Bulls get a chance to be part of history or protect it

It’s difficult to imagine the 1971-72 Lakers being able to sustain a streak of 33 consecutive wins if the ABA talent were in the NBA at the time, writes Sam Smith. But the Lakers did it; they played against the only teams they could play and they beat eve

It was just another late fall night 41 years ago, and not much different or significant. Bulls/Lakers, a playoff preview, if a bit premature. The Bulls had beaten the Lakers in Los Angeles a few weeks before, and the Lakers were looking just to get going after a decent 6-3 start to the season.

Those 1971-72 Bulls were good, good enough to win a title if not for the Los Angeles Lakers of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich. Sometimes you are part of a great team and there’s just a legend in the way. So it was for those great then-Western Conference Bulls teams in the early 1970’s, unable to beat either of the two greatest centers in the history of the game, Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee. So on Nov. 9, the Bulls fell to 7-5 in a 122-109 loss to the Lakers.

Little known was it would be two months later and 33 consecutive games before the Lakers would lose again on the way to a then-record 69-13 season and a championship. The Bulls would not face the Lakers again during that historic streak. The 1995-96 Bulls erased those Lakers from the winningest team category. And this week on Wednesday, the Bulls get a shot at the Miami Heat, who similarly seem like they may erase those 1971-72 Lakers and their famous streak from the record book.

The Heat is at 26 now, and there are those who would dismiss what Miami is doing much as some did with the 1995-96 Bulls. It was a watered down NBA in 1995-96 with so many expansion teams, so few rivalries and a down Eastern Conference.

The Heat is hearing much the same, about a poor Eastern Conference—the other seven East playoff teams are combined barely playing .500 ball the last 10 games—and so many close calls, like being behind double digits all last week to Boston, Cleveland and Detroit, the latter two not close to playoff stature.

But that really suggests how great this Miami team plays. Those Bulls championship teams often faced big deficits against poor teams, the mark of excellence in being able to overcome such deficits and intimidate opponents with their ferocious play and knowing they’re not giving up on games. Miami has that and if they break the record, it will be deserving.

And in some respects, more impressive than what the 1971-72 Lakers did.

Many point to the Heat schedule to take away from the accomplishment. But the 1970’s in the NBA was most likely the league’s weakest decade. The entire Eastern Conference Central Division didn’t have one winning team. During the 33-game streak, the Lakers played 18 teams with losing records. The Lakers did it earlier in the season when there was less attention, and with so much less media there was less buildup in each city toward stopping something significant. Plus, back in that era teams didn’t generally chase historic marks like today. Though, according to the Lakers’ official media guide, there were four sets of back to back-to-back games, Nov. 5, 6 and 7, Nov. 12, 13, and 14, Dec. 8, 9 and 10 and Dec. 17, 18 and 19. When the streak ended, the Lakers lost four of six, including losing two straight after a seven days off. Yes, with Wilt on the team you were better off playing than having days off in Los Angeles.

More significantly, however, was the presence of the rival American Basketball Association. Though lacking the depth of the NBA, the ABA had just as many stars and severely weakened the NBA. The champions of the 1970’s were mostly the weakest in the history of the NBA because of the way the ABA skimmed off so many stars of the game and thus weakened so many teams. It’s hard to imagine the Lakers being able to win those 33 straight if there was no ABA.

Consider that there were at least a half dozen future Hall of Famers in the ABA then, including Julius Erving, Rick Barry, George McGinnis, Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Artis Gilmore. And numerous high level players who would have been NBA starters, like Joe Caldwell, Wendell Ladner, Len Chappel, Donnie Freeman, Ralph Simpson, Freddie Lewis, Rick Mount, Louis Dampier, Coby Dietrick, Mack Calvin, Bill Melchionni, Billy Paultz, John Roche, Jim Ard, Dave Lattin, Willie Wise, Zelmo Beatty and Charlie Scott.

The travel schedule back then, of course, without charter aircraft, first class hotels and someone else to carry your bags was much more wearing. But it’s difficult to imagine the Lakers being able to sustain that sort of winning if that ABA talent were in the NBA. But the Lakers did it; they played against the only teams they could play and they beat everyone in their way. That’s the test of greatness. The Heat is passing that test now and the Bulls Wednesday get a chance to be part of history or protect it.

