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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Streak is Over but the Heat are Still the NBA's Best Team

A very determined, physical and well-coached Chicago team defeated the Miami Heat 101-97 last night, ending the Heat's 27 game winning streak. The Heat fell six games short of tying the 1971-72 L.A. Lakers' record 33 game winning streak, which is a reminder of just how great those Lakers were: a six game winning streak in the NBA is not easy to accomplish--the San Antonio Spurs, the team with the second best record behind the Heat this season, have only had two such streaks this season. In other words, the Heat were not quite as close to setting the record as some people suggested. Or, as Miami running back Mercury Morris said when the 2007 New England Patriots threatened to match the perfect record established by his 1972 Dolphins, "Don't call me when you're in my town, call me when you're on my block and I see you next door moving your furniture in."

This is not a criticism of the Heat at all--what they accomplished is tremendous--but it is interesting that when a player or team threatens an old school record we can gain a new, deeper appreciation for just how great the record-setting player or team really was. By the same token, it will probably be a long time before another NBA team matches the Heat's 27 game winning streak, so if that happens 20 or 30 years from now then young fans at that time will be reminded just how great the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Heat were. Wade looked like a declining player earlier this season but now it seems like he just needed some more time to recover from offseason knee surgery. He performed very efficiently during the winning streak, though his lack of durability is still an issue--he missed the two games prior to the Chicago loss due to a nagging knee problem. Chris Bosh is the most underrated great player in the NBA, a mobile, versatile and athletic weapon at both ends of the court. Bosh should be remembered as a key cog in Miami's attack but his greatness seems destined to be overlooked. Speaking of forming memories/commemorating greatness, you can find some great NBA-themed apparel and collectibles at Sports Unlimited; much of the rancor emanating from James' ill-conceived "Decision" has dissipated and we are now seeing James jerseys being proudly worn even during the Heat's road games, something that was almost inconceivable a year or two ago.

The Bulls beat the Heat by attacking them in the paint at both ends of the court, by making timely fourth quarter shots and by never backing down mentally or physically. Is that the blueprint for winning a playoff series against the Heat? Of course it is--but the problem for Heat opponents is twofold: (1) not many squads have the coaching and/or personnel necessary to execute that game plan and (2) in order to eliminate the Heat a team must execute that game plan four times in a seven game series.

The streak--and this season in general--showcased the emergence of a new LeBron James, one that we saw glimpses of during the 2012 playoffs. Simply put, James has no weaknesses now: he has improved his shot selection, he has fixed his once erratic outside shot and he has overcome the mental/psychological obstacles that prevented him from performing at his peak level in playoff series against elite teams. The Bulls seemed to get James off of his game a bit by repeatedly fouling him hard and teams will undoubtedly do that in the playoffs as well but James has faced a lot of physical contact throughout his career and he has generally kept his composure.

Even though the Heat did well during the 2012 playoffs with a small lineup--aided greatly by the fact that they did not have to face a team that had a dominant low post presence--I was initially skeptical that such a team could survive a full 82 game season plus a long playoff run; I am beginning to change my mind about that because the Heat have vastly improved their half court offense--which I can no longer call a "clown car" offense--and because their speed/energy/efficiency create enough extra possessions to compensate for their weaknesses in the post and on the glass. Also, LeBron James' greatness covers up a lot of flaws: he can play power forward on defense and point guard on offense, so his versatility essentially gives the Heat added roster depth. If the burden of doing so much work does not wear James down and if the Heat do not suffer an injury to a key player it is difficult to see a team beating them four times in a seven game series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:06 PM