March is usually the "dead zone" of the NBA season. Between drama-less playoff positioning, lottery-bound tanking and the black hole that is March Madness, fans of all stripes tend to turn away from the Association for a few weeks once the seasons shift from winter to spring.
Luckily, for the Association and its fans alike, this ain't no ordinary March. The Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets have lent no shortage of meaning to what's normally a down time in pro basketball.
The defending champs have ripped off 25 wins in a row, putting themselves within legitimate range of toppling the once-untouchable 33-game streak strung together by Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Pat Riley and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Out West, the Nuggets have cobbled together a franchise-record 14-game spurt of their own. They have thrust themselves firmly into the mix for a top-four seed, perhaps even a dark-horse gallop into the NBA Finals.
On the surface, there's no "real" comparison between these two streaks. Miami's is 11 games longer, and if it continues for another nine, it'll go down as the longest in the history of North American pro sports.
That would set the 2012-13 Heat up as one of the greatest teams in NBA history. (Assuming LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Co. follow it up with a run to their second title in as many seasons.)
As for the Nuggets, their streak, while impressive in its own right, is the 52nd of its kind to have ever graced the league, per Basketball-Reference.com. Denver's current winning binge isn't even the second longest seen so far this season. The Los Angeles Clippers won 17 in a row back in December to complete just the third perfect month in NBA history.
But dig a little deeper, and you'll see that these two streaks aren't all that different.
(Note: The ratings and rankings all correspond to each team's performance during its respective streak. Also, all stats contained herein come courtesy of NBA.com's stats database.)
The Heat and the Nuggets are outscoring their opponents by similar margins amid their runs, both per game and per 100 possessions. Miami has a slight edge in points scored per 100 possessions, while Denver gets the nod in points allowed per 100 possessions.
The Heat's streak seems to be predicated slightly more on an offense operating at peak efficiency. The Nuggets, no scoring slouches themselves, are getting it done at the defensive end better than they ever have under George Karl.
But if you want to evaluate either streak as an indicator of postseason success, then the Heat would appear to have a clear upper hand. It's all well and good that the Nuggets are running their opponents ragged by pushing the pace to nearly 99 possessions per game.
However, when the postseason rolls around and the style of play slows to a possession-hoarding, bench-shortening, defense-dominated crawl, Denver's depth and preference for getting out in transition doesn't figure to lend it much of an advantage.
The Nuggets won't have quite as many opportunities to force the action on the break amid a field of competitors that's far shallower on turnover-prone patsies and old, tired legs than the one they encounter from night to night during the regular season.
The Heat, on the other hand, have taken care of business without ramping up the RPMs to a surprising extent. Considering how frequently and how beautifully LeBron and Wade connect on the break, you'd think the Heat had alley'd and oop'd their way to 25 straight wins.
Yet Miami has scored just 11.5 points per game on the fast break since the streak began in early February. Compare that to Denver's league-leading 21.1 in that time—a number that swells to 22.1 when limiting the scope to the last 14 games.
Not that the Heat haven't been making good use of their opponents' mistakes. Their 19.9 points off turnovers are second only to Denver's 21.5.
Perhaps what's most intriguing about Miami's streak-supporting offense is just how balanced it is, compared to that seen in Denver's perfect stretch:
|%Pts (3Pt)||%Pts (2Pt-MR)||%Pts (PITP)||%Pts (FBPs)||%Pts (FT)|
The Heat haven't exactly eschewed the wisdom of advanced analytics, which recommends that teams attack the basket and shoot threes while ignoring just about everything in between. They still can and do get to the hoop just about whenever they want, thanks to the superior penetrating skills of LeBron and D-Wade.
And as Grantland's Zach Lowe recently noted, the Heat are acutely aware of where their legions of three-point shooters are stationed at any given time and are none too afraid to hit them with pinpoint passes when they're open.
But what makes Miami's offense under Erik Spoelstra so difficult to defend—aside from spacing the floor and featuring three of the best scorers in basketball—is its collective ability to hit shots from just about anywhere. That's including those nebulous spaces between the restricted area and the three-point line.
Chris Bosh has enjoyed an elbow-jumper shooting season for the ages. Wade has long been a mid-range assassin, be it with floaters in the lane or long jumpers off the dribble. And LeBron...well, the guy can pretty much do it all, whether that means punishing his man in the post or pulling up from 18 feet out.
Which team's streak has been more surprising?
To be sure, Denver's offense isn't exactly one-dimensional, either. Yes, the Nuggets don't take (or make) many threes and parade to the hoop like it's going out of style, even more so when finishing a fast break. But as noted by the venerable Zach Lowe, the Nuggets' attack is far more proficient in half-court sets than their overall style of play might suggest.
What Denver lacks in a go-to scorer or a reliable presence in the post, it more than makes up for with pick-and-rolls, quick cuts to the basket and all manner of screens and motion-based misdirection when operating five-on-five.
What's most intriguing about these streaks, though, is the similar makeup of the teams enjoying the success in question. That is, both are equipped with the sorts of players and coaching philosophies required to not only buck conventional basketball wisdom but also to do so at the highest level.
The Heat have garnered plenty of ink for their position-defying small-ball operation. They make their bones by driving and kicking, picking and rolling, and moving their interchangeable parts all over the floor in such a way as to create and take advantage of space. That same approach to constructing lineups allows Miami to switch on defense and apply pressure on the perimeter without softening on the interior.
As it happens, Denver's approach isn't all that different. The Nuggets may not have the individual stars or the low-post proprietors who make Miami so much better than everybody else, nor do they operate in quite as orderly a fashion as do the Heat.
But few teams (if any) can hold a candle to the sorts of multi-positional matchup nightmares that George Karl has at his fingertips. Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer are all capable of manning any of the three "middle" positions (i.e. shooting guard, small forward and power forward) on both ends of the floor—and even with each other.
Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, both traditional point guards, have shared the court on many occasions this season. According to NBA.com, these two have spent 843 minutes together and outscored the opposition by six points per 100 possessions.
And between Kosta Koufos, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee, only Koufos can claim to fit, at all, neatly into a particular position based on what he does well on the court.
More importantly, neither team seems to care all that much about traditional positions. Of greater concern is the ability of all five players on the floor to fill different roles and perform various functions while they're out there. They value versatility and skill sets over notions about who should be doing what based on outdated basketball dogma.
In a way, then, it's only fitting that the Nuggets and the Heat have redefined the meaning of March in the NBA with their prolonged streaks this season. Now they seem to be reaping the requisite rewards for their defiance of convention, at an appropriately prodigious pace.