The Case for ... Streakbusting

April 01, 2013

On March 20, LeBron James played 42 minutes, including the entire second half, to help erase a 27-point deficit and lead the Heat to a 98--95 defeat of the Cavaliers and its 24th win in a row. Just four nights before, also against Cleveland, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginóbili had less demanding outings. They played 34 and 26 minutes, respectively, in San Antonio's 119--113 victory. The main reason for the disparity in workload? The priority for the Spurs, who may very well meet Miami in the NBA Finals, is to keep their stars rested and ready for the postseason, while the red-hot Heat, which has a chance at making history, can no longer afford that luxury.

Miami's streak, the second longest ever in the league, reached 26 with a 109--77 victory over the Bobcats on Sunday, but as it closes in on the 1971--72 Lakers' record of 33 consecutive victories, the potential downside of such a run becomes more apparent. The Heat, which has all but clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference, is expending energy that could well be vital come playoff time. In the Cavs game, for example, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra used essentially a six-man rotation in the second half, and though James may seem indefatigable, even his reserves aren't bottomless. In addition to his heavy minutes against Cleveland, he recently played 42 against the Knicks and the Celtics. Going so hard in March could take its toll by June.

There's also a particular danger in building such a streak so close to the playoffs, since history shows that when an extended run of perfection does end, a letdown almost inevitably follows. The '71--72 Lakers lost four of six after their streak. The 2007--08 Rockets, who won 22 straight, then dropped five of eight. The Celtics had a 19-game winning streak in '08--09 but went 2--7 immediately afterward. In 1970--71 the Bucks took 20 in a row, followed by five losses in six games. The '95--96 Bulls, whose 72--10 record is the best ever, suffered back-to-back defeats only once—right after their 18-game winning streak ended.

The Spurs know all about such pitfalls. Their own 20-game winning streak (the last 10 games of the regular season and first 10 of the playoffs) was snapped by the Thunder last year after San Antonio had won the first two games of the Western Conference finals. The Spurs dropped the next three to Oklahoma City as well, and their season was suddenly over. That's why coach Gregg Popovich said in an ESPN Radio interview during All-Star weekend that he wouldn't want to repeat the streak. "It's too much of a grind," he said. "When you win that many games in a row you're very likely going to lose up to three games when that thing is done. It's just such a letdown, and in the playoffs you can't afford that."

It's also worth noting that there isn't a strong correlation between extended runs and championships, no matter the sport. Of the NBA teams with the eight longest single-season streaks, only five went on to win it all. The 2007 Patriots won 18 straight but lost the Super Bowl, and the A's reeled off 20 consecutive W's in 2002 but lost in the AL Division Series. More recently, Gonzaga entered this year's NCAA tournament on a 15-game run, only to be bounced last Saturday in its second game. (In the women's tournament, Baylor is hoping to buck that trend: The top-ranked Lady Bears have won 28 in a row.)

Lengthy streaks can also become as much of a complication as an accomplishment, forcing a team to balance the pursuit of history against the pursuit of a title. The Colts won their first 14 games in 2009, then decided to rest Peyton Manning and other key players for their last two regular-season games. They valued a championship more than an undefeated season and ended up with neither, losing both games as well as the Super Bowl.

All that winning, then, can put teams in a no-win situation. Should they risk burning themselves out or ratchet back to pursue a title—which they well might not attain? The Heat isn't alone in facing this conundrum: At week's end the Nuggets had won their last 15. In the NHL the Penguins had taken 12 in a row. As they may find out, winning streaks are a pleasure, but their care and maintenance can become a pain.

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Going as hard as James and the Heat have in March could take its toll by June.

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