- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- Under different circumstances, the Miami Heat might have been playing for a piece of NBA history Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Had matters gone differently in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, and Miami's streak survived the next few threats, the Heat would be going for their 34th straight victory to break the record set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Having already secured only the second 60-win season in franchise history, a victory Tuesday would allow the Heat to equal the 1996-97 Miami squad that posted the best regular-season record in team history at 61-21.
Just five years removed from a 15-67 season that matched the worst campaign in the 25-year existence of the team, the Heat are on the cusp of matching their best of all time.
Few in the organization have a greater appreciation of that transformation than Pat Riley, who retired from coaching and turned the reigns over to Erik Spoelstra after that 2007-08 season and has spent the past five years serving exclusively in his guiding role as the Heat's president.
“The timing was perfect, as far as my age,” the 68-year-old Riley said as the defending champions wrap up the regular season and prepare for the playoffs. “I haven't coached for five years now, and I knew after 2008 -- a 15-win season -- that was it. But I never realized I was going to have an opportunity to watch, and thoroughly enjoy, just the players on the practice court. Watch them warming up. Watch them celebrate. Watch them have fun. It's just been an absolute Godsend for me at this stage of my career.”
Riley was in a reflective mood in one of his rare interviews with the media during a Heat fundraising event over the weekend. But despite what Miami has accomplished in what already has been a historic season for the franchise, there's a clear focus -- from Riley on down through the organization -- that far more significant work lies ahead.
With their 27-game winning streak -- the second-longest in NBA history -- now behind them and the No. 1 overall playoff seed within their grasp, the Heat face simultaneous challenges as the April 20 start of the playoffs approaches. With six regular-season games remaining, they are trying to fine-tune for the postseason while also making it a priority to get some key players beyond a rash of nagging injuries.
Spoelstra has declared the status of his marquee players as day-to-day for the rest of the regular season as the Heat try to balance rest for some and recovery for others.
That means there will be plenty of guesswork in the hours leading up to games. James returned from a three-game absence due to a strained hamstring for Saturday's win against Philadelphia, but said he's still dealing with some leg soreness and would continue to receive treatment.
Dwyane Wade will miss tonight's game against Milwaukee, which will be his seventh absence in the past nine games, with a slow-healing right knee bruise and sprained right ankle. And Chris Bosh, who played a lead role in games last week while James and Wade were out, sat out Saturday's game with a hyperextended right knee.
In some ways, the Heat appear to be somewhere between a team limping toward the end of the regular season and one that's taking every precaution to ensure they regain footing and ultimately hit their stride entering the playoffs. Tuesday could be a preview of sorts of teams that could meet in the first round of the playoffs, with the Bucks currently holding the No. 8 seed in the East.
There hasn't been much time for the Heat to assess just how dominant they've been the past few months.
Despite falling six wins short of matching the Lakers record streak, Miami has won 31 of its past 33 games. With wins this week over the Bucks, Wizards and Celtics, the Heat would become the first team in NBA history with a stretch of 34 victories in a span of 36 games during the regular season.
“It's definitely special,” James said of the Heat becoming the first team to reach 60 wins this season. “As a team, we didn't acknowledge it. I don't even know if we knew until we looked at the stat sheet. But it's huge. It's select company. We should be very privileged to be part of this team, part of this franchise to go in this 60-win category.”
James won more than 60 games in each of his last two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but that regular-season success didn't result in a championship until the Heat overwhelmed Oklahoma City in the 2012 Finals.
Veteran guard Ray Allen also experienced a pair of 60-win seasons in Boston, including a 66-16 run in 2007-08 that ended with the Celtics beating the Lakers in the Finals. It was also the same year Miami hit rock-bottom and lost 67. Allen, who in his first season with the Heat after leaving Boston as a free agent last summer, said having a 60-win resume can be an intimidation factor in the playoffs.
“When you see teams that have 60 wins, it does incite a little fear,” said Allen, who twice reached the Finals in Boston. “You know they were pretty good and consistent during the regular season. We hope it plays in our favor.”
The significance of the turnaround in Miami isn't lost on the few still around who endured the 2008 doldrums. Wade, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony are the lone remaining players from that miserable season. Spoelstra took over the next season and has led Miami to the playoffs each year.
Spoelstra, garnering strong consideration for coach of the year this season, was in his second season as an assistant when Riley coached Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning and Jamal Mashburn to that breakthrough season 14 years ago.
“You felt the change of the culture of the franchise,” Spoelstra said. “That was an exciting year. We don't take it for granted. It's tough to win in this league. It's tough to put together a team like this for all the different reasons.”
Reminded that he's been around long enough to be a starting player on Heat teams that have won -- and lost -- 60 games, Haslem shook his head in disbelief.
“Man,” quipped Haslem, a team co-captain. “You had to bring that up, didn't you? Why you have to rain on my parade like that?”
The only parade that matters in Miami these days are the ones held in late June. The journey has been meaningful and, at times, magical so far this season.
But the destination is a dynasty.
Riley dreams of the James-Wade-Bosh core staying together long enough to dominate for a decade like the Celtics of the 1960s, Lakers of the 80s and Bulls of the 90s.
“I just want to keep this team healthy,” Riley said. “In another six games, this team is going to be ready to get after it (in the playoffs). They'll know their way. They know they have something to play for, and they know they have the weapons to go out and play for it.”