Collins’ future in Philly clouded

-- Not hearing much of being better without Rajon Rondo as the Celtics have lost six of eight. ... Will Doug Collins be back with the 76ers? Veteran Philadelphia beat writer Bob Cooney, who is close with Collins wrote last week that while there is no issue between Collins and the players and that Collins has handled the 76ers well and that ownership wants Collins to stay said he believes Collins is leaning toward leaving after this season. Hardly anyone questioned the 76ers taking a shot at Andrew Bynum coming off an All-Star season. It obviously went bad as Bynum finally had surgery on both knees and is missing the entire season. But as one NBA veteran insider noted, “They must look and say, ‘We could of had a front line of Vucevic 17 – 12, Young 15 - 7 and Iggy 15-5-5. with Holiday and Turner.” And I’ll add Moe Harkless, who after missing the early part of the season and summer league is putting up big numbers in Orlando. … Bynum’s future. You’re certainly warned. He has his share of issues with the Lakers beyond injuries, including suspensions for bizarre, aggressive behavior and regarded by Lakers’ legends like Abdul-Jabbar for being lazy. But famed Newark writer Dave D’Alessandro went back to Bynum’s old high school, where they don’t seem to care much for him, either. And you don’t encounter that much. “Everyone here at school says the same thing: What’s wrong with him? Why does he act like that?" St. Joseph’s High school athletic director Jerry Smith told D’Alessandro. "He went from someone we’re proud of to someone whose name we don’t even mention anymore. He went from being one of our favorite sons here — right below Jay Williams — but they don’t talk about Bynum like they do about Jay. For a lot of reasons, there’s been a disconnect. We all understand sports figures — wary of people asking for money and all that — but we don’t need money, we raise our own. It would just be nice if he came by now that he’s so close. It would be great for our kids to see him. But I’m not holding my breath."

NBA news and notes

-- No one wanted him, and Kenyon Martin got the message. He’s not being disruptive, though who’d notice with the Knicks. And he is making an impact, a season high 19 points in Friday’s win over Toronto and then in his sixth start for injured Tyson Chandler 18 against Toronto for 16 for 21 in the back to back and 12.2 points and 7.8 rebounds the last five games. It’s Toronto, but still he was basically out of the league for bad behavior and generally being a jerk. Martin sat out into March as the NBA viewed him as toxic for his verbal assaults on teammates, coaches and management. “Whoever called first,’’ Martin told New York media. “If it was Miami, I was going to Miami. I feel healthy. I embrace all the minutes I can get right now. It’s better than sitting at home on the couch. You learn patience when you’re sitting at home. If my time was going to come, it was going to come. It’s unfortunate it came when guys got injured but now I let my play speak for itself.” Basically not threatening everyone you speak with helps, too. After all, it’s a pretty good life. Much better than the couch. Miami also did make a nice pickup with a questionable character guy with Chris :”Birdman” Andersen. … Coming off having his knee drained, Carmelo Anthony nevertheless went 43 minutes Friday as the competition gets more intense now. … Joe Johnson with foot problems has averaged only about 13 points since the All-Star break. So he’s handled the ball more, enabling Deron Williams to play more shooting guard and he’s responded averaging more than 20 the last 10 games, though Chris Paul beat him up pretty badly in the Clippers Saturday night win. … Reason 80 why everyone loves Kurt Thomas. He played a season high 26 minutes with a broken foot (and he figured it was), helping the Knicks avoid a losing road trip sweep in Utah last week. Thomas is done for the season now, but knowing him and getting all this rest for the remainder of the season he’ll now probably try and play until he’s 50. … So you think your team needs to go out and get another max contract player, another star? Mark Cuban, whom so many fans like to point to as a model owner, said that’s not the way to build a team as he spoke with Brooklyn media last week. Said Cuban: “I’m not talking about any one player, but that’s why we were concerned in our approach [last summer]. Because if you sign a max-out guy you get to a point where you’re above that tax-plus four million. Then you’re limited in sign-and-trades, you’re limited in your ability to use the exceptions, there’s all kinds of limitations. Unless you think that’s a championship team, it’s going to be tough to improve. That’s been the message I’ve been giving the fans in Dallas here since the CBA [was implemented], and that’s been guiding our approach. All you have to do is look at players that teams are giving up. It creates opportunities to do trades. It’s not just about signing a max-out player. It’s about building a championship team. And you guys have heard me say over and over, I think the rules for that have changed. So we’ll see if I’m right or wrong. But if you have $75 million in payroll, you’re stuck. I don’t want to be stuck.”

