell, two hours with Bill Walton, an hour with Larry Bird, and god knows how many hours with Magic. You know the spirit behind SNL‘s Five-Timers Club sketch, when someone joins an exclusive club by hosting for a fifth time and gets access to a special place where all the other five-timer hosts hang out? I think that’s what happens when you become one of THE great players. Once you’re in, you’re in. Bring up any great player to any of the other great players and they’re astoundingly gushy and complimentary, like they understand what makes that guy special more than you or I could. And they’ll defend the other great guys to the death.
Tangent off that tangent: Russell told me a story about watching Magic shooting free throws before a game in Seattle during the 1981-82 season, right after Magic was getting blamed for getting Lakers coach Paul Westhead fired (and for the first time taking real national heat). As Magic was shooting those free throws, Russell noticed some fans yelling insults at Magic. He also noticed Magic going about his business, the barbs bouncing off him, maintaining his dignity during the whole thing. As Magic walked back to the locker room, Russell made a point to walk over and tell him, “I’m proud of you.” And he was. That’s the Great Player Club. See, only the great players truly understand. That’s why Bird loves Kobe’s competitiveness so much, and that’s why West was rooting for LeBron, and that’s why Russell went over to Magic, and that’s why Magic will defend LeBron and Kobe to the death. Once you’re in the club, you’re in.
Tangent off that tangent’s tangent: The next time I saw Magic after Russell had told me that story, I brought it up. I was about six words in and Magic just started nodding. One of the best things anyone had ever done for him, he said. And he was delighted that Russell remembered it.
(The Great Player Club. You gotta love it.)
LOSER: The 2013 Eastern Conference playoffs
You know it’s grim when it’s March and we’re already making Fo-Fo-Fo jokes.
(Hold on, I’m putting on my whiny Celtics hat again.)
Has anyone caught more breaks than Miami these past 12 months? Just in their own conference, Chicago decides not to make a run because of Derrick Rose’s injury, then Rose decides not to come back. Boston loses Rondo for the year. Same for Indiana and Granger, Philly and Bynum and (probably) New York and Amar’e. Orlando deals Howard out of the conference. Brooklyn deals the Damian Lillard pick for The Artist Formerly Known As Gerald Wallace, killing its chance to trade for one more blue-chip veteran last month. On the other side, the Lakers imploded faster than Amanda Bynes’s Twitter account; Oklahoma City dealt James Harden a year too early for 50 cents on the dollar; Memphis salary-dumped Rudy Gay; and the Clippers decided against running an offense this season. At the rate we’re going, Ty Lawson and Tony Parker are going to collide during a Spurs-Nuggets game and knock each other unconscious until July. Congratulations on the 2013 title, Miami. Just plan the parade already.2
WINNER: Pat Riley
He coaxed four titles out of Magic and Kareem, won a clincher in the Boston Garden, won back-to-back titles for the first time in 19 years, and even ended West’s lifelong Celtics curse. He gave MJ’s Bulls the single hairiest battle they ever had: in the 1993 Eastern finals, when Jordan and Pippen had to block 28 straight Charles Smith shots to get rid of the Knicks. He came within an blocked 3-pointer of winning the NBA Finals with John Starks (John Starks!!!!) as his second-best player. He rebuilt Miami into a contender in the 1990s, orchestrated the Wade-Shaq alliance and won the 2006 title (giving him coaching titles that happened 24 years apart).
And just when you thought the old man was losing it, he pulled off his single greatest feat: planning two years ahead for the summer of 2010, convincing Bosh and LeBron to join Wade in Miami, then making sure they didn’t wilt over the next two years as the universe mobilized against them. Riley didn’t just build the team that won 27 straight games, he spent the past three decades setting the stage for this specific season. He convinced the game’s greatest player, at the peak of his powers, to stab his hometown in the back and play on someone else’s team. He picked an unknown coach and backed him to the bitter end. He pushed his guys privately and stayed mum publicly, and if you think Riley wasn’t the biggest reason the LeBron-Wade relationship never imploded during its darkest times, you’re crazy.
WINNER: Pat Riley, again
1972 Lakers: 33 straight wins … Pat Riley came off their bench.
2013 Heat: 27 straight wins … built by Pat Riley.
(The lesson, as always: It’s good to be Pat Riley.)
LOSER: Everyone who hates that Miami stacked the deck in 2010
Remember when LeBron, Wade and Bosh joined forces in Miami and we threw the biggest collective hissy fit in recent memory? How can those losers try to game the system like that? Why would LeBron rather play with his biggest rival over trying to beat his ass? Whatever happened to competitiveness? Whatever happened to earning a title? Then this happened …
… and that pushed our venom to another level. Quite simply, we declared war on the Heat. We booed them in every arena, ripped them to shreds on the Internet, lambasted them on radio shows, dangled a heat lamp over them and turned it to high. We liked having a villain again. We wanted them to fold. We wanted them to choke. We could get to these guys. And over the course of a few months, LeBron slowly lost his way and finally imploded in the Finals. That summer, multiple friends told me that they rooted for Dallas the same way they would have rooted for America’s World Cup soccer team, or one of our Olympic teams. There was something bigger than basketball at stake. That’s how we felt. Twenty-one months later? We didn’t care as much. More on this in a second.
