It wasn’t long ago many on the Miami Heat were seemingly counting the days until the April 20 start of the playoffs.
Little did they know that come March, every game would feel like a playoff.
The same team that amazingly has reeled off 24 straight wins had a number of lackluster efforts early in the season. They lost, egads, at Washington and Detroit. They fell twice to New York by 20 points. They lost twice to Indiana by double digits.
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The second loss to the Pacers was 102-89 Feb. 1 in Indianapolis. But that’s the last time Miami was on the short end of a score.
The Heat still have some periods of disinterest, but it doesn’t doom them anymore. During their streak, they’ve come back from 14 points to beat Portland, 16 to defeat New York, 17 to top Boston, and then there was Wednesday.
The Heat fell behind by 27 points midway thorugh the third quarter at Cleveland. But they stormed back to win 98-95 to extend their streak to 24, second-longest in NBA history behind the Los Angeles Lakers’ 33-game run in 1971-72.
If you’re scoring at home, entering Wednesday teams that had fallen behind by 27 or more points in the second half had been 5-2,013 over the past 15 years.
“When we give the effort and the concentration, we can do some pretty amazing things,’’ Heat forward Shane Battier said.
What all this shows is the Heat are so good they really can turn it on whenever they want. That is quite scary for foes now, let alone for when the playoffs begin.
The Heat lost games earlier in the season in part because of a lack of incentive. After overcoming adversity and numerous naysayers to win the NBA championship last year, a major goal during the regular season was simply to be healthy once defense of their title began April 20.
Due to human nature, it’s hardly surprising that even teams that repeat as NBA champions often don’t have a better regular-season mark in years in which they repeat. That’s certainly been the case the past two decades.
When the Houston Rockets won consecutive titles in 1994 and 1995, they went 58-24 and then 47-35. When the Chicago Bulls claimed their three straight crowns from 1996-98, their best record during the stretch was 72-10 in the first year.
When the Lakers won three straight titles from 2000-02, their best mark was 67-15 in the first year. And when the Lakers went back-to-back in 2009 and 2010, they went 65-17 compared with 57-25 the following season.
When the Heat were 29-14 after the Feb. 1 loss at Indiana, they were on pace to have a worse regular season than last year. They had a winning percentage of .674 compared with .697 (46-20) during the 2011-12 lockout-shortened campaign.
But the streak, which began Feb. 3 at Toronto, has changed everything. The Heat (53-14) are well aware of their chance to go down in NBA history.
“It means a lot,’’ Miami forward LeBron James said earlier this week. “I’m a historian of the game …. There is so much that this game has given to our fans. For us to be (in second place) and doing it the way we want to do it, it means a lot.’’
Heat players denied that keeping the streak alive was on their minds Wednesday when they made their unbelievable comeback. I’ll buy that only because the game was in Cleveland against James’ former team. Nobody on the Heat wanted to see him lose that one.
Generally, though, the streak is giving Heat motivation they didn’t have back when they were counting the days until the playoffs started. If there weren’t a streak to be kept alive, they might have lost some games during a run that also has seen them needing double-overtime to beat lowly Sacramento and a last-second layup by James to beat even lowlier Orlando.
As the Heat continue to chase the Lakers’ magical mark of 33, every outing will feel like a playoff game. So who said the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Bobcats, foes visiting Miami this weekend, wouldn’t be experiencing playoff intensity this season?
“The streak continues,’’ guard Dwyane Wade said after the win over the Cavaliers. “It’s a great thing.’’
To keep the Heat fully focused during the regular season, something great was needed.
Who’s Hot: Point guard Mario Chalmers came up big in Miami’s past two games, both resounding comeback wins. He had 21 points, including shooting 4 of 5 from 3-point range, as the Heat fought back from a 17-point deficit, including 13 with 8 minutes left, to win 105-103 Monday at Boston. Then he shot 3 of 6 and scored 17 points in Wednesday’s amazing win at Cleveland.
Who’s Not: Finding someone in this category isn’t easy when Miami has won 24 straight. But the Heat, who lately have gotten off to shaky starts, could use some better rebounding from starting power forward Udonis Haslem. He’s averaged just 2.7 rebounds the past three games, about half his seasonal mark of 5.3. During the stretch, Haslem, the leading rebounder in Heat team history, has pulled down a meager eight boards in 49 minutes.
