LeBron James holds it down (Getty Images)
When we last spoke about the Miami Heat’s 23-game winning streak, the idea that luck and timing could play as big a factor as opponent and talent was tossed out. The NBA works as an entertainment device, bent on sending teams around North America for 82 games in a five and a half-month turn, and as a result the best team doesn’t always win every night.
The Miami Heat, defending champions, are the NBA’s best team. This is why they’ve won 23 games in a row. The NBA record for consecutive wins is 33, set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, and if Miami keeps winning the Heat have a chance to break that record on April 9 when they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. The same Milwaukee franchise, you may have read, that stopped the Lakers’ streak some 41 years ago.
Can the Heat pull it off? Is it worth reeling those wins off, when attempting to defend a championship sometime in mid-June? And which David, on the Heat’s schedule, has the stones to pull off the eventual upset? Click the jump for the breakdown.
The Next Opponent
Miami takes on the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night, in one of those celebrated trap games that NBA observers love bringing up. Pointing out that “a trip to Cleveland on a Wednesday in March” is one of my favorite offseason literary devices when discussing the anonymity of most contests that don’t take place on TNT or ABC/ESPN. The Cavaliers are terrible again, stuck at 22-45 and on pace for 27 wins on the year – and that’s a pace that doesn’t take Miami’s visit into consideration, and the fact that Kyrie Irving may be lost for a long spell due to a left shoulder injury.
These are the Cavaliers that LeBron James once played for, though. The city that burned LBJ’s jersey during the summer of 2010, and the team James is rumored to be considering should he decide to explore free agency in the summer of 2014. James’ return to northern Ohio is an uncomfortable twice-a-year event that can’t help but stir the echoes of not only 2010’s Decision, but the 2003-2010 span that saw him as Cleveland’s hoped-for basketball savior.
FOX Sports’ Chris Tomasson, in a very good feature, talks up LBJ’s remarkable rookie year of 2003-04 under coach Paul Silas; a trying time that saw LeBron share the court with the notoriously flaky swingman Ricky Davis:
The mercurial Davis would later say about his stint with James, "I thought LeBron James was just going to be another addition to help me score.”
Silas wouldn't give any names. But he said that not long after James showed up in Cleveland, there were teammates who were critical of James when the 18-year-old could hear them.
"We had a few guys that would test him," Silas said. "They would say, ‘What has he done to warrant all this hype?' They would say it where he could hear them. There were some problems.
"LeBron got down a few times about it. Sometimes he would just be sitting there and not get up right away for shooting (during a practice). I'd come over and tell him, ‘You have to just forget about that. You can't worry about that. You're a professional.' But (the comments from his teammates) all went away when he started putting up numbers."
Tomasson goes on to point out that James, still in his teens and months after finishing high school, went on to shoot just under 42 percent in his rookie season. A relatively miserable mark, in comparison to his 55 percent run from the field during 2012-13, his tenth NBA season.
Which leads us to …
The Heat are also just .003 behind the 84-85 Lakers for the best Effective Field-Goal Percentage in league history (.551).
— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) March 20, 2013
If you are unfamiliar with eFG percentage, it’s probably because there is too much math involved – and we’re right there with you with crossed eyes and bad algebra grades. With the advances in long range shooting, and the importance of free throw attempts, it’s still the best way to accurately judge how well a team nails its shots, though. Basketball-Reference.com has a handy guide to sussing this out, if you’re interested:
Effective Field Goal Percentage; the formula is (FG + 0.5 * 3P) / FGA. This statistic adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal. For example, suppose Player A goes 4 for 10 with 2 threes, while Player B goes 5 for 10 with 0 threes. Each player would have 10 points from field goals, and thus would have the same effective field goal percentage (50%).
That Laker team, you may recall, won 62 games and the NBA championship. What’s interesting to note, as the NBA continues to evolve over the years, is that the Lakers ranked sixth in three-point shooting that season while making just 30.5 percent of its three-pointers. The percentage would rank them second-to-last in the modern NBA, just in front of a Minnesota Timberwolves team that is turning in one of the worst three-point shooting seasons in years. Los Angeles was far and away the best offensive team in the NBA that season.
The Heat are not tops in that area, merely ranking second in offensive efficiency. The team’s inability to create chances off of offensive rebounds – they rank 28th in offensive rebounding percentage – gets in the way of that top spot. Score one for James Worthy, here.
All through this streak, the Heat have been mailing in portions of games, letting crappy opponents hang around. It's a dangerous game, as far as the streak is concerned, that could go wrong at any time.
It has almost cost them games already. Even during the streak the Heat have almost lost to the Bobcats, Cavaliers and Magic, winning by five, four and one respectively. The mighty Sacramento Kings took the Heat to overtime. The broken-spirited 76ers had a lead in the closing minutes.
Those teams couldn't touch the Heat playing their best, but the Heat can't afford to do that very often.
This is no criticism of the Heat. Rather, it's a criticism of the NBA, where the schedule has never allowed coaches and players to do their best work night in and night out. It's physiologically impossible for the best players to perform their best all season long. We'd like this game to be about bringing your A-game every night. But that's really not how it is done. Never has been. Steve Nash's Phoenix years are a case study in this. He went hard every single night, and despite amazing training and diet, was gassed by the playoffs. The schedule simply won't allow full effort all season.
This echoes what we wrote last week. The Heat could watch it all go away in a second, and it wouldn’t have to be because some unheralded opponent played the game of its career.
Miami had a travel day “off” on Tuesday after the team took down the Boston Celtics, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t gassed after a draining and emotional win over the C’s. Miami said all the right things following that conquest, but some media reports relayed the noise of what was a raucous, playoff-level celebration in the Heat locker room taking place while coach Erik Spoelstra dutifully addressed reporters outside of its confines. If Miami treated that win over Boston as its mid-season championship, we understand – the Heat established the second-best NBA winning streak of all time, while taking down a nasty rival on enemy turf. That’s not to be dismissed.
This is why the Cleveland matchup is your classic trap game, even if Kyrie Irving is forced to watch in street clothes. Regular season NBA contests aren’t the same as seven-game playoff turns, because those marathons that usually lead to the best team winning. All Cleveland has to do is hope for a few missed free throws, and the chance to outscore Miami over the course of 48 quick minutes.
Will it happen? We doubt it, but it’s worth watching. The Streak could be just hours away from ending, or it could possibly shine on until mid-April. The Heat are that good, and the NBA is that weird.
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