The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers can breathe a sigh of relief; their NBA record of 33 consecutive wins is safe for now.
The Chicago Bulls beat the Heat 101-97 on Wednesday night at Chicago's United Center, ending Miami's hot streak at 27 games. With Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose both still out with injuries, Luol Deng led the Bulls' offense, scoring 28 points, seven rebounds and five steals in what turned out to be Miami's first loss since February 1. It was a surprising end to the second longest win streak in NBA history, and a big victory for the Bulls, but it didn't necessarily change the overall playoff picture.
It wasn't necessarily surprising that Miami (56-15) lost to Chicago (39-31), despite their best record in the NBA and the fact that it was a road game. It was, however, surprising that the Heat's streak would come to an end to this particular Bulls team. Derrick Rose, 2011 MVP, has been out the entire season recovering from an ACL injury suffered in last year's playoffs, and has recently stated that only God knows when or even if he will play this season.
Meanwhile star center Joakim Noah, recovering from a foot injury, was unavailable, as were hurt role players Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton. These injuries left Deng as the only true all-star caliber player left on the court for Chicago against a Miami Heat team stacked with them.
While Deng was clearly the player of the game, defeating a team that has won 27 straight games isn't a one-man job. Carlos Boozer (who, OK, has technically been an all-star in the past but come on) chipped in with 21 points and was invaluable on the boards, collecting 17 rebounds. Meanwhile, Kirk Hinrich, would-be graduate of the Cobra Kai school of basketball, did the dirty work for Chicago, ripping away a ball from Chris Bosh and committing a tackle-like flagrant foul against LeBron James to stop one of his signature dunk attempts.
Even Nate Robinson did something right, making a layup to give the Bulls a nine-point lead with 30 seconds left. As befits a team effort like this, Deng's most notable play wasn't one of his own shots but a third-quarter assist to Jimmy Butler, who slammed it home over a hapless Bosh for the play of the game. If the most memorable moment of the Heat's win streak was that of LeBron posterizing the Boston Celtics' Jason Terry, it's fitting that this will be the most lasting image of when the streak ended:
The Bulls were also helped along by an enthusiastic home crowd, something the Heat haven't faced in recent trips to places like Orlando and Toronto. As the crowd began to realize that the Bulls had a good chance to put away Miami, the crowd began to chant "end of streak". OK, so that's probably the least imaginative chant in NBA history, but, hey, it worked.
So now that the Chicago Bulls have indeed ended the streak, which began with an unremarkable 100-85 win over Toronto in February, it's time for second-guessing. At times it seemed inevitable that the Heat would break the 1971-72 Lakers' record of 33 straight wins. Even Hall of Famer Jerry West, one of the key figures on that Lakers squad, thought that the Heat were capable of bouncing his old team out of the record books. Other basketball know-it-alls looked ahead to the March 31 road game against San Antonio, who have the second-best record in the NBA, as the opponent most likely to leave them stalled in second place.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's not too surprising that the win streak won't be traveling with the Heat to San Antonio. In the last few weeks, Miami has had to rely on comebacks, most memorably when they dug themselves out a 27-point hole against the Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, the Heat have had to come back from a fourth-quarter deficit in 11 out of the 27 wins. A great team can survive playing catch-up against the Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magics of the world, but eventually one of those comebacks will fall short against playoff-caliber teams like the Chicago Bulls. On Wednesday night, Miami erased an early 10-point Bulls lead, but still came into the fourth quarter down by one and were never able to take the lead.
Not that this loss was a traumatic one for Miami. It's not like this is college football where there's an actual chance to go undefeated. They were eventually going to lose a game, and although they would have preferred to have that happen after they had won the seven games they needed to surpass the 1971-72 Lakers, it's not the end of the world. They just have to settle on having the second longest win streak in the history of American sports instead and a very good shot at winning back-to-back NBA Finals. Let's not all chip in for a Condolences card to send to South Beach just yet.
Plus, it's not like the Miami Heat have anything to regret about how the win streak ended. They didn't lose in a so-called "trap game", one those games where the better team loses to an inferior opponent because they already mentally have it in the win column (although had they lost to Cleveland, that would have been a textbook example). The Miami Heat didn't see their streak end in a blowout loss, which is more than the Denver Nuggets can say after their comparably modest 15-game win streak ended in a blowout loss to New Orleans. LeBron James didn't even revert back to his pre-2012 playoffs self. James, who has been willing his team to comebacks throughout the streak, not only did he put up his usual numbers, which for LeBron means 32 points, seven rebounds and three assists (plus, for variety sake, he put in two steals and four blocks), he was also so emotional that the officials gave him a flagrant foul for a chippy play with Carlos Boozer.
Wednesday night's victory was huge for the Bulls, but it's not one that really changes the NBA landscape in any meaningful way. In the same way that the Miami Heat's loss didn't tell us much other than the fact that they can, in fact, be beaten from time to time, it also didn't tell us much about the Chicago Bulls besides the fact that they can actually win a game against the Heat. That has a certain psychological benefit to that, of course, should these two teams meet in the playoffs. It's also encouraging that the Bulls were able to beat the Heat without two of their best players and that Deng was capable of being the go-to guy for the their biggest win of the year. It's just that none of this will change the fact that the Chicago Bulls, currently at fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings, are 16 1/2 games behind the Heat for a reason.
It's tempting to think that if Noah comes back perfectly healthy and if Derrick Rose can come back at around 85%, then the Bulls could have at least a shot of knocking off Miami in the playoffs. After all, with the possible exceptions of the Boston Celtics or the Indiana Pacers, the last two teams to defeat the Miami Heat, a Rose-less Bulls team might be the Eastern Conference team capable of giving them the most trouble. In this scenario, Derrick Rose becomes this messianic figure returning to save the NBA from most perfunctory Eastern Conference playoffs of the 21st century.
The truth is that even if Derrick Rose returns, and remember that only God knows when, he's still recovering from surgery, has said he is not mentally ready to return to basketball and and he hasn't played a game since he suffered his ACL injury. Wednesday's victory proved that these Bulls can stay with the Heat, which is absolutely no small feat considering that they've seemed nigh-invincible at points this season, but it's still difficult to see the Bulls beating the Heat, who will have home advantage in a seven-game series.
So, the Chicago Bulls won the game, and perhaps gained a bit of a morale boost, while the Miami Heat, although probably not happy, will remain set on the goal of winning their second straight NBA championship. The real loser on Wednesday was the NBA, which was hoping to wring a bit more drama out of the Heat's winning streak. The Heat's quest to break a record was the biggest storyline of the year, providing much-needed drama during the end of the regular season. Now that the party's over, all of those must-watch Heat games, some greedily picked up by networks betting the streak would continue, have reverted back to pumpkins. Or as CBS Sports' Zach Harper sarcastically noted: "Can't wait for that nationally televised Heat-Bobcats game coming up."
That's why there was a weird sense of disappointment when the Heat's run ended, even among some who religiously root against LeBron James. While, as always, there are a lot of storylines to keep our interest until the playoffs, very few of them are on the court. The Heat made regular season games in March, between teams whose playoff fates are all but decided, into must-watch television. Now it feels like it's Bobcats games all the way down.
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