Where Streak Victims Went Wrong in Stopping Miami Heat's Path of Destruction
Though the Miami Heat fell just a few games short of breaking the seemingly untouchable 33-game win streak record, there's no doubt that their streak of 27 consecutive victories was one for the ages.
Whether they were blowing teams out of the water or escaping by small margins, the Heat were winning basketball games. It seemed like no team could stop them. That is, until the night the Chicago Bulls banded together without two of their best players (Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah) to finally down the Heat in a physical affair.
Chicago did a lot of things correctly that game and finally figured out how to close out Miami, something other teams flirted with but never fully grasped.
There were definitely some close calls for the Heat during the streak, which begs the question: What could these teams have done differently to stop Miami?
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Score: Miami 114, Houston 108
This game took place very early in the Heat's streak, as it was just their third consecutive victory, but it could have easily swayed in the Rockets' favor.
Houston faced a nine-point deficit with just over three minutes remaining in the game, but James Harden scored the next 11 points for his team and brought them within just three points in a two-minute stretch.
Despite several opportunities to cut the lead or tie the game, the Rockets turned the ball over twice on charging calls, allowing the Heat to ice the game from the free-throw line.
It's hard to fault a team for being aggressive for attacking the rim and trying to draw some free throws or an and-1 opportunity, but the two straight offensive fouls show that their aggression overpowered their strategy.
Being down three with under a minute left means that there's plenty of time to find the best shot for your offense.
But the Rockets were perhaps a bit eager and the Heat were looking to stop any opportunities close to the basket.
Instead, Houston may have been better off driving and kicking for a perimeter shot. Sure, it's a lower percentage look, but turnovers on charging calls are worse than a missed shot. The reward would have outweighed the risk with a jumper and may have very well swayed this outcome.
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Score: Miami 141, Sacramento 129 (2OT)
Watching a below-average team like the Sacramento Kings put up so much of a fight against the defending champs shows that even the worst teams were hungry to try and stop the win streak.
Sacramento benefited from Marcus Thornton's scoring explosion in this game. He dropped 36 points on 8-of-12 shooting from beyond the arc.
Even with the inspired team play and some clutch shots by Thornton, DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, the Kings fell short of a huge upset victory on the road because of the late-game efforts of LeBron James.
Even though it's tremendously easier said than done, the Kings lost this game in the second overtime because they simply didn't guard LeBron James closely enough. Sacramento cut a quick four-point deficit to one after another Thornton triple, but James decided to take the game into his own hands.
LeBron scored seven unanswered points for Miami and assisted on two more baskets to complete a game-clinching 11-2 run. James' first two shots were both jumpers and were both poorly contested by the Kings, allowing him to convert with relative ease.
The Kings aren't exactly experts at closing out tough games, especially in overtime (0-4 this season), so it was a tall task for them to shut down the most dominant player in basketball after an already exhausting game.
Sacramento did the right thing by trying to feed Thornton's hot hand in the second OT, but once he went cold and James got hot, there was no answer for the Kings.
Also, lacking a strong wing defender hurt their chances of shutting down LeBron and eventually led to their upset chances dissolving.
Score: Miami 97, Orlando 96
In another case of an underachieving team almost knocking off Goliath, the Magic were just one defensive stop away from possibly halting the Heat's streak at a modest 15 games.
LeBron knocked down a clutch layup with just 3.2 seconds on the clock, which forced Orlando to throw up an unanswered half-court prayer.
The game didn't have to come down to that, though.
The Magic could have avoided this by just boxing out and rebounding without fouling on a crucial Heat possession with under a minute to go in the game. Miami trailed by three and missed two straight opportunities to tie the game, but Chris Bosh out-hustled Orlando to draw a foul attempting to rebound a Ray Allen miss.
This foul resulted in two free throws that cut the lead to just one. Orlando did have chances to extend the lead, but a blocked shot followed by an offensive rebound and missed Al Harrington three-pointer gave Miami the ball back with the chance to hold for the last shot. And you can see how that turned out.
Missed opportunities and missed shots aside, the true cause for this loss came on the last possession with LeBron bullying his way into the paint for a lefty layup.
The first problem with this possession was that James was being guarded by DeQuan Jones, a Magic player who has good size and length but lacks fundamentals on defense. Arron Afflalo, a much stronger defender, was originally on James during the play but got switched onto Chris Bosh after a screen, ultimately making LeBron's shot that much easier.
The team defense on that last Miami possession was also less than desirable. No one really stepped up on help defense to prevent James' drive to the basket. While a foul wouldn't be the best-case scenario in that situation, it still would have opened up the possibility of James missing one or both of his free throws.