-- No team seems to have given up on the season more than the Pistons, who dropped 10 straight and 13 of 14, 11 by double digits, three by more than 30 and gave up 10 more points per game than they did in their first 50. They did beat the Bobcats Saturday, though. Said coach Lawrence Frank to Detroit media: "When you've won the amount of games that we've won, I don't care who you are, no one should feel safe. Me as coach, player. There shouldn't be a player on the roster with a record like we are who thinks, 'Oh, I'm here next year.'”… One of the big stories last week was in Miami’s game with Cleveland. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert seemed to infer on Twitter James was returning to Cleveland in 2014. James can opt out of his contract after next season: Wrote Gilbert: “Cleveland Cavaliers young talent makes our future very bright. Clearly, LeBron’s is as well. Time for everyone to focus on the road ahead. Of course, James had little to say about the rumors he’ll return. Part of the impetus with the opt out supposedly is the aging and expected decline of Dwayne Wade. ESPN writer Brian Windhorst, who wrote a book about James, listed the Bulls among maybe a half dozen or fewer teams, including the usual rumors about the Lakers, that James would consider in 2014. Though around the NBA, the consensus seems more to be, especially if Miami wins or is close the next two seasons, that James would opt in and ride it out another season (or two) in Miami before perhaps making a career choice (at what age). It seems very unlikely James would leave a high performing Heat team anytime when they remain on a run that should last at least three or four more years. … Kyle Korver extended his streak to 63 consecutive games with three three-pointers Sunday. He moved past Terry Porter for 30th on the NBA’s all-time three point field goal made list. It’s the fifth longest such streak. Dana Barros is No. 1 at 89. … Quietly as he does most things, Al Horford leads the East in double/doubles and is second in the NBA to David Lee. Horford is averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds since the All-Star break. Horford is one of the best shooting big men with a 44 percent average on shots more than 20 feet.

-- I know LeBron James is popular. That’s called being a basketball expert. But I still don’t quite get the excitement of his dunk over six footer Jason Terry that supposedly thrilled social media. On Dwight Howard, I’d get it. Anyway, it does give me a chance to rail against another of my favorite fictional forms of learning in this era, Wikipedia. I know when you dunk viciously on someone he’s “dead.” So Terry’s page was changed to read: “Jason Eugene Terry (born September 15, 1977; death on March 18, 2013. Cause of death was LeBron James).” Which is another reason why your vote doesn’t count. Because so many of them are voting. … At least Michael is working. The Charlotte Observer said owner Michael Jordan told an audience of his highest paying season-ticket holders he anticipates major offseason change and that everyone in the organization – basketball and business side – will be evaluated come spring. Jordan declined to comment on the future of coach Mike Dunlap, but said he was disappointed in veterans like Tyrus Thomas, Ben Gordon and Brendan Hayward. Good analysis. … The amazing Mr. Duncan continues. The Spurs went 6-2 with Tony Parker out and now back from a quick recovery from that severe ankle sprain. Warriors coach Mark Jackson was asked about seeing the Spurs without Parker, but he demurred that his concern was, “Big guy by the name of Duncan.” Duncan recently finished a four-game stretch averaging about 27 points and 15 rebounds. Duncan is 37 next month. Duncan is on course for the highest scoring average at this age for everyone but Shaquille O’Neal, the highest rebounding average for everyone but Robert Parish and the most blocks for a player his age. … Though the Mavs didn’t pick up a second 10-day contract for Georgetown point guard Chris Wright, it’s a heck of a story he told Dallas media. He is the first NBA player to have multiple sclerosis. He said it was diagnosed last year playing in Turkey "I was in practice running sprints and at the end of practice I went down to touch the line and came up and I slipped," Wright told the Ft. Worth Telegram. "My foot gave out and I thought nothing of it. thought I just slipped, but eventually it got worse and I had numbness in my right foot. And then it started the next month to progress to the whole right side of my body. I lost basically all sensation, and I went to the doctor and that’s when they diagnosed me with MS." But he got back to D-League and a look in the NBA and is hoping for another.

