ORLANDO – Your turn, Chicago.
Maybe you can do what hasn’t been done for a staggering 27 straight games, and stop the freight train that is the Miami Heat. The Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic — all members of the Eastern Conference lottery mafia — tried their best to derail the Heat’s plans to surpass the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ record 33-game win streak.
Maybe another playoff team, catching the Heat on the second game of a four-game road trip after two straight games missed by All-Star shooting guard Dwyane Wade (sore knee), can finally solve the Heat riddle?
That Wednesday night showdown with the Chicago Bulls at the United Center doesn’t look so daunting after all, not when LeBron James is a part of the festivities. He started slow but wound up one rebound shy of a triple double (24 points and 11 assists) in the 108-94 win over the Magic on Monday. The Heat always have a chance to walk out of an arena a winner with King James on the court.
Even on a team without Wade, James serves as the perfect catalyst for a veteran team filled with specialists who are comfortable with their roles. In addition to the shine of their stars, the Heat have shown off that depth during the streak.
“That is what this team is built around,” James said, being generous, of course, since this team is built around him and Wade and fellow All-Star Chris Bosh. “A lot of depth and veterans, guys that know that when someone is out then guys are going to be able to step in. That feeling that D-Wade was out was like, ‘okay, now it’s time for someone to step up,’ which we know we are capable of doing so.”
As much as this streak is about the Heat and their record chase, this is about the other teams (10 who don’t have as many wins on the season as the Heat have in the streak) deciding who among them will step forward and end this thing.
The Heat can’t suffer through their usual first half swoon and climb out of a double-digit hole against a lunch pail crew like the Bulls, who will no doubt be amped-up for a chance to punch a hole in the Heat’s cosmic ride.
And that Friday night tilt in New Orleans looks a whole lot tougher after the Hornets ended the Denver Nuggets’ 15-game win streak tonight in a 110-86 waxing at New Orleans Arena.
Motivation is great, a fine tool to work with for any ambitious team. But, again, is it going to be enough to beat the Heat?
Those who have tried and failed know better.
“They move the ball so effortlessly,” Pistons coach Lawrence Frank said. “They have great trust in each other. The way that ball moves from one player to the next is very, very impressive. And, defensively, they’ve always been top-shelf. They combine great athleticism, effort, technique and commitment. You know what they’re going to do and it doesn’t matter because they put great effort and intensity into it. The next step that they’ve taken is they’ve got great trust in each other.”
In the two games Wade has been out, James has scored 56 points to go along with 21 assists, showcasing the Heat’s share-the-ball mentality.
It looks just as impressive from other side of the conference divide, where the reigning NBA champs will remain the hunted, even for those teams that don’t have a chance to snap the streak.
“It’s hard to win basketball games in this league, and to win ’em in a row is even harder, and over 20 is really tough. So, we don’t have any hate in our blood over here, we give respect when it’s due,” Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant said. “But I would say we’re not worried about what they’re doing. It’s just that all we’re focused on is us. But every time you turn on the TV you here it and once you really sit back and look at it, it’s impressive.”
The Thunder battled the Heat in The Finals last year and know exactly how tough a team Miami is. But they only get two cracks at the Heat during the regular season (and went 0-2 against them).
Thunder coach Scott Brooks has an appreciation for what the Heat are doing because he coaches a team that’s arguably just as talented as the Heat. OKC has put together four different stretches this season where they’ve won at least five straight games, including an 11-game streak from November 24 through December 20.
“I’ve never seen it in my lifetime,” Brooks said. “I mean, I know the Lakers did it in the ’70s, but I wasn’t following the NBA in the early ’70s. But, just to do what they’re doing now with the parity that we have in the league, it’s pretty amazing.
“There are so many games that you have to have everything go right to win. The travel, the back-to-backs, the injuries you have to overcome, the foul trouble, the turnovers — just everything about it, and to win  straight games, give them credit because they have the mental ability to have the mindset to do that night in and night out. That’s just pretty phenomenal.”
What Brooks calls “phenomenal” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls a part of the process.
The showdown with the Bulls is simply the next stop on this “business trip” for the man who collected his 250th win Monday night.
“Look, we haven’t changed and I know our storyline is probably a little bit too boring for you guys,” Spoelstra said. “You guys have a job to do. We have a job to do. One of the things when we first put this team together, you heard it all the time, was that we would stay disciplined to the process. And everybody wants to speed it up, that first year started with talk about The Finals and three, four, five, six and all that.
“That’s the most dangerous thing you can do, not only in pro sports, but in life. You start living ahead of an unknowable future when the most important time is the present time, right now. We’re not trying to take this for granted. It’s a special opportunity for this group, but you honor this opportunity by staying in the moment.”
The lights will be bright in Chicago, the moment immense with win No. 28 hanging in the balance. And, be it strictly business or just a part of the process, all due respect to Spoelstra — there’s no denying that this streak has stumbled into phenomenal as we get closer and closer to No. 33.