PHILADELPHIA — Playing on the second night of a back-to-back is always a challenge, especially when you’re playing 1,000 miles from where you played the previous night.
That challenge almost got the Miami Heat on Wednesday, almost stopped their winning streak at 19 games and almost gave the Philadelphia 76ers and their fans one night of glory in what has been a pretty miserable season.
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Before Wednesday, NBA teams were 192-250 (.434) on the second night of a back-to-back this season, and 120-178 (.403) in those games when their opponent was rested (like the Sixers were).
But the Heat are not a normal team, and they’re now 8-1 in the latter situation after holding on to beat the Sixers 98-94 and extend their winning streak to 20 games, tied for the third longest streak in NBA history.
The champs had the game in hand on a couple of occasions. A 17-2 second-quarter run seemed to be enough to KO a Sixers team that has twice lost to the Orlando Magic in the last couple of weeks. It wasn’t, but the Heat were still up by 10 points early in the fourth. And that’s when fatigue clearly set in.
Over the next 10 possessions, visibly lacking energy, the Heat turned the ball over five times and missed four jump shots, allowing the Sixers to come back and take a three-point lead with 4:38 to go in the game.
But then the Heat dug down and clearly made it a priority to get into the paint. On next possession, Chris Bosh posted up and hit a short jump hook. Then LeBron James forced a foul on a baseline drive. Then James drove again and found Ray Allen for a right-wing 3 that put the Heat back ahead. Another Bosh drive, more James free throws and a crucial tip-in by Dwyane Wade (off a James drive) were the difference down the stretch.
The Heat had 18 points in the paint or at at the free throw line in the fourth quarter, and 13 of those 18 came in the final 4:15, when they clearly didn’t have the legs to succeed from the perimeter.
“I didn’t ask, but I’m sure the guys felt a little bit of fatigue,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward. “But when you don’t fully have your legs and you’re coming off of a road trip like that, you just have to find a way to gut it out together.”
Maybe if there wasn’t a historical winning streak on the line — the 20 straight is now the longest by a defending champion — the Heat might not have been able to summon up the energy, both mental and physical, needed to close out this game. They’re clearly taking pride in the streak, and that’s keeping them sharp.
Without the streak, there might not be much to care about over the final five weeks of the regular season. The Heat have defeated every other team in the league at least once already, and they’ve basically wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
So, if opponents give the Heat a tougher contest than they might had Miami lost one or two of these last 20 games, and if more of these games go down to the wire it can only be beneficial.
“Sitting in my chair, I hate it that we get double-digit leads and then it comes to that,” Spoelstra said. “But when it does come to that, all of these experiences help you. We’ve been in a lot of late-game situations where we’ve had to find different ways to win. And those experiences will be needed in the postseason.
“You always want to see how your team will respond, if there will be the resolve, the toughness, the cohesiveness, the connection when there’s a little bit of adversity. And our guys did respond.”
The streak now moves on to Milwaukee, where the Heat have lost two of their last three games, including their previous visit there this season on Dec. 29. Sunday’s game in Toronto is a 1 p.m. start, and you never know how NBA players are going to perform that early in the day. Then comes a visit to Boston, where the Heat are 0-5 in regular season games since James took his talents to South Beach.
So it will take a lot more mental resolve to get the streak to 22 or 23 games. Shane Battier has been there before, having won 22 straight with the 2007-08 Houston Rockets. And he knows there’s a clear difference.
“That was so different, because that streak was pretty organic,” Battier said. “It came out of left field and no one could explain it. We couldn’t explain it. It was a bunch of journeymen and role players doing it.”
Those Rockets knew they weren’t winning a championship that season. For the Heat, anything less than a second straight title would be a huge disappointment. So while the streaks are about equal in length, they’re much different in meaning.
And rather than the highlight of the season, this streak can be a means to an end in its ability to build character and resolve for when the games really count.
“We have bigger goals,” Battier said. “It’s cool to win 20, but our main goal is still ahead of us.”