Heat the best ever? Not after that loss

March 27, 2013

They diminished the Heat Wave, the 27-game winning streak that made the NBA regular season relevant and threatened a record once thought unbreakable.

What was left of the Bulls’ roster on Wednesday night turned the Heat Wave into a forgettable footnote and exposed the wide gap between the 2012-13 Miami Heat and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Lucius Allen stopped the ’72 Lakers. That’s right. It took two of the 10 greatest players in NBA history to end the 33-game winning streak engineered by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich.

Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler stopped the ’13 Heat. That’s right. With Chicago’s two best players -- Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah -- watching in street clothes, the Bulls ended the second-longest winning streak in NBA history, exposing the folly of those of us who before last night thought LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had built a rival to the ’72 Lakers.

The Heat Wave is now as memorable and significant as the 22-gamer the Rockets pulled off in 2008. Who remembered that Tracy McGrady-led streak until this year when the Heat blew past it? The truth is, you could make a pretty compelling argument the Rockets’ streak was more impressive than the Heat Wave. The Rockets lost Yao Ming for the season halfway through their winning streak.

Hey, this column is not being written to bury LeBron or the Heat. James is still in the middle of a remarkable season. The Heat are still the overwhelming favorite to win the title. I still take great enjoyment in watching James, Wade, Bosh and the rest of the Heat blend their talents and play with great energy and style. The Heat Wave was fun to watch and said a lot about LeBron’s good character and positive impact on the game.

But this streak now has little historical significance. There will be little discussion of it by Monday. It’ll be a total afterthought by the time the playoffs tip. A year from now, no one will remember it. When it comes to comparing LeBron to Michael, this winning streak won’t be mentioned.

The Heat didn’t need to win 34 games to stamp the streak as legit. They needed to win 29. They needed the streak to last until Easter Sunday, until they arrived in San Antonio for a showdown with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. A close loss to the wily, Hall-of-Fame Spurs at the end of a tough road trip and the Heat Wave would’ve been unforgettable, a notch on LeBron’s belt.

Losing to these injury-depleted Bulls is borderline inexcusable.

Seriously, the Heat had a shot at history and they lost to a team with three-fifths of its starting lineup sidelined by injury (Rip Hamilton also did not play). It’s disappointing because the Heat lost primarily because Chicago wanted it more than Miami. You could see it in all the hustle plays. Chicago was determined not to give up easy buckets at the rim and on fast breaks. The Bulls hammered the Heat in the paint with hard fouls. Kirk Hinrich and all the Chicago guards hustled back on transition plays and denied Miami easy dunks.

Chicago did the little things that Boston and Cleveland wouldn’t or couldn’t do. The Bulls held onto their lead and/or stayed within a bucket of Miami because they refused to make things easy on the Heat. Chicago dominated the boards from start to finish. To beat the Heat, an opponent has to take away the dunks, the putbacks and the second-chance points. Chicago also took away Miami’s corner threes.

This tape will be studied by Miami’s playoff opponents. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau just wrote the book on beating the ’13 Heat. He gave the rest of the league hope. If Chicago’s bench players can beat the Heat, why can’t the Celtics, Pacers, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, etc., be competitive?

Let me be clear. I still believe the Heat are going to win it all. I still believe James and Wade are putting together a season superior to any season Jordan and Pippen had.

But this Heat team has some holes. Udonis Haslem isn’t giving Miami much. Obviously, Miami is vulnerable on the boards. Also, the Heat have picked up some awful habits -- the worst being their penchant to start slowly. The second-half, flip-the-switch Heat won’t get away with that habit in the playoffs.

Winning was a marvelous deodorant for the Heat. We can now smell them. There’s not much stench, but there’s enough to make the good teams that had all but conceded the title to the Big Three start today with a renewed sense of purpose.

The ’72 Lakers aren’t walking out of that Miami locker room. It’s the ’13 Heat, a team that trailed the 22-win Cavaliers by 27 points in the second half just a week ago.