Posts Tagged ‘winning streak’

Facing Tough Task, Bulls Toughen Up


– This is the way a 27-game winning streak ends: With a lot of bangs and a few whimpers.

Undermanned almost beyond credulity, the Chicago Bulls stiffened defensively, tried to whack twice for every one they absorbed and toughed their way to a 101-97 upset over the Miami Heat that snapped the NBA’s second-longest streak of consecutive victories. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 33 in a row rests easy, which is more than can be said about Heat star LeBron James, who ended his night both battered and a little cranky.

The Bulls met arguably the NBA’s most imposing and unstoppable physical force with force of their own. Point guard Kirk Hinrich managed to grab the cow catcher, crash to the floor and live to tell about it when James barreled straight at him in the first quarter. In the fourth, Taj Gibson put James on the floor with a two-handed swipe as the Miami forward drove to the hoop. Initially and incorrectly ruled a flagrant foul, the refs got it right upon review but James didn’t appreciate going down, his legs twisted like a pretzel.

Moments later, James drove one of his massive shoulders into a screen set by Chicago’s Carlos Boozer. That one was a flagrant foul, a spill of frustration not so much that the streak was about to end – it was 90-82 with 3:52 left – but that he was getting abused in the process.

“I believe, and I know, that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays,” James told reporters afterward. “First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. … And you know, the last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground.

“Those are not basketball plays. It’s been happening all year and I’ve been able to keep my cool. But it is getting to me a little bit.”

First things first: No one can blame James for disliking the thumping. But what Chicago did apparently was within the bounds of Doc Naismith‘s game – OK, maybe Doc Lecter‘s – because none of the Bulls got tossed or ejected. Not that their depleted roster could afford any ousters.

“He probably got a little frustrated,” Gibson said. “But you got to keep playing. These are two physical teams. The refs did a great job, because they let a lot of stuff go.”

Besides, what were the Bulls supposed to do? The NBA’s hottest team in, sheesh, 41 years was bearing down on them. And they were light in the loafers – no Derrick Rose, no Joakim Noah, no Richard Hamilton, no Marco Belinelli. Absent those players and their skills, Chicago’s only real alternative was to dial up the grit.

“Obviously having those guys out is not easy,” said Hinrich, who stuck in his nose and jaw wherever he could, from attacking James off the dribble with some – ugh! – inevitable results to ripping the ball away from Chris Bosh for a critical takeaway at 92-85. “But we realize, collectively, if we share the ball, team defense, have good energy and intensity and play with that edge, we’re going to have a chance to win some games. … We just grinded.”

That play where he grabbed James and all but tackled him? “I was just hanging on for dear life. Just didn’t want him to get the ‘and 1,’ ” Hinrich said. “You just don’t realize how powerful that guy is. With his speed and strength you can’t take anything for granted. I still feel I got the worst of it.”

Hinrich, at times in the second half, found himself guarded by James, the bigger man’s extra six inches and 70 pounds or so eclipsing his view of the basket. So what did Hinrich do? He drove left and got snuffed. He drove right and got snuffed. Then with just over two minutes left, Hinrich went up the gut again – and kicked the ball to Gibson on the left baseline for a 16-footer that made it 94-85.

“Kirk is one of the toughest guys I know,” Gibson said. “He has so much swag every day in practice. He’s a real vet. He doesn’t shy away from anything. He’s always in the middle, especially on big men – he switches out with centers. He really doesn’t care.”

Miami, throughout its remarkable streak, had played numerous teams that were missing key players: Orlando (no Nikola Vucevic), Cleveland (no Kyrie Irving or Anderson Varejao), Milwaukee (no Luc Mbah a Moute to guard James), Boston (no Rajon Rondo or Kevin Garnett). The point of which isn’t to sully the Heat’s accomplishment but to marvel at how hard and well these various depleted rotations play when their coaches’ options are limited, their minutes are high, everyone’s expectations are muted and the opponent is toting around a huge bull’s-eye.

The Bulls claimed streak-busting had little or nothing to do with Wednesday’s outcome. They were driven more by the 86-67 hairball they spit up against Miami at United Center on Feb. 21, back when the streak was just nine games old.

Said Gibson: “We didn’t like that. We felt like we got punked on our own court. They blew us out.”

If the players that end such a streak get credit. so does the fellow who coaches those players. From the outside, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks to have painted another masterpiece of X & Overachievement. But while Hinrich acknowleged, “Yeah, he was fired up,” other Chicago players saw or heard nothing different from their guy on the sideline.

“Honestly, the dude is the same every game,” said forward Luol Deng, who scored 28 points and made the most of those reprieves when James shifted over to Hinrich. “No matter who you’re playing. I didn’t see any difference. He’s intense. He’s always focused.”

It was that way for both teams Wednesday, but the only way out for the Bulls.

“We just came in with that dog mentality that we weren’t going to go soft,” Gibson said. “We really had it in the back of our head. Once the game came, we knew we had to do it. There was no talking. Guys just understood, to go out there and play hard. Take hard fouls when you need to.

“Every time we play that team, we try to send a message. They sent the message the last game we played them. So we had to keep pushing. Every time to play this team, it’s like a new testament.”

