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It is said that NBA players often get bored during the season, because it is just so LONG. It's rare to see any NBA player stay locked in for a full 82 games. There are unpublished injuries, long travel schedules, crazy personal lives, and just the overwhelming potential for monotony in six straight months of playing an NBA level game every other day. Old players have to save themselves for the playoffs because physically they just can't sprint the whole season anymore. Young players sometimes try to sprint the season and end up hitting a wall around January. Players on good teams coast until the playoffs. Players on bad teams check out by the All-Star break, unless they have something to prove to earn their job for the next season (either on their team or on another). A good coach can get a bad team to play hard every night, but they rarely win much so those teams just become known as "scrappy," and we don't pay much attention.
It requires a perfect storm to see a really good team play hard every night. It usually requires a charismatic leader, a group of players staying healthy and locked in, and something specific to play for. In 1996, the Bulls, pushed by an obsessed Michael Jordan that was incensed by perceived disrespect after getting bounced in the 1995 playoffs, played hard for the entire season and rolled out an NBA record 72-win season. The 2008 Celtics had a similar motivation and beasted the league for half a season, then scaled back when their older players started having twinges of injury. There are some other examples through the years, but they are few and far between and the result is generally something historic.
Right now, the 2013 Heat have entered that zone.
The Heat seemed to be bored, or at least apparently not playing to potential, for the first few months of the season. But at the end of January a few things happened:
They lost a nationally televised game to an old nemesis in double-overtime; Dwyane Wade started getting healthy legs under him for the first time all season; and they started having fun together as a team, finally off of the post-championship hangover as they recalled how enjoyable it was to beat up on inferior teams.
But most importantly, their transcendent and charismatic team leader went NUTS. LeBron James, who at that point in the season seemed to be wrapped in a two-horse race with Kevin Durant for league MVP, opened up about three extra gears in his game and decided to blast everyone in the NBA out of his path. He unveiled both his post-game and his perimeter-game at full blast at the same time, which is just patently unfair in a 6-9 super behemoth with Allen Iverson speed and Magic Johnson court vision.
LeBron personally willed the team to a handful of victories. Wade started remembering that he used to be a superman too, and he started playing like he was five years younger. And the wins kept coming. Ray Allen, who had been ice cold, remembered how to shoot. And the wins kept coming. The team started having a blast, making ridiculous Youtube dance videos that went viral. And the wins STILL kept coming.
Then suddenly you look up, and the Heat are sitting there as one of only four NBA teams ever with 20 straight wins and the very real possibility of catching the all-time record of 33 straight wins that has stood for more than 40 years.
And you know what's happened? Suddenly, the Heat are NOT bored. They are flying around the court every game. Everyone that gets in the game is energetic and productive. That translates into their fantasy production, as both LeBron and Wade are ranked in the top-6 over the last month according to Yahoo! and they have four other rotation players in the top-100.
Shane Battier was also a member of the 2008 Rockets team that currently owns the second longest win streak in NBA history at 22 games. He had a great quote about winning streaks not meaning much. Since those Rockets went on to lose in the first round of the playoffs, Battier told LeBron that all the '08 streak did was "got them up one spot in the Western Conference standings from sixth place to fifth."
For a fantasy owner of Heat players, though, I'd argue the opposite. The Heat are so far out in front for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference that it's ridiculous. They have a 9.5 game lead over second place with only 19 games to go and have already clinched a playoff spot. I'd argue that the only thing keeping the team from getting complacent and coasting down the stretch IS this win streak. If they lose, there's no reason not to spot-rest players or rev them back a bit so that they're fresh in the playoffs. For fantasy owners making their own late-season push, this would be terrible news.
In other words, if you own a Heat player, you WANT this streak to continue, you NEED this streak to continue (/Jack Nicholson). And as I look at the Heat schedule, they should be prohibitive favorites in eight of their next nine games before a potentially epic tilt in San Antonio on March 31st. The only other looming trouble spot happens on Monday, when the Heat play the Celtics. After all, the Heat's last loss was to these same Celtics back on January 27. And the Celtics have a streak of their own, which will be sitting at 13 straight wins at home if they can get by the Bobcats in Boston.
And for those that like historical symmetry, the 2008 Celtics featuring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce ended the 22-game win streak of the Rockets on March 18, 2008. If the Heat win their next two games, they'll enter Boston with a 22-game win streak in tow on March 18, 2013, exactly five years later, to once again face a hot Celtics squad led by The Big Ticket and The Truth.
