MIAMI — The Miami Heat were rewriting NBA history with how they closed the regular season and entered the playoffs. But now they’re in jeopardy of making history in a not-so-great way.
Could the Heat go down as the best team ever to not win the NBA championship?
Trailing the NBA Finals 3-2 to San Antonio, Miami must win two games at home to claim a second straight crown. If not, an outfit that went 66-16 during the regular season, including winning 37 of its last 39 games, stunningly would head into the offseason without the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“If the Heat don’t win it, I think you could say they’re the best team not to,” said Brooklyn guard Jerry Stackhouse, who played with Miami the first part of the 2010-11 season when the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had just joined forces. “Just with how dominant they were in the regular season and coming off a championship.”
The 17-year veteran knows a bit about a team that put up a gaudy regular-season victory total and didn’t win the title. He was on the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, who went 67-15 before being stunned in the first round of the playoffs 4-2 by Golden State.
Of the 15 previous NBA teams that won 65 or more games in a season, just three didn’t claim the championship. The others were the 1972-73 Boston Celtics, who went 68-14 but fell 4-3 to New York in the Eastern Conference finals, and the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers, who went 66-16 before losing 4-2 to Orlando in the East finals.
If the Heat don’t win the next two games, they would become the fourth team with 65 or more wins to come up short. And James, the star of the Cavaliers four years ago, would become the first player to have been on two such teams.
“Once you get to the playoffs, everyone is zero and zero,” James said when asked what he learned from being on that Cleveland team. “You have to win four games to advance. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Mavericks won a meager two games in the playoffs in 2007 before fizzling. For that reason, Stackhouse said he can’t consider them a candidate for best team to have not won the title.
“No, because we didn’t even get out of the first round,” said Stackhouse, whose Mavericks, featuring Dirk Nowitzki, had gone 60-22 the previous season and blown a 2-0 Finals lead in losing 4-2 to Miami. “We just ran into a bad matchup (with the Warriors and their small ball).”
Some believed the Mavericks might have peaked too early during a regular season that included from December to March winning 37 of 39 games, then the best stretch of that length in NBA history. That was the same run Miami closed the regular season with, one that included a 27-game winning streak.
Once the playoffs started, the Heat’s stretch became even more impressive. They swept Milwaukee in the first round to have won 41 of 43 games, the best period of that many games played in NBA history. Then they beat Chicago 4-1 in the second round and Indiana in Game 1 of the East finals to make their run 46 of 49 games, the best stretch of that length in league history.
Since then, though, the Heat are just 5-6. They have to win Game 6 Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena and then a possible Game 7 there Thursday to save their season.
“If Miami doesn’t win it, they’ll be in that category,” Tom Sanders, a forward on the 1972-73 Celtics, said of the Heat possibly becoming the best team that didn’t win the title.
There are some similarities to how Boston 40 years ago and this Miami team closed the regular season. The Celtics entered the playoffs having won 24 of 26 games and 15 of 16.
But soon disaster struck. After the Celtics dispatched Atlanta 4-2 in the first round and split the first two games with the Knicks in the East finals, star forward John Havlicek suffered a separated right shoulder in Game 3, which New York won. With Havlicek sitting out Game 4, the Knicks won to take a 3-1 lead.
The right-handed Havlicek returned for the final three games of the series, which then-Boston coach Tom Heinsohn said he played “left-handed.’’ Although the Celtics gallantly won Games 5 and 6 to tie the series 3-3, Havlicek was held to four points in a 94-78 Game 7 home loss.
“I think we were the best team (ever) that didn’t win the title,” Heinsohn said. “We would have won it (if Havlicek didn’t get hurt). He was in his prime at that time. It would have been comparable to a LeBron now going down in the playoffs or Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan (for the Lakers and Bulls, respectively, during previous title runs). That’s how important he was to us. And we were really cruising (entering the playoffs).”
Heinsohn said the 1972-73 Celtics were a perfect blend of experience, with Havlicek, Paul Silas and Don Nelson, and young stars, with Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White. Even if the Heat lose these Finals, he doesn’t see them supplanting that Boston team as the best team to have not won the championship. Neither does Cowens.
“Well, we had the best record that didn’t win it and they won two less,” said Cowens, the NBA Most Valuable Player in 1972-73, said about regular-season marks. “Losing John was like if LeBron or Dwyane Wade was hurt for their team (although Wade has been bothered by a sore knee). We had a very good cast of characters that season.”
If the Heat don’t come back on the Spurs, at least there could end up being one consolation. Heinsohn said the Celtics used their 1973 loss as motivation in winning the title the next season. They then claimed another in 1976.