This Miami Heat team has always needed failure to help find and define how great it can be. And so, in the end, with its near-historic winning streak halted at 27, it’s true again: The Heat’s setback allows us and them to sit back, marvel at what they accomplished and fully grasp just how much LeBron James has transformed himself, his team and his league.
Two years ago, the Heat needed a devastating collapse to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals to cut through their own cluelessness and fear and find themselves, a fact particularly true for LeBron. Last season, in two postseason series against both the Pacers and Celtics, Miami needed to face dangerous deficits to tap into a version of LeBron James that lifted them to a championship and has since changed the league itself, because that version of LeBron is unlike anything we’ve seen in a generation.
And in the Chicago Bulls’ 101-97 victory Wednesday night, a win Chicago gutted out with rebounding and defense and willpower to best a superior opponent, let’s make no mistake. LeBron & Co. wanted desperately to best the 1971-72 Lakers’ 33-game winning streak. So being deprived of it could be the best thing that’s happened to Miami since winning the Finals last year.
This isn’t the end of something. It’s the beginning. It’s a Heat team that is what they were feared to be two years ago – dominant on a historic scale, loaded to the point of unfairness, so good even the record books might not be safe. Only now they are not universally loathed, they are not led by a prodigy who doubts his own destiny, they are not burdened by their own mistakes and arrogance … and they are refocused and hungrier than ever because they’ve been deprived a piece of history they were so tantalizingly close to claiming.
The 33-game mark is the greatest team record in American professional sports, and as the Heat approached it, their desire became palpable. Gone was the fear of failure, the inability to handle the moment, the sudden shrinking that chasing history often inflicts on ambitious men. This was the team we all feared, before the Big Three transitioned from a sure thing to a cautionary tale.
They got a championship last year. But that happens every season. This year, and these past 27 games, they are something else entirely, something we have rarely seen in the NBA.
For LeBron in particular, this streak gave him an early taste of the kind of history he may some day grapple with.
LeBron is chasing Michael Jordan now, and this record was a glimpse into how he will do it as the years and opportunities present themselves. Being the greatest ever takes time and championships and MVP awards and iconic moments seared into the greater consciousness, and LeBron must still attain quite a bit more of most of them just to get into the conversation. He is a once-in-a-generation talent for whom we can only try to guess what today’s exploits mean over the course of the rest of his career.
But this record was a rare chance to close his gap just a little quicker between himself and Jordan. It was a kind of history, a line on the GOAT resume, that offered us a glimpse into how LeBron will tackle history when history offers him the chance. Most of that will come piecemeal. But his 27-game streak was a microcosm of what we can expect from him – how he’ll handle it, how it will make him or break him, how he’ll hunger for it or cower from it.
Getting to 34 games would have been a crowning moment for LeBron. He knew. He craved. He wanted it. And through his greatness, he almost made it happen. His 32 points, seven rebounds and four blocks against Chicago are the numbers behind his passion on just one night. Time after time, as the streak grew and became more meaningful, he was the force behind it.
No, Thursday wasn’t failure. It was a respite from the fact that this Heat team is what they once were billed as: a nearly unstoppable force. The fact is that LeBron is what he was supposed to be: a player worthy of chasing Jordan – a player whose skills can be used to chase history of a kind rarely seen.
The Heat did not set the record. LeBron could not work his magic on this 28th attempt. The Chicago Bulls, in The House That Jordan Built, reminded us all just how daunting it is to confront all-time greatness.
But what we saw, in the streak while it lasted and the failure when it ended, is a Heat team that is as good as any we’ve seen since Jordan led his Bulls to 72 wins. And in LeBron a player who a few years from now may again close in on a different kind of history – one that he could overtake or, like Wednesday night, just fall short of – that few thought approachable even a year ago: Michael Jordan’s.