Comebacks Becoming Unlikely Norm As Miami Keeps Its Win Streak Afloat


CLEVELANDSpillage on the floor. Fan on the floor. Remarkable on the floor.

The Miami Heat, in a clawback worthy of Bernie Madoff prosecutors, scrambled back from looming defeat Wednesday at The Q with a 98-95 victory that pushed their consecutive winning streak to 24 games.

To get there, the Heat entertained, delighted, tormented and ultimately conflicted the sellout crowd at LeBron James‘ former house. Their old hero from Akron did once again – 25 points, 12, rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, two blocks – what he had do so many times before on that court. But James was doing it to them rather than for them. Eventually the crowd settled into an audible pattern of booing his touches, cheering his highlights.

Afterward, though, Miami knew it had flirted again with failure. The streak had survived, but at a cost of so much effort and energy and desperation that legit doubts have been raised about its prognosis, nine short of matching and 10 short of breaking the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ 41-year-old record. In Game 5, on Day 7, at the end of a two-nation, two-time zone road trip, this was not what the Heat needed.

“It’s not a safe way to try to survive with this streak,” Shane Battier said, his feet submerged in ice water when it should have been his trigger finger cooling down. Battier’s three 3-pointers in the third quarter “kick-started,” James said, their team’s breathtaking comeback.

Down 67-40 – 67-40 – with barely seven minutes left in the period, Miami relied on hero shots by Battier, then Ray Allen and then James to catch and pass the Cavaliers. The Heat did it in a whoosh! – closing the gap completely in a span of about nine minutes. Inside the arena, the sounds from the stands added a nervous murmur; Cleveland players grew hesitant, with heavy legs and a hitch in their game that hadn’t been there moments earlier.

From the Cavs’ fattest lead to their deepest hole, they got outscored 58-28 by the defending champions. Stunning, sure. But it was gut-wrenching for Miami, too. James played 42 minutes. Dwyane Wade 38 and Chris Bosh 35. If they were going to try to win the game with one half tied behind their backs, they should have nailed down the first and sat through the second.

“It’s great that we showed resolve and heart, but we have to play better,” Battier said. “We have to play better from the first quarter. That’s the good news. We’ve won however many in a row and we still have room for improvement.”

That’s a half-full interpretation. But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knew his bag of coaching tricks was about empty when they saw that 27-point problem.

“At first I didn’t know what to say to our guys,” Spoelstra said. “I’ve been in games like that on the other side of it … What happened there in the third quarter wasn’t necessarily a designed offense, it was just those guys being great and making big shots.”

Battier recently talked about the 22-game winning streak he was part of in Houston in 2007-08 and how a draining performance in No. 22 left the Rockets staggered for the one that ended it. Now Miami has stacked up two such games in 48 hours, thanks to scraping through the draining, down-17 victory at Boston Monday. At this rate, it won’t take Chicago (in what could be No. 28 of the streak) or San Antonio (No. 30) to end it; after what the Cavs almost did, the Pistons, Bobcats and Magic ought to be emboldened. This is going to get harder before it’s over, or it might just get over.

“It’s been two games in a row where we got off to the type of start that we didn’t want to,” Spoelstra said. “That’s because we’ve been playing on our heels and catching teams [playing] more aggressive. [It took] some embarrassing minutes and down 27 for us to change our position.”

What would have been a memorable night in Cleveland might end up as a forgettable performance elsewhere for Miami. You almost think they’d be better off staring straight at the streak, admitting that it matters and going hard after it for its own sake. Sneaking up on it like it’s a happy by-product of “the process” is catching up with them.

“When we so-called flip a switch,” Battier said, “we finally say, ‘Y’know what, we have to play hard. We have to play with more concentration. We have to play with more effort.’

Again, it’s not a very safe way to survive in this league. It will take a more consistent effort than being able to turn on the jets.”

Battier’s Speechifying Gets Credit In Sparking ‘The Streak’

No one can say for certain when the Miami Heat’s 21-and-counting streak of consecutive victories is going to end. But everyone knows when and where and against whom it started: a 100-85 cruise over the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre on Feb. 3 that the Heat broke open in the second half to bump their record to 30-14.

Miami is back there Sunday, clearing a much gaudier 50-14 through customs this time. Unless the Raptors, who haven’t beaten a playoff-bound team in nearly a month, pull off something thoroughly unexpected, the Heat will tie the 2007-08 Houston Rockets for the NBA’s second-longest winning streak. From No. 22, it’s a clear path – 11 games (seven on the road) and 10 opponents (Charlotte twice) – to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. For perspective on its durability, that 33-game streak of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West & Co. has lasted longer than the span between Babe Ruth‘s 714th home run and Henry Aaron‘s 715th.