-- You rarely see the bashing of a former teammate like it’s been from Memphis where after Tony Allen alluded to things much better without Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol piled on to USA Today with Randolph saying they are better without Gay and O.J. Mayo and Gasol explaining: “(Swapping Gay for Tayshaun Prince) took a little pressure off. Sometimes when you have so many options offensively, you try to keep everybody happy — ‘now it’s your turn, now it’s my turn,’— and it’s your-turn-my-turn type of basketball. Teams kind of load up on that and do that. It was hard to get in a flow as a team. (Prince) changed the dynamics. We have a different team, and I think we did a great job of coming together. We could’ve laid down, but that’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.” That must have been some fun locker room. Gay averaged 20 points and the Raptors were .500 over 20 games with Gay before he went out with back problems…New Orleans’ Anthony Davis is on a nice run with five double/doubles in his last 10 and 16 on the season as the Hornets beat Boston and Memphis. But his strength is an issue, and coach Monty Williams said the Bulls Carlos Boozer taught him the best lesson. Said Williams: "I just go back to when Boozer just smashed him into the stanchion. I just thought, 'Look here, young buck. It's going to be a long career if you don't learn to deal with that.’ I've been on him since then that you have to play hard and you've got to use your speed. If he's here, I've got to go here to go there. You can't just think you're going to run to this spot. You're two years away from that. That kind of strength is not going to be there for a while."… There were plenty of doubters, but Omer Asik seems to have silenced everyone. Can’t catch the ball, can’t hold up with that body. Asik has been a rock for the Rockets as they cruise into a playoff spot. Asik hasn’t missed any games and is coming on strong down the stretch, averaging 13.1 rebounds in February and 12.2 rebounds in March and double figure rebounds in 22 of his last 24 games. Said coach Kevin McHale: “We’ve been rebounding. We may have a night or two we may fall down and don’t do it, but overall, I’d say yeah. Omer, I think, percentage wise is the best defensive rebounder in the league.” Asik also set the bruising screen to free James Harden for the game winner over the Spurs Sunday and then defended Tim Duncan and pushed him out too far for Duncan to make the shot. The Rockets are going to be a tough first round matchup for someone in the Western Conference who has Finals visions.

-- The biggest playoff collapse has been with the Jazz and, hello, they seem to finally realize that having eight free agents doesn’t suggest great teamwork, which was why most around the NBA figured they’d trade someone. They didn’t. Said coach Ty Corbin: "It may have a little something to do with where we are. We’ve got to play our way through it. That stuff we can’t do anything about until it’s time to do something about it." They’ve lost 12 of 15 after Sunday’s mostly blowout loss in Dallas. … The paradox of the Thunder with a loss last week to Memphis and Denver is they have fallen behind the Spurs and maybe even Nuggets and Grizzlies in the West for the best chance to get to the Finals. Still, they are on pace for their first ever 60-win season. The Thunder is 3-7 against San Antonio, Denver and Memphis 3-7 against San Antonio, Denver and Memphis. Denver, meanwhile, is 10-4 against the top Western conference playoff teams and 18-6 against all West playoff teams. One issue for the Thunder has been a lack of discipline on defense, which can be tricky with young teams with such celebrated scorers as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Obviously, the loss of James Harden will be most noted if the Thunder fail to make the Finals again. Kevin Martin’s defensive play is often so poor they haven’t always been able to let him finish games. But the sense also is the Thunder misses the defensive teachings and schemes of former defensive guru Ron Adams, now with the Bulls. … The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, who masterfully once again has managed his team’s playing time, got his 900th coaching win, 12th most and is behind only Jerry Sloan for most with one team. … Staggering is the Clippers with coach Vinny Del Negro’s fate closely tied. Hot Denver and Memphis, until lately, anyway, are moving into stronger playoff position. And that four/five matchup in the West will be brutal with one team thinking Finals going out in the first round. Chris Paul, who can opt out but isn’t expected to, says he’s worried. So the Clippers should be. Said Paul after a loss to Sacramento: ”Last year we had something about us where we could just get stops when we needed to. And right now, I don't think we have the confidence that we need defensively. All year. It's tough. I don't know. I've been trying to put my finger on it. It seems like every night, teams are shooting lights out from three on us."… Great Jim Mora-like rant from Mike D’Antoni (who’s idea was it to take this job, anyway?) after the Lakers blew an 18-point lead and lost to Washington: "We put our hands in, and you guys have probably seen it. We say 'Championship.' God, that's laughable. Championship? You've got to be kidding me. Until they understand the importance of every possession offensively and defensively and they've got to come out with some determination to be a good basketball team, then we're just fooling ourselves. We're just making a sham-mockery out of it or whatever you say it is. I can't explain it. But every time we get up 16, it's like, 'Well, we're really good and we don't have to play hard.' And we start messing with the game and start messing with not moving the ball. You start messing with, 'I'm just going to go one-on-one every time,' you start messing with the basketball gods and they get you. The ball will roll around and go in for them and it'll roll around and go out for us because we're messing with the game. If we don't change that, well, obviously we won't make the playoffs, but even if we do, then we'll get blown out in the playoffs." Wow. Sham-mockery, playoffs! And basketball mysticism in a few minutes. The Lakers have just got to make the playoffs. Nobody does dysfunction better.