For four decades, there was no reason for members of the record-setting 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers to be nervous.
Since the Lakers had their magical 33-game winning streak, only one team had gotten to even 20 straight. Houston reached 22 in 2007-08, but nobody thought the Rockets, who had lost star center Yao Ming to a season-ending injury midway through their run, seriously could challenge that NBA record.
Now, it’s different. Here come the mighty Miami Heat, who won their 20th straight Wednesday and are showing no signs of slowing down.
“It is certainly a possibility that the Heat could break our 33-game winning streak,” said Bill Sharman, the Hall of Fame coach of those legendary Lakers. “The record has held for 41 years, and all of us that participated in it are very proud to have been part of that season. However, (Heat president) Pat Riley has put together an amazing team, and I have to admit this one makes me a little nervous.”
Riley was a reserve guard on those Lakers, winning his first of eight championship rings as a player, assistant coach, head coach and executive. Now, Riley, after putting together in 2010 the Heat’s tremendous trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, is putting some pressure on his old team.
That includes a guy he once backed up.
“I’d say this is the most serious challenge we’ve had to our streak,” Hall of Fame guard Gail Goodrich, the leading scorer on the 1971-72 Lakers with a 25.9 average, said of the Heat. “I think they’ll make a very, very, very serious run at our record, They might even break it. They’re head and shoulders over the rest of the NBA. Who’s going to beat them? There’s not as much parity in the league now.”
Yes, Miami still has a long way to go. But Goodrich figures San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the only teams that can defeat the Heat (49-14) when they’re focused. Miami is done this season with the Thunder, but does play at San Antonio on March 31.
By then, the streak could be at 29.
“Sure, I’d like to keep the record,” Goodrich said. “But I’m not going to root against the Heat.”
The same goes for Sharman. A key reason is Riley, who was a hard-working and popular player who averaged 6.7 points in 1971-72.
“If they break the record, I would be happy for Pat Riley,” Sharman said. “But, naturally, part of me wants to hold onto that record a little bit longer.”
With a gritty 98-94 win Wednesday at Philadelphia, the Heat became just the fifth team in league history to have won 20 or more consecutive regular-season games.
The first was the now-defunct Washington Capitols, who under eventual coaching legend Red Auerbach won their final five games in 1947-48 and their first 15 in 1948-49. Then came the 1970-71 Bucks, who reeled off 20 in a row to set what was then the NBA single-season record.
The mark didn’t even last a year. But at least the Bucks got a little revenge when they were able to snap the Lakers’ 33-game streak with a 120-104 win Jan. 9, 1972 in Milwaukee.
And where do the Heat play next? On Friday, they’re at Milwaukee, where that Lakers streak went up in flames in one of the most-hyped NBA regular-season games of that era and where they can pass the Bucks and into sole possession of the third-longest streak ever.
“I think they could have trouble in Milwaukee because the Bucks are streak breakers,” said Jon McGlocklin, a guard on the 1970-71 Milwaukee team that won the title with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Roberson and who is now a Bucks television analyst.
McGlocklin said Bucks coach Jim Boylan has been aware all week of the Heat being in position to move ahead of Milwaukee in the NBA history books. So it will be seen if Boylan has any special pre-game words for his team.
“The coaches might have a win-one-for-the-Gipper speech before the game,” said Bob Dandridge, a forward on the 1970-71 Bucks.
Regardless of what happens Friday, the Heat already have done something very impressive. It’s a feat so special McGlocklin said it’s written on his team’s championship rings.
“They say, ’20 straight,”‘ McGlocklin said. “People will look at my ring and say, ‘What does that mean?’ And I’ll tell them about the streak.”
Of the four previous 20-game streakers in NBA history, only the Lakers and Bucks went on to win the title. The Lakers, also featuring Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, cruised to a then-record 69-13 regular-season record before claiming the team’s first championship in Los Angeles. The Bucks went 66-16 before winning what remains the only title in team history.
The Capitols ended up losing in the 1949 Finals. And the Rockets couldn’t even get out of the first round of the playoffs following a 55-27 season that featured their crazy streak.
“That was the most lightning-in-a-bottle moment of my career,” said Heat forward Shane Battier, who was on the 2007-08 Rockets and Wednesday became the first player in NBA history to be on two teams that had winning streaks of 20 games or more. “That came out of nowhere… It was the most out-of-left-field run I’ve ever been part of… We weren’t a championship team because of our injuries.”
But the Heat are the defending champions and they’re playing now as if they don’t want to lose another game through June. True, they’ve had some struggles during the streak against lightweights Cleveland, Sacramento, Orlando and Philadelphia. But they’ve been dialed in for the 10 games during the streak against teams in line to make the playoffs, having won them by an average margin of 12.4 points.
Goodrich, who lives in Connecticut, attended Miami’s March 3 game at New York and was very impressed with how the Heat stormed back from a 16-point deficit to win 99-93.
“They can turn it on when they want to,” Goodrich said. “LeBron is incredible… They played Indiana (last Sunday) and Indiana is the second-best team in the East and I thought they could give them a game. They blew them out (105-91). They’re dominating.”
Still, Goodrich said it won’t be easy for the Heat to pass the Lakers because all it takes is one night of “going through the motions” and that’s the end of the streak.
The Lakers had few nights in 1971-72 when they weren’t on their game. Their average margin of victory during the streak was an incredible 16.0 points. They won 23 of the 33 games by 10 points or more.
The Heat have won their 20 games by an average of 11.4 points. They’ve had 12 victories by 10 or more points, although that includes a 141-129 double-overtime win over the Kings on Feb. 26.
Riley wasn’t available for comment following his team’s 20th straight victory. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said before Wednesday’s game it’s never been brought up in a conversation with Riley about the Heat going after the Lakers’ mark.
“That streak, I don’t think ever will be broken,” Riley said in an interview last year with FOX Sports Florida.
Whether Riley has since changed his tune is not known. But at least two pivotal figures off the 1971-72 Lakers believe the Heat are serious challengers.