By Ben Golliver
Not even the thousands of voices that squawked, "This isn't fair!" in the immediate aftermath of The Decision could have seen this coming. Twenty-three consecutive victories? Zero losses in more than six weeks? An 11½-game lead in the Eastern Conference?
The Heat's winning streak, now the second longest in NBA history after a comeback victory over the Celtics on Monday, is silly, the type of thing that will break a calculator. For context, flipping a coin and getting heads 23 times in a row is roughly a one-in-eight-million proposition. Sure, the Heat have a much better than 50 percent chance to win on an average night, but even if you use their current winning percentage (a league-best .788), the probability of winning 23 times in a row absent all other variables amounts to a one-in-240 (0.4 percent) shot. That's a lot better than one in eight million, but you certainly wouldn't have bet your house on it in January.
LeBron James and Co. are clearly hungry for more history, regardless of the odds. With the Celtics beaten (and demolished in Jason Terry's case), the Heat pulled ahead of the 2007-08 Rockets, who improbably won 22 straight games, and now turn their attention to the 1971-1972 Lakers, who won an NBA-record 33 games in a row from Nov. 5, 1971, to Jan. 9, 1972. Those Lakers, led by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, went 69-13 in the regular season and 12-3 in the playoffs en route to winning a championship.
Ten more victories to tie the record. Eleven more to break it. Can the Heat do it?
The Heat's streak
Miami's last loss came 46 days ago, on Feb. 1 against the Pacers in Indiana. Since then, Miami has dispatched 12 teams that are currently in playoff position and 11 teams in line for the draft lottery. Miami has defeated 19 different opponents during the streak, handling the Sixers three times and the Raptors and Hawks twice each. (The Heat have beaten all 29 opposing teams this season.)
Only one opponent during the streak, lowly Sacramento, has pushed the Heat to overtime. But coach Erik Spoelstra's team has had a number of close calls, including two in the past week (an ugly four-point win over the Sixers last Wednesday in Philadelphia and the down-to-the-wire thriller against the Celtics on Monday). They've had their share of blowouts, too, crushing the Clippers by 22 points for their fourth victory in a row and dominating the Sixers by 24 points to extend the streak to 10.
Over the 23 games, Miami is winning by an average score of 105.4 to 94.2, a staggering 11.2-point margin of victory. The offense, which ranks No. 2 in efficiency, has jumped from 109 points per 100 possessions before the streak to 113 points per 100 possessions during the streak, according to NBA.com. The defense, which ranks No. 9 in efficiency, has similarly improved, from 101.6 to to 99.9. The numbers reveal exactly what you would expect: This has been an absolutely commanding stretch of hoops, on both sides of the ball.
The Heat's upcoming schedule
The good news for Miami: The competition standing between the Heat and the 11 consecutive victories needed to set the record is substantially easier than what they have already vanquished. Through Monday, the combined record of the teams beaten during the 23-game run was 734-796 (.480). The combined record of Miami's next 11 opponents is 300-434 (.409). What's more, Miami beat four of the six teams with 40 or more victories this season during their streak; they will face only one such team, San Antonio, over the next 11.
There's more good news. The Heat's streak has included six sets of back-to-backs. The upcoming 11 games include only two back-to-backs, and both involve the Bobcats, the league's worst team. (Miami plays Charlotte and Orlando on Sunday and Monday and then Charlotte and Philadelphia on April 5 and 6.) Note: The 11th game, which would be the record breaker, is against the Bucks in Miami on April 9 on the front end of a back-to-back. If the Heat make it to 34, perhaps commissioner David Stern can move their April 10 against the Wizards in Washington to the White House, where Barack Obama could present them with the 2013 Larry O'Brien trophy in advance.
The home/road splits have been fairly equal during the 23-game streak, and that won't change. Twelve of Miami's 23 victories have come at home and 11 on the road. In the next 11 games, five will be at home and six on the road.
