The victories keep piling up, 23 of them in a row now, and the milestones keep turning into blurred signs along the side of the freeway as the Heat blow past to build the second-longest win streak in history. This has been some party on wheels.
And this has been a unique emotional challenge. It usually is for Miami anyway, with opponents particularly amped to face the defending champs, only now beating the Heat would be even more of an occasion than usual. The next team to knock them off would own one of the biggest regular-season single-game outcomes in years.
What has emerged to sports psychologists, though, is that the Heat are not playing with a burden. If anything, they have looked smooth despite the extra burden, a very positive statement while ramping up for the playoffs, the actual pressure time.
Monday night in Boston was a double-win in that way. Not only did Miami rally from 17 points down to beat the Celtics in a difficult road environment, when the Heat could have walked away in defeat but feeling very good about all that had come before, but LeBron James had an insightful statement after No. 23, as quoted in the Miami Herald: “We grew again tonight and that’s big for our team.”
Nearing the end of the third regular season with the core of the roster together, with the invaluable experience of the 2012 title run in the bank, and they’re noticing growth from a March game against an opponent that won’t touch them in the playoffs.
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“When athletes are on a streak of any kind, the challenge is to keep their focus on the game at hand,” said Dr. Eddie O’Connor, a clinical sports psychologist in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a fellow and certified consultant through the Association for Applied Sports Psychology. “The context and pressure of winning/losing streaks can distract players from what is essential. So a streak could help or hurt, depending on is the athlete uses the streak to improve concentration or if it becomes a distraction.
“In much the same way, when teams are gunning for you, you have to be at your best. I work with athletes to ‘play to your own standard of excellence, not up or down to the level of your opponent.’ This develops a killer instinct against lesser opponents and establishes a performance routine of consistently playing at a high level. This attitude insulates players from putting forth effort based on expectations…. Having teams always challenging you can get you ready for playoff basketball. Again, the key is the athletes’ ability to focus on the moment and let go of distractions.”
Said Dr. Ross Flowers, a San Diego-based psychologist with an extensive background in sports and performance from kids to several United State national teams: “One of the things that can be great about it and is probably why they have this streak is because they’re performance focused. When you’re playing that well, there’s definitely a synergy. And from what I’ve seen and heard through the media sound bites, they’re well-connected. All their comments are about how well they’re playing together. It’s not about one individual, it’s about them working together as a team. I think that’s what we’re seeing. They’re performance focused. And so when there’s all this talk about a streak, they’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ But if they continue their focus on performance, that streak can go on through the title game.”
Can a streak of this length also become a burden?
“If they allow their attention to be about the streak and not about performance, absolutely,” Flowers said. “If it happens, we’ll see the play change. It will be more about LeBron taking every shot or Dwyane Wade taking every shot. That’s when things can become more of a problem, because it’s less about performance. It’s more about ‘Let’s make history.’
“I think there’s definitely pressure there. And it’s up to them as the professional athletes that they are to manage it by a singular focus: play the game. Let the commenting and the media and all the tweets happen after the game. But when they’re on the floor, focus on being consistent players.”