For owners of Heat players, the last thing that you want to see on Monday is someone turning the Jack-Nicholson-Few-Good-Men voice back on and screaming "YOU can't HANDLE the Truth!"
It shapes up to be a fun game.
Around the League
Kobe's ankle/Pau's knee: It should have surprised no one that Kobe Bryant was back on the court Friday without missing a single game with his ankle injury. That has been Kobe's MO for his whole career, and there was just no way he was going to miss such a big game. On the other hand, Kobe had to leave the game after playing the whole first quarter and didn't return, which suggests that he is still dealing with the issue. The Lakers were still able to win in Indiana without him, which is impressive, and bodes well for their ability to handle the Kings on Sunday whether Kobe plays or not. If Kobe were to have to miss an entire game to this injury, it would seem that the Kings would be the opponent for him to sit out against.
Dwight Howard (20 points, 12 boards, 4 blocks and 4 assists) led the way against the Pacers and seems to be the man if Kobe is out. On the other hand, Pau Gasol is expected to return to action as soon as Sunday, and we still have yet to see Howard and Gasol perform at a high level together this season. But Gasol is expected to return to the starting lineup upon his return, and Howard seems to be getting progressively healthier, so perhaps they will finally find their synergy together Ö especially if Kobe isn't on the court.
Melo's knee: As I noted last week, there is a lot of mystery surrounding Carmelo Anthony's knee. He just got it drained, and the reported story continues to be that there is no structural damage in the knee, so hopefully he will be back soon. He is questionable for Sunday's game against the Clippers, and with the Knicks currently winless three games into their five game West Coast swing, you have to feel that Melo will get back onto the court as soon as he is able.
Love's hand: Kevin Love had his injured hand examined on Wednesday, but he was not cleared to begin contact work. This puts his soonest return time estimate at three weeks, which means, at best, an early April return. I have understood and even sometimes encouraged stashing Love for a potential playoff run, but at this point, it's probably best to cut bait. And Love has even admitted that there's a chance he won't return at all this season.
Rose's peace of mind: According to both the doctors and Derrick Rose himself, his knee is fully healthy now. But Rose doesn't have confidence in the knee yet, and he doesn't plan to return to game action until he is comfortable enough to play without thinking. Unfortunately, there is still no timetable for when that might be. Rose could be back at any given time, but he also do what he threatened to and sit out the season. Unlike Love, if you have Rose you probably don't want to cut bait because there's no physical reason for him not to come back. But it sucks royally to just continue to get a goose-egg from that roster spot while you wait for him to find his groove.
Cousin's reliability: When DeMarcus Cousins elbowed Mike Dunleavy in the back of the head on Sunday, I expected him to have to miss a game due to suspension. Instead, he has missed a game due to a thigh injury he suffered in a previous collision with Dunleavy. It's probably too late at this point for you to move Cousins, so at this point his unreliability "is what it is." But man, is he a maddening mix of ridiculous skill and complete unpredictability.
Tweet of week ñ Horford vs. Aldridge: @jclooch tweeted me this question (follow me @ProfessorDrz) on Wednesday: "@ProfessorDrz For keepers for next year, do you think it would be better to keep Aldridge or Horford?" LaMarcus Aldridge is a great young player, but I think the answer here is Al Horford. I've long felt that Horford was one of the best young bigs in the NBA, just without the fanfare. This year the talent has been spilling over, and I think superstardom is right around the corner.
Tobias Harris (50% owned in Yahoo! leagues): Harris was in this space two weeks ago, and deserves to be there one more week. He's averaging 15.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and 1.2 treys in 30 minutes in the 10 games since landing in Orlando, and he has started the last three games.
Gerald Henderson (44% owned): Henderson has been on a hot stretch lately, averaging 24 points on 49% from the field and 96% from the line in his last three games. He doesn't do anything except score, but if he continues to play up near 20 ppg, he's worth an add.
Martell Webster (31% owned): Webster has been playing very well in Bradley Beal's (ankle) absence, averaging 15.5 points and 3.5 treys over his last four outings. Beal is day-to-day and should return soon, but Webster may have played himself into a larger shooter role even after Beal returns. Consider him an extra short-term add that's worth a wait-and-see once Beal returns.
C.J. Miles (17%): Miles continues to be instant offense and long-range shooting in his role off the bench for the Cavs. And with Kyrie Irving out, possibly for the long haul, Miles has been called upon for a more consistent scoring role.
Jonas Valanciunas (15%): Valanciunas has scored in double-digits in four straight games, and with Andrea Bargnani down for the year his minutes should be steady moving forwards. He is also solid blocking shots, which is always in demand.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.