1. The consensus is the Heat’s playoff run to the Eastern Conference title will be a more like a stroll through the botanic gardens. But the Boston Celtics might have something to say about that.
The Celtics, playing without center Kevin Garnett, gave the Heat a great battle Monday in Boston before losing by two. They also had beaten the Heat 100-98 Jan. 27 in double overtime, which had been a 10th straight regular-season home win over Miami.
Even without point guard Rajon Rondo, the Celtics match up well with the Heat. And it’s not out of the question the teams could meet in the first round of the playoffs.
Boston (36-31) is currently No. 7 in the East, two games ahead of No. 8 Milwaukee (34-33). But the Bucks already have won the tiebreaker, which could relegate the Celtics to No. 8 and a date with No. 1 Miami if they tie.
How would that be for a first-round series? A rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, won 4-3 by the Heat.
2. The Heat are making more than just NBA history. They’ve been moving up the charts for all of U.S. sports history.
Other than the one by the Lakers, the only streak longer than Miami’s 24 has been by the baseball New York Giants, who won 26 straight in 1916. That streak isn’t acknowledged by some, considering the Giants had a tie during it, although it didn’t count in the standings.
Those Giants stunningly caught fire after they entered a Sept. 7, 1916 game against Brooklyn at 59-62. When the streak finally ended, they were 85-62 but hadn’t even improved their fourth-place standing in the National League. That’s where they finished the season, going 86-66.
The team featured outfielder George Burns. No, not that George Burns. But the outfielder, born in 1889, wasn’t that much older than the cigar-chomping entertainer, born in 1896.
3. The Heat didn’t make NBA history with Wednesday’s 27-point comeback win. But it was close.
There have been only two comeback wins in NBA history of 30 points or more. Utah overcame a 36-point second-quarter deficit for a 107-103 home win on Nov. 27, 1996, against Denver. And Sacramento fought back from a 35-point third-quarter deficit to win 102-98 Dec. 21, 2009, at Chicago.
Interestingly, Omri Casspi was a starting forward for the Kings in their huge comeback win. He was on the other side of it Wednesday, playing a scoreless four minutes for Cleveland during the Heat’s dramatic charge from 27 points down with just more than 7 minutes left in the third quarter.
Quotes of the week
“He said he missed me and come back please. I didn’t have time to say much to him and security came to him, and I just patted him on the head.”
— James, on his dealings with a fan who ran onto the court Wednesday wearing a T-shirt that implored James to return to Cleveland in 2014.
“It’s a special opportunity that we have with this group, and you don’t want to take it for granted. You want to treat it every day as a special opportunity.’’
— Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, on the ongoing 24-game winning streak.
“He’s like E.F. Hutton. He doesn’t speak a lot but when he does, everybody listens.’’
— Spoelstra, on Battier, who delivered an inspirational speech to the Heat the day their winning streak started, Feb. 3 at Toronto.
36 — Longest winning streak any player on the Heat ever has had. James won that many in a row from 1999-2001 to start his tenure at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.
12 — Consecutive road games won by the Heat. That’s four shy of the NBA record, which is also held by the 1971-72 Lakers. If the Heat keep winning, they would break that record with a 17th straight road win April 5 at Charlotte.
8 — Heat players who have alma maters that made the NCAA tournament. They are Wade (Marquette), Battier (Duke), Chalmers (Kansas), Haslem and Mike Miller (Florida), Joel Anthony (UNLV), James Jones (Miami) and Juwan Howard (Michigan).
When will the streak end? It might not be soon. The Heat play at home Friday against 23-46 Detroit. Then then have games against the two worst teams in the NBA, facing Charlotte at home Sunday and playing at Orlando on Monday. While it’s true the Heat sometimes have played down to their foes during the streak, they’re a good bet to reach 27 heading into Wednesday’s game at feisty Chicago.
Tower of Power?
One taller than the Empire State Building. Miami is trying to go down as one of the most legendary teams ever. If the Heat keep winning, then they can break the Lakers’ 33-game mark April 9 against Milwaukee. The Bucks were the team that ended the Lakers’ streak with a 120-104 win Jan. 9, 1972.