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Score: Miami 98, Philadelphia 94
Sometimes, all it takes to lose an entire ballgame is just one bad substitution.
That's certainly one way of looking at it for the Sixers, as they let a winnable game against the streaking Heat slip through their fingers.
This was definitely a battle for both teams and went down to the wire, but the key play to pinpoint for Miami's victory came right after James made one of two free throws to give his team a slim, one-point margin.
Philadelphia's resulting defensive rebound lead to a turnover and dead ball where Damien Wilkins was subbed in for Sixers big man Spencer Hawes.
On the ensuing play for Miami, LeBron missed a layup but gathered his own board, only to miss again. Dwyane Wade saved the day, though, with another Heat offensive rebound, which he tipped in to give his them a three-point lead that they would not relinquish.
The Wilkins-for-Hawes substitution factors in here because it took Hawes (the 76ers' second-best rebounder this season) out of the paint, allowing for the Heat's offensive rebounding.
A big body and solid rebounder like Hawes should have definitely been in the game for this crucial juncture, where the Sixers needed a stop.
Philadelphia was fortunate that James missed both of his layups, but lacking a big man to rebound those misses allowed for Wade to come in and seal the game for Miami.
There are benefits to playing smaller lineups as opposed to traditional five-man units, but this was a situation where you definitely needed a true big man in there to clean up the glass. Unfortunately for 76ers head coach Doug Collins and his squad, it cost them the game and a chance to end the streak.
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Score: Miami 105, Boston 103
This game was definitely circled on a lot of calendars during the Heat's streak, especially since Boston fans would have loved to see their Celtics shut down an Eastern Conference rival.
Even without Kevin Garnett in the lineup for Boston, the Heat knew it wasn't going to be a cakewalk to keep the streak alive. Someone needed to answer the call to step up for the Celtics, and that man was the ever-improving Jeff Green.
Green's 43-point effort proved to be almost enough to pull off the victory and shatter the streak. However, the Heat had different plans and withstood both Green's game-tying shot attempt and Paul Pierce's game-winning three-point attempt.
It was, in fact, the latter shot that may have cost the Celtics a chance to snap the streak. Green's game-tying attempt was blocked and went out of bounds and, after an official review, the ball was rewarded to Boston.
Instead of looking at another attempt to tie the game, Pierce opted for a three-pointer that clanged off the rim and resulted in a 23rd consecutive win for the Heat.
In a game where Boston lead by as much as 17, some didn't even see the game coming down to the wire. The Heat fought back, though, and closed out strong defensively to secure the victory.
Even though they blew a sizable lead, the Celtics still had a chance to at least force overtime but made the mistake of going for the win.
Considering how well Boston had been playing against Miami for most of the game, you would think that it would chance the game in overtime. However, the Celts went for a knockout blow on the biggest kid on the playground and just straight-up whiffed.
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Score: Miami 98, Cleveland 95
This may very well have been the signature game for LeBron James and company during the win streak. It had all the right elements: James returning to Cleveland, a large deficit and a big winning streak on the line.
The Cavs jumped out to an outrageous 27-point lead at one point during the third quarter, prompting everyone to rub their eyes and make sure they read the score correctly. The Cleveland fans were loving it. A blowout win over their ex-love LeBron James would have felt like an NBA championship at that point.
There was no storybook ending to be had that night, however, as the Heat managed to storm back with a 37-10 run. This incredible surge came with about seven minutes in the third quarter and culminated with 10:26 to go in the fourth.
Coming back from 17 against Boston was one thing, but to come back from a 27-point hole showed the dominance of this Heat team. The sheer momentum of that kind of comeback eventually propelled Miami to a double-digit lead of its own and, ultimately, a 24th straight W.
It's hard to say where a team as depleted as the Cavs went wrong in this one, as they were limited on firepower without Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao.
But if I had to pick an aspect that they really slipped up in (besides playing Luke Walton for 16 minutes), I'd go with lack of smart basketball during the Heat's big run.
Basketball is indeed a game of runs. It's how the Cavaliers built their lead and it's also how they lost it. Runs are usually started and maintained by finding and making easy shots and taking care of the basketball.
The Cavs didn't do much of that, since they shot just 3-of-11 with four turnovers during the Heat's 37-10 run. Many of those shots were missed three-pointers and perimeter shots that didn't need to be attempted.
With such a great chance to pull of a tremendous upset, the Cavs simply lost their momentum and didn't do what was necessary to get it back. There's probably a lot to regret for what could've been a season highlight for Cleveland.
Instead, this game will be looked at as a bad team showing their true colors when facing the best team in the league.