Heat lose streak but not dominance over NBA
CHICAGO -- One story burns out, and LeBron James lights the fuse of another. This is how it works with LeBron, the Heat, the media and the NBA right now. It is James' league. He dominates it, and he gets to complain about it.
So there he was after Miami's 27-game winning streak ended in 101-97 loss to the Bulls, and somebody asked about his flagrant foul on Carlos Boozer in the fourth quarter. He could have said nothing. He could have waited a day and let the appreciation of the winning streak carry the news cycle.
But this is LeBron James in 2013. And so he said Kirk Hinrich tackled him in the first half and no flagrant was called, and "Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground" in the fourth quarter, and ...
"Those are not basketball plays," James said. "And it's been happening all year and I've been able to keep my cool and try to tell [coach Erik Spoelstra], 'Let's not worry about it too much. But it is getting to me a little bit.' Because every time I try to defend myself, I've gotta face the consequences of a flagrant for me, or a technical foul. It's tough."
And ... well, he is absolutely right. He gets hammered when other wings don't, and officials, perhaps acting on behalf of the media, expect him to take the abuse and like it.
He is right.
Also: it doesn't matter if he is right.
What matters is that a streak for the ages can end, but nothing really changes for LeBron James. He remains the dominant story in the NBA, maybe in all of sports.
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The NBA finally happened to the Miami Heat on Wednesday. Basketball happened. The road happened. Sports happened. That's what Shane Battier thought as time expired on his team's amazing 27-game win streak. This, Battier said, was a "garden-variety" NBA road loss. The Bulls had more energy, shot well, made a few key plays at the end.
"It's amazing we avoided this for as long as we did," Battier said.
How impressive was this 27-game avoidance? Forget the comparisons to the 1971-72 Lakers for a moment. The NBA has changed so much that it's almost like comparing different sports. No, to understand how incredible the Heat streak was, consider this:
When the Heat lost, I turned on my computer and checked the NBA standings. Only one team -- ONE! -- had a winning streak longer than three games. (That was the Knicks, at six.)
This 27-game winning streak was a thing of beauty, and it wasn't all James. Dwyane Wade is (generally) healthy and playing as well as he has in years. Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Battier and the rest of the pieces fit together so well. The Heat looked like something better than a champion: basketball artists who raised the game.
The 1996 Bulls were like that. So were the 1986 Celtics, and Magic Johnson's best Lakers teams. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers were not -- they fought too much and coasted through too many regular seasons, and when you watched them, you always wondered if Kobe might make Shaq reach up for a lob pass so he could knee him in the testicles. At least, I did.
The four championship Spurs teams were not like this because they were clinical, not artistic. The Bad Boy Pistons sure weren't like this, and neither were the 2004 Pistons or the Rockets of the 1990s. Those were worthy champions. The Heat looks like a team for all-time, and it's beautiful to watch.
That's why this game felt so normal and odd at once, like seeing Usain Bolt trip on a sidewalk crack or Jeff Gordon lock his keys in his car. The Bulls were missing Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Richard Hamilton, but got 28 points from Luol Deng, 21 points and 17 rebounds from Carlos Boozer and beat the best team in the league. Things like this happen in the NBA, but it hasn't happened in two months to this Miami team.
That's why, right up to the final minutes, I thought Miami would win. The United Center fans were loud and optimistic, but that just added to my feeling that James would crush their spirit.
Chicago is not a tortured hoops town by any stretch. But nobody misses greatness right now like Bulls fans. They had a homegrown MVP, Derrick Rose, who seemed poised to take on the Heat -- and who, most important, wanted to beat the Heat. He tore up his knee and probably won't play this season, no matter how many times Bulls fans ask. And, of course, Chicago was spoiled so beautifully by Michael Jordan for all those years. The fans wanted this one, not just because of the streak, but because of what the city is missing.
So anyway, it seemed Miami had this game ... right up until that moment, with 3:52 left, when James ran into a Boozer screen, lowered his shoulder, and drew a flagrant foul. Boozer hit one of his two free throw attempts and gave the Bulls a 91-82 lead.
When the flagrant was called, the United Center crowd cheered like Rose had just checked into the game.
And suddenly, this wasn't just the end of the streak. It was the beginning of another story for LeBron, and it's obviously a smaller one, but it will still be turned against him: MJ never whined like that!
Of course, MJ probably got more superstar calls than anybody in history, and we have airbrushed his flaws out of our memories. We're comparing James to a Michael Jordan who never existed, which is ridiculous -- the real Jordan was great enough.
Wade compared James to his old teammate Shaquille O'Neal -- so abnormally big and powerful that the refs don't know what to do with him. Battier said: "If you focus on the amount of punishment he takes, he should lead the league in free throws. We deal with it. If I took the punishment he took, I'd be out of the league."
James is sixth in the league in free throw attempts. Houston's James Harden is first. James has shot 283 more two-pointers than Harden, but 204 fewer free throws. So yeah, he has a point.
But this is still James' championship to lose. Look at the other contenders. The Thunder traded Harden, the Spurs have flamed out in the playoffs the past few years, the Clippers are the Clippers, and the Lakers have been dysfunctional all season. Who is going to beat the Heat?
The streak is done, but LeBron James and his super-team are still going. There was an unusually large group of sports reporters at this game, as opposed to the usual group of large sports reporters, and when the streak was over, Wade lightheartedly said he would see us all again in the playoffs. And he will. It was Chicago's night. But it is Miami's league.