WINNER: The 2013 Miami Heat
The ’66 Celtics went back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. The ’72 Lakers rolled off 33 straight. The ’96 Bulls won 87 of 100 games. The ’86 Celtics finished 50-1 at home. The ’01 Lakers finished 15-1 in the playoffs. I always believed that, if you wanted to make history — real history — you had to beat one of those five teams. You had to win nine straight titles or 34 straight games. You had to win 88 of 100 games in one season, you had to sweep your home games, or you had to sweep the playoffs. Those were your five tickets to immortality.
But the Heat may have forged their way into that previous paragraph anyway. Assuming they win the title convincingly, or even semi-convincingly, that 27-gamer raised their street cred to historic heights. You shouldn’t be able to win 33 straight in 2013; the NBA is littered with too many Hall of Famers, All-Stars and future stars these days. Everyone’s ability to study and scout other teams, use advanced metrics, pick apart their flaws, play percentages against them … I mean, if you have any semblance of a wart in 2013, people are going to find it and pick it apart. And you’re always one Marcus Thornton scoring barrage or The Game of Jeff Green’s Life away from being sucker-punched on the wrong night. It’s just not realistic. Throw in the prohibitive salary cap and I can’t see 27 happening again, much less 33. They’re on the short list of great single-season teams as long as they can avoid that asterisk.
LOSER: The 2013 Miami Heat*
What’s the asterisk for? Because they have to win the title now … or the streak loses about 50 percent of its ultimate meaning. You know how I know this? I’m a New England Patriots fan, that’s how. Here’s how often Pats fans get together and fondly remember the time we won our first 18 games in 2007: never. Not once.
WINNER: David Stern and Adam Silver
And this one dates back to The Decision in 2010, an allegedly horrific public-relations disaster that, of course, ended up secretly reinvigorating the NBA, boosting TV ratings and attendance, creating a new superteam and driving more mainstream interest in professional basketball than anything since MJ’s last three Bulls teams. Really, it’s been a four-year gravy train dating back to LeBron’s final Cleveland season, and if you think Stern and Silver don’t exchange mental high-fives about it every so often, you’re crazy. In four years, LeBron went from being a savior to a villain to a hero to a legend. You couldn’t have scripted it better.
And think about what happened these last two weeks, as Miami’s streak captured the attention of … well, just about everybody. Two Mondays ago, my buddy House finished dinner at a restaurant and moved into the bar to catch the finish of the Heat-Celtics game. You know who else moved into that bar? About two-thirds of the people eating at the restaurant. As they yelled and gasped and cheered during the final few minutes, it struck House that this scene was happening in Washington, D.C., a city with a forgettable NBA team and no real rooting interest. Everyone cared. Most of those same people probably hated Wade and LeBron less than three years ago for selling out and playing together.
But that’s the thing — greatness is always going to trump anything else. It’s the same reason we loved Tiger so much once upon a time … and it’s the same reason we’d drop everything to root for him again at Augusta next month. We’ll always stomach whatever it takes to say, “I was there.” I was thinking of House’s story during that Heat-Bulls game — people across America packed into dorm rooms and bars and restaurants and living rooms and in front of computer screens, all of them riveted by what was happening. It’s a moment that’s usually reserved for a big playoff game, big tournament conclusion or a big fight. For it to happen during an NBA regular-season game — more than once, by the way — was just about unprecedented. And that’s why David Stern and Adam Silver are mentally high-fiving.
WINNER: LeBron James
His numbers during those 27 wins: 27 points per game, eight assists, eight rebounds, 58 percent shooting. He made every necessary adjustment to turn himself into one of the most efficient all-around players ever, as Kirk Goldsberry brilliantly described on Grantland today. And he remains the league’s most versatile defender, someone capable of handling everyone from Chris Paul to Tim Duncan (and doing it well). So there’s that.
By winning his fourth MVP award in five years, he joins Bill Russell and … oh, wait, that’s it. Only two guys have ever done it. So there’s that, too.
If you’re judging the greatest five-year runs in NBA history by MVP awards (at least three), titles (at least two) and something loosely defined as “superiority crossed with a career apex,” then LeBron only needs to win the 2013 title to join Russell (1961-65), Bird (1984-88), Magic (1987-1991) and Jordan (1988-92)3 in the Five for Five Club that I just made up. So there’s that.
And then there’s this …
I did a podcast on Monday with the great Bob Ryan, who’s the closest thing we have to an NBA savant right now. Ryan was the one who created the Alien Game — if aliens landed on Earth and challenged us to one game for the future of the planet, and you could pick any five guys from any point in history to defend us, who would you pick? We both had the same picks before this season: We’d build the team around Bird, Magic and MJ, with Tim Duncan as the power forward, and either Kareem, Russell or Walton as the centers (depending on what kind of team you wanted). For the record, LeBron and Scottie Pippen were always my first two guys off the bench in this game. You know, assuming the aliens allowed us to have a bench.
Well, guess what? Not only did LeBron hijack Duncan’s spot … it’s not even a debate. You would have to be a moron to have the team without LeBron James. Give me 1986 Bird, 1987 Magic, 1992 Jordan and 2013 LeBron and I don’t care who’s playing center. For the record, I’d pick 1977 Walton as my center just in case the aliens had a 7-foot-6 monster or something, but really, you could give me Russell, Kareem, Parish, Mutombo, Ewing … I don’t care. I’m beating the aliens with those other four guys. They would figure out how to win. They would.
That’s how I feel right now, on March 29, 2013, two days after the NBA’s second-best winning streak of all time. Three months from now, I might feel differently. But I doubt it.