(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
Losing game after game is nerve-racking, sure, but after a point, so is winning.
Seconds after the NBA’s second-longest winning streak was history, LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates walked off the floor solemnly in single file, their mood seemingly as dark as their black road jerseys. But moments later, inside the locker room, it was a different story.
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Players wore wry smiles while taping bags of ice to aching elbows, knees and feet. Those with both hands free wolfed down postgame meals from Styrofoam containers. Instead of the usual bravado about launching the next streak, or even promises about lessons learned, there was mostly relief.
One guy, though, refused to go along.
”We had everybody come in, put a hand on each other, and for the first time I mentioned the streak in front of the guys,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after the Chicago Bulls’ 101-97 win Wednesday night shut off the Heat streak at 27.
”It was a heck of an experience for us all to have together,” he added. ”We understand, probably moreso later on in our careers, the significance of that. We took that moment to acknowledge it, to acknowledge each other, that experience.”
And with that, Spoelstra was pretty much done reflecting.
”It was never about the streak,” he said. ”We have a bigger goal. … It’s about `Are we getting better?”’
It seems counterintuitive to ask how a team that won a championship last season and just breezed through the middle of their schedule like the Harlem Globetrotters is going to get better. That’s where Spoelstra comes in.
The 1971-72 Lakers team that still owns the NBA-best 33 in a row had Bill Sharman as coach and Wilt Chamberlain patrolling the middle, but the driving force was Jerry West, who didn’t reveal the true extent of his competitive jones until decades later, in a book. The 1995-96 Bulls squad that set the NBA-best regular-season mark at 72-10 was guided by Phil Jackson, who could afford to play the role of Zen master while Michael Jordan did the dirty work of pushing his teammates to their limit and beyond.
Miami has James and Dwyane Wade, cutthroats once the ball is in the air, but neither is as demanding as West nor combined, half as ruthless as Jordan. James, in fact, spent much of his time after the game savoring what had just slipped away. The anger that caused him to slam an elbow into Carlos Boozer’s chest trying to run through a pick just inside the 4-minute mark – James’ first flagrant foul since 2006 – had long since melted away.
”It’s one of the best that this league has ever seen,” he said. ”We recognized that and rightfully so.”
”We haven’t had a chance to really have a moment to know what we just did,” James said about the brief locker room tribute the Heat gave themselves. ”We had a moment, just very fortunate, very humbling and blessed to be part of this team and be part of a streak like that.”
Throughout the run, whether the victories ended in blowouts or with improbable late rallies, James got the lion’s share of the credit, and deservedly so. He ran the Miami offense more masterfully than Magic Johnson, scored more reliably than Jordan and handed out assists more incisively than Larry Bird. He and Wade played tenaciously enough on the other end of the floor to be all-NBA defenders.
But streaks this exceptional are stitched together in the days between games, too, at practices and morning shootarounds, where someone has to be cold enough to point out the flaws, and then respected enough to hold the attention of a dozen millionaires piling up superlatives at every turn. It’s then that Spoelstra does his best work, far enough from the cameras and microphones that he gathered less praise throughout the run than almost anyone else on the squad.
”His job isn’t just managing talents, it’s managing egos,” said forward Udonis Haslem, who’s been with the Heat since 2003, when Spoelstra was transitioning from the club’s video coordinator to an assistant on coach Pat Riley’s staff. ”He knows there’s nights when guys other than LeBron, Dwyane and Chris (Bosh) are going to have to step up. He sees the bigger picture.
”With the success he’s had, some guys might say, `This is the format, the blueprint. We’re going to continue this way,” he added. ”Not Spo. He is serious about that `Are we getting better?’ He almost shames guys into it, because of his work ethic, and because he comes in every day with a thing or two nobody else was even working on before.”
Where Spoelstra is going to unearth those lessons now is anyone’s guess. Certainly, the Heat have picked up a few bad habits of late: playing from behind early, standing around late and – like the rest of us – waiting for James’ spectacular play to bail them out.
Near the end of his session with reporters, Spoelstra was asked about whether the loss had provided closure.
”I think it was important for us to show gratitude to each other for that (streak), but now we have to move on. And it has to be about getting better. We have to own this,” he said. ”We’ll get to that in the next 48 hours.”
In that same hallway a half-hour later, James walked out in a natty suit, a wool beanie tilted jauntily to one side and embraced Luol Deng, the Bulls star whose 28 points on the night – 12 in the final quarter – effectively stopped the Heat’s comeback cold. They swapped stories and laughs, then James broke away and posed for a few pictures with fans before gathering up some friends and heading for the exit. His laughter echoed back down the mostly empty corridor.
If only for one night, he and his teammates seemed relieved to be out from under the burden, uninterested and unworried about the question, ”Are we getting better?”
But only because they knew the one man who can’t let it go would be challenging them to do just that a few times before their plane touches down for Friday’s game in New Orleans.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at twitter.com/JimLitke