Heat upcoming schedule
Day Date Loc. Opponent Time (ET) TV
Sun. 3/17 @ Toronto 1 p.m. League Pass
Mon. 3/18 @ Boston 8 p.m. ESPN
Wed. 3/20 @ Cleveland 7 p.m. League Pass
Fri. 3/22 vs. Detroit 7:30 p.m. League Pass
Sun. 3/24 vs. Charlotte 6 p.m. League Pass
Mon. 3/25 @ Orlando 7 p.m. League Pass
Wed. 3/27 @ Chicago 8 p.m. ESPN
Fri. 3/29 @ New Orleans 8 p.m. League Pass
Sun. 3/31 @ San Antonio 7 p.m. NBA TV

After the matinee in Toronto this time, win or lose, Miami will promptly wing its way to Boston for Monday’s game against the Celtics. Last time, though, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of them stuck around Ontario several hours longer, an unusual deviation from the standard NBA itinerary that led to an unscripted moment and, ever since, these extraordinary results.

What was so special? Shane Battier gave his “famous” speech.

That’s how Wade refers to it, anyway. And it’s moving up the charts fast to rank with the best of Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi and Norman Dale in terms of sports impact.

Remember, Feb. 3 wasn’t any ol’ Sunday afternoon. It was Super Bowl Sunday, pitting the Baltimore Ravens against the San Francisco 49ers, the No. 1 must-see sports event of the calendar for most red-blooded U.S. sports fans. Yet here the Heat sat up in Toronto, scheduled to fly home when they should have been sprawled and nacho-ed out on multiple couches like so many of their fellow citizens. Feeling a little cranky about it, too.

“We talked about how not being able to watch the Super Bowl,” veteran guard Ray Allen recalled Friday night in Milwaukee. “it wasn’t ‘the American Way.’ We were all disappointed because there was so much hype going into it. We wanted to see the game. The organization made it happen.”

Miami management arranged for the team to watch the game (Ravens 34, 49ers 31) at a sports bar in downtown Toronto. Good times flowed, even with the Heat facing a back-to-back wrap-up against Charlotte the next night. It was on the bus to the airport that Battier was moved to get to speechifying.

“It was in the spirit of the Super Bowl – a great game,” Battier said. “In the spirit of teamwork and camaraderie. … We have a saying around this club, ‘Touching the people.’ I was giving the people a soulful touch. It’s metaphorical. It’s very Zen-like.”

The more Battier was pressed for details, though, the cagier he became. As if revealing the content of his verbiage might sap it of the success it has generated, however coincidental it might be.

“You have to ask my teammates about the speech,” the veteran role player said, smiling and laughing. “I can’t give the same speech twice. It’s like a rainbow. Once it’s gone it’s gone. Let it be. That’s the beauty of it.”

Fair enough. So what was the speech about?

“Just touch the people,” forward Udonis Haslem said. “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.”

Oh, that speech…

It might seem a little disconnected, that a topic like “touching the people” would translate into the third-longest winning streak in league history. That a Kumbaya, I-love-you-man hoot on a charter bus might play a role in propelling the Heat to nothing but victories for the next 41 days and counting.

But it could be one of those “if the Miami players believe it made some difference, then it did” sort of things.

“That just brought us closer,” Haslem said. “We were never separated. We’ve always been connected as a group. But I think, definitely, doing things off the court only helps the relationships on the court.”

Said Allen: “Whether you want to say it’s coincidental or not, anytime you have an opportunity to have some team-bonding and building off the floor, it always bodes well in your favor.  Especially throughout the long season. You take every little break and opportunity you can.”

It doesn’t hurt that, in Battier, the Heat have one of the NBA’s most coveted “glue” players, a wily vet who does whatever is needed in the moment, no matter how grimy or thankless the task. During the streak, apart from his defense, the 6-foot-8 forward from Duke has averaged 8.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists, while shooting 52.8 percent from 3-point range. All his numbers are up compared to the season overall.

“He’s a big part of everything we do here,” Allen said of Battier. “Without guys like that, it’s hard to put together streaks like this, where you have consistency and habits and selflessness out there on the floor. He’s one of those guys who does the intangible things, so yeah, he does have a big part in it.”

It’s also more than a curiosity that Battier was a starter on the 2007-08 Rockets team that strung together those 22 victories. That makes him the only player in NBA annals to have played for two of the three teams with the longest winning streaks.

As Miami bears down on Houston in the No. 2 slot, Battier isn’t conflicted at all. “You live in the moment,” he said. “I look at what I’ve done in the past with a smile and a reminiscent kind of time, but I’m enjoying living right here, right now.”

Clearly he’s more than a good-luck charm in terms of winning streaks. Battier is a valuable piece of the Heat’s puzzle, same now as when he helped them win a championship last June.

And never forget, he’s a speech-giver. No, really: Battier is registered with the Washington Speakers Bureau, an agency that lines up pricey gigs for athletes, celebrities, business leaders, politicians, Nobel Prize winners and anyone else sought to entertain and inform a group.

In the WSB fee structure, Battier is a 4, which means he’ll typically be paid $15,000 to $25,000 per speaking engagement. He still makes more than that as an NBA player – his $3.135 million salary works out to about $38,231 per game – so it make sense that he threw the Heat a freebie that night in Toronto.

With results like this, though, it won’t be long before Battier’s podium price gets up there in Tom Brokaw-Frank Caliendo-Tony Blair territory. None of whom, it should be noted, ever won 21 in a row.