The Miami Heat's win streak was going to end at some point. The team was not going to run the table in the regular season, finishing with a 39-game win streak, and trudge through 16 straight wins in the playoffs. And because they understood and accepted that reality, the letdown of their 101-97 loss in Chicago on Wednesday night became easier to handle.
Following the loss, head coach Erik Spoelstra had the players and coaching staff come together in the locker room and--for the first time since the streak began--acknowledge the streak for what it was: historic, awesome and over. Spoelstra said he wanted to finally have the chance to speak with his team about the remarkable feat to celebrate the accomplishment openly as a complete group, and to move on.
"We had a moment," said LeBron James, who scored 32 points in the loss. "Just very fortunate, very humbled and blessed to be a part of this team and a part of a streak like that. It’s one of the best that this league has ever seen, so we recognize that now that it’s over."
As odd as it was to see in a locker room of a team coming off a loss to a conference rival, the Heat were calm, relaxed and somewhat relieved to finally have talk of the streak be over. James even joked at one point, with ESPN's Chris Broussard in the room, that Broussard and the rest of the national media members following the team during the streak could now head back home and let the everyday Heat beat writers get back to covering the team.
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There was disappointment in the locker room--who wouldn't want to be a part of history?--but for the Heat it was looked on as another opportunity to get better, a motto they lived by every day of the run.
"It was an unbelievable streak that we were on, but in [the locker room] it didn't feel like we were on this amazing streak," Dwyane Wade said. "It was like we were just playing basketball."
Because the Heat kept their emotions and excitement about the streak--which wound up falling five games shy of the NBA record--so close to themselves when the wins piled up, it made it easier to deal with when the inevitable loss arrived, as it did in Chicago.
The theme throughout the locker room was not to pile up the longest win streak in NBA history, but rather to get better as a team every day and, as forward Shane Battier explained, to perform well enough that the team is in position to compete every night.
"It was never about the numbers. It was never about the win streak," he said. "It was about winning every night we had a chance to win, and that’s the basic definition of competition: try to win."
James echoed those sentiments, saying the wins took care of themselves once the team's mentality was in the right place.
"Obviously for us, we never talked about it. If that happened along the ride of winning games, then we were gonna be excited about it," he said. "But we weren't pressing, saying, 'let's win so we get the streak.' We were just playing each and every game to win, and we won 27 in a row. Our motto is to go out and win every game."
Ever since last year's playoffs, pressure hasn't been an issue for this Heat group. But something happened over the last two weeks that saw the Heat, who coasted through the first half of the win streak, slip up and barely avoid narrow losses.
Though its margin of victory was double-digits in its last three wins, Miami trailed by 13 in the fourth quarter at Boston and as many as 27 in Cleveland. Spoelstra said he could see the streak was coming to an end, and a physical, punch-you-in-the-mouth kind of group like the Bulls was the opponent a struggling (relative to earlier in the win streak) group did not want to see.
"I think objectively, we can step back and admit we weren't getting better these last handful of games," Spoelstra said. "And you run up against a team that is very, very competitive and physical, they have a lot of pride but they won’t let you play and compete at a game not at your top-notch level."
Wade actually said he was glad the streak was over because it gave the Heat a new opportunity to begin focusing on the home stretch of the regular season and a deep playoff run, when they will try and defend their 2012 NBA Finals championship.
James agreed, noting that he won't forget the incredible run his team had, but that a second ring would be much more memorable in the end.
"This is a special team, and how we are on and off the court, it’s gonna be hard to remember everything," he said. "But ultimately we want to win an NBA championship."