The Heat aced a four-game road trip in February and can put the finishing touches on a five-game road trip in Cleveland on Wednesday. After home games against Detroit and Charlotte later this week, they will have a four-game trip that includes trips to Chicago and San Antonio -- clearly the toughest patch on the road to 34. Miami is a league-best 30-3 at home and will play host to only two likely playoff teams in the next 11 games: New York and Milwaukee.
Here is Miami's complete schedule in the next 11 games:
Wednesday, March 20: at Cleveland
Friday, March 22: vs. Detroit
Sunday, March 24: vs. Charlotte
Monday, March 25: at Orlando
Wednesday, March 27: at Chicago
Friday, March 29: at New Orleans
Sunday, March 31: at San Antonio
Tuesday, April 2: vs. New York
Friday, April 5: at Charlotte
Saturday, April 6: vs. Philadelphia
Tuesday, April 9: vs. Milwaukee
When streaks get this long, everything gets put under the microscope, and that includes injuries. One ill-timed injury, even something as small as a sprained ankle, can disrupt the rhythm and realign the rotations. There was a collective gasp, and for good reason, when Dwyane Wade needed to pass a concussion test after receiving a blow to the head against the Bucks last Friday. An absence for a Big Three member would surely have streak-snapping potential. But James, Wade and Chris Bosh have combined to miss just two games during the streak, when Bosh sat out a pair before the All-Star Game with the flu.
The injury picture would seem to strongly favor the Heat -- who are critiqued often for their lack of depth -- during the next 11 games. On the heels of Miami's meeting the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics on Monday, virtually every Heat opponent between now and the potential record-setting game has (or could have) rotation players sidelined because of injury. Here's an abbreviated list of players they won't (or might not) face, in order of opponent: Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters; Detroit's Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight; Charlotte's Ramon Sessions; Orlando's Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu; Chicago's Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton; New Orleans' Austin Rivers and Jason Smith; San Antonio's Tony Parker; New York's Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire; and Philadelphia's Andrew Bynum, and Jason Richardson. That's a host of talent, including six 2012 and '13 All-Stars.
One concern for Miami is letting up against weaker opponents. During the streak, the Kings pushed the Heat to overtime and James had to deliver a game-winner to beat the Magic, even though both games were at home. The Bobcats and Cavaliers have also kept it respectable in Miami, losing by four and five points, respectively.
With that said, there's a difference between letting bad teams hang around and letting them steal a win. Only four of Miami's 14 losses this season have come to teams on track to miss the playoffs, with all four played on the road. Two of those four -- Utah and Portland -- came in tough places to play. The other two -- at Washington and at Detroit -- are the type of nights that Miami will look to avoid when they visit Cleveland, New Orleans and Charlotte during this stretch.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Miami's run is its composure, especially as the media attention has increased. It's no easy task digging out of a 17-point deficit in Boston -- Garnett or no Garnett, Rajon Rondo or no Rajon Rondo -- and the Heat have matched that unshakable on-court poise with quiet confidence and focus in their off-court comments. The last six weeks has really been Miami at its most ruthless: all business, no distractions. At the same time, we've seen the Heat at their most unselfish: sharing the ball on offense, turning up the intensity on defense.
No matter how favorable the conditions -- schedule, injuries, their quality of play -- the odds that something, anything goes wrong or that the Heat simply come out flat and James can't fix it are always there. The pressure factor has started to kick in, and it's only going to grow. The same crazy math that they have already defied only continues to grow exponentially. Should Miami win its next 11 games to set the record, the Heat would be 63-14 (.818). The probability of an .818 team's winning 34 straight times, absent outside variables, is a one-in-926 (0.1 percent) proposition.
If the Heat don't push this to at least 27 wins, though, it will be a (relative) disappointment, given that their next four opponents are the four worst teams in the East. From there, the climb gets steeper, but there's really just one major peak. The four toughest games on this 11-game stretch, in order, would seem to be: at San Antonio, at Chicago, versus Milwaukee and versus New York. Only that San Antonio game, the teams' first meeting since Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was fined for strategically resting four key players in Miami in November, is truly daunting, as the Bulls are 18-15 at home, the Bucks are 16-16 on the road and the Knicks are 17-16 on the road.