On The Streak and What Really Matters
Fifteen seconds left. The shot clock about to buzz. LeBron James faces up and sizes up Jeff Green. It's a typical James isolation play, James simultaneously keeping a live dribble while appearing to be holding the ball in a constant state of triple-threat, it just so happened to be at the end of the game. James simply rises up, takes the shot, holds his pose and watches as the Miami HEAT take a two point lead over the Boston Celtic and another piece of NBA history.
The shot extended Miami’s winning streak to 23 games, the second longest streak the league has ever seen. It ended Miami’s regular-season drought in Boston. It pushed Miami’s lead over the rest of the Eastern Conference to 11.5 games and added to the team’s late-game efficiency, with double the clutch rating of any other team in the league.
The shot was also, relative to its importance, one of the least symbolic possessions of the HEAT’s play during the streak.
This streak is a funny creature. Before the consecutive win tally had reached double figures, Miami was playing brilliant basketball and James was having one of the best individual stretches that anyone had ever seen, heard of or read about, so the wins weren’t the story. This team was no longer lacking for first-half defensive energy on a regular basis. Instead, the HEAT were looking, for 48 minutes at a time, like a team that had just won an NBA Championship.
Then James’ shooting percentages returned to the world bound by logic and physics for a brief stint and the team’s overall play dipped slightly, but because the wins had reached the double digits and kept going strong, the streak became the thing. Media coverage increased, traffic on HEAT.com’s schedule page increased as fans checked on future opponents and every show broadcast to your cars and televisions started doing a segment on Miami’s streak. There was nothing wrong with any of this, but the focus had shifted. How well the team was playing became an afterthought as long as the wins kept rolling in.
The wins, however, were almost always beside the point, at least during the regular season.
Erik Spoelstra explained it best after Miami’s win in Toronto last Sunday, when asked how often the team was discussing the then-22-game streak:
“When we started playing better two months ago, it was about the process. It would be disingenuous if it changed right now and it's about the result. It's about trying to get better and playing each game to raise our level and find each new challenge.”
Sounds like boring, dry coach speak, right? It might be, but Spoelstra is absolutely correct. Since Day 1, 2010, Spoelstra has preached process. Win or lose, he wanted his team playing better. The message was the same through a 9-8 start, a near sweep of the following December, a loss in the Finals and a title. Keep growing, keep playing to the eternal identity that Spoelstra so often references and the wins will come.
The rest of the team has followed suit. Ask them now about the streak and the players will talk of growth. They’ll talk about the rotations they missed after a win the same as they would after a loss. At times they’ve had to see results to believe in the process, but this current group is not one to be overly satisfied with a victory.
James’ jumper represented a team that clung a little tighter to wins two years ago. The HEAT had run their usual sets, but Boston had stuffed just about everything. Four straight possessions turned into James isolations. No switches. No pick-and-rolls. No mismatches. Pure isolations, with four men watching James go to work. Those were the possessions that won games for Miami two years ago and an isolation beat Boston on Monday night, but this time it was the HEAT being forced into isolations, not the HEAT forcing themselves into isolations for lack of a better option.
That’s what matters about the streak. The streak doesn’t matter because of the wins. Had Miami lost to the Orlando Magic at the last second because James’ layup hit off the glass a touch too hard, a comeback win on the second night of a back-to-back in Boston would have been just as impressive as a seventh-straight win as it is as a twenty-third.
The streak matters because of what those wins have shown, not how long it can go.
It matters because it has shown LeBron James being the best player in the world, shooting 60 percent from the field game after game and making near triple-doubles so commonplace they induce yawns. It matters because we’ve seen him attack the rim late in games and nail jumpers off the dribble and the catch. It matters because James has refined his post-game year after year, to the point where a transition opportunity and a post-up can become one and the same:
The streak matters because Dwyane Wade is now just as deadly with the ball as he is without it, timing his cuts perfectly whenever a defender turns his head or the paint opens up. Since two seasons ago Wade’s cut-rate has nearly doubled, to the point where he is one of the most frequent and effective slashing guards in the entire league.
We’ve seen Bosh make jumpers and corner threes and you-bought-the-up-fake-now-I’m-at-the-rim dribble drives, but the streak has shown us his defensive evolution as well. Bosh once spent months figuring out his place on this team, and now – whether he is touching the ball or not – he can be a defensive anchor as a center, hedging pick-and-rolls and recovering to the ball and the shot.
We’ve seen Shane Battier drill corner threes and defend players he wouldn’t be allowed to step in a ring with. We’ve seen Mario Chalmers become the quick-release, spot-up shooter James and Wade need next to them spacing the floor. The streak has given us Ray Allen the one-man blowout machine and Chris Andersen sliding seamlessly into a rotation role.
Above all, we’ve seen execution and efficiency. The HEAT have outscored teams by 49 points per 100 possessions in the clutch during the streak, and that’s with Spoelstra sticking with the same read-and-react packages the team uses at the end of just about every game. The last five minutes of games within five points is an arbitrary endpoint that defines clutch, but that Miami is currently one of the two best clutch teams of the last 15 years speaks not only to the shots they’re making but the shots they’re taking. James gets more assists late in close games than anyone else in the league, the team earns open threes and the playmakers get to the rim.
It’s an offense that does what it wants, in any style it wants, against opponents of all shapes and sizes. Yet after each win, the HEAT talk of growth. Regardless of result, Spoelstra will look at where his team was shooting from and where his team was allowing shots from. The streak has painted him a picture of his team, and it doesn’t matter how much that painting eventually sells for as long as Spoelstra likes the painting. Wins can define them in the playoffs.
When the HEAT get to the postseason, they’ll have 82 games of process to rely on, not however many consecutive wins they tallied in February and March. And when it all breaks down as it inevitably does on any number of possessions, there’s still James, isolating on the wing, ready to take a jumper he makes over 40 percent of the time.