CLEVELAND – On January 14, the Miami Heat had a record of 25-12 following a loss in Utah, which dropped them to 8-9 in road games.
Monday night, with six of their rotation players taking the night off, they came from behind to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 96-95, bringing their record to 65-16 and finishing their road schedule at 29-12. That’s 40 wins and four losses over three months.
To keep the Heat from winning another title, an opponent will have to beat them as many times in seven games as they’ve been beaten in 90 days.
The Heat certainly had the potential to assemble one of the greatest regular seasons in league history. They were the first team to have three players start the All-Star Game in 23 years, after all. But after coasting at times over the first 10 weeks of the season, the Heat’s surge has put them on a short list for one of the most dominating teams of all time.
“Sixty-five is a big number, I’ve never been part of a team (to win that many),” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ve been part of championship teams and teams that have had great success in this league and have never been able to win this many games.”
Three starters (LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers) were in suits and two more, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, were back in Miami. Shane Battier, one of the team’s top subs, was also at home. Yet the Heat beat a low-energy Cavs team to finish the season 15-1 on the second night of back-to-backs.
There have been 16 teams to win 65 games in NBA history, so it’s rare but not unheard of. The 15-1 in back-to-backs tied the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks for the best-ever result in that category.
“When you have potential excuses those sometimes can be distractions,” Spoelstra said. “This team has really bought into the notion of being a no-excuse team, regardless of the circumstances. The train goes on and it’s play no matter what happens.”
The last time the Heat lost on the second night was back in December, when they were blown out in Milwaukee a night after losing in Detroit -- basically during the heart of their “who gives a flip” mode that was a trademark of their early season.
They tested the Lakers’ record of 33 consecutive wins during the season by winning 27 straight. Had the Heat started the season with anything close to the ferocious will they closed it with, perhaps they might’ve challenged the Bulls’ immortal record of 72 wins. There were at least a handful of games the Heat kicked away or just didn’t really show up for early in the season.
But it’s hard to chastise the Heat for those November and December doldrums after watching their mastery since mid-January. Even with their late-season rest program, their reserve players have stepped forward and played with an intensity similar to what their front line did during the winning streak.
“You hope you’re building toughness and resolve through our habits,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve had explosive moments during the season but it’s all to try to get better.”
Their opponents on this night could take some lessons. Since the Heat’s visit last month, in which they lost a 27-point lead, the Cavs have gone into a tailspin and lost 15 of 17 games. Head coach Byron Scott is on the hot seat and could be dismissed by week’s end.
More disturbing is young All-Star Kyrie Irving, who has played with a late-season malaise that’s reminded everyone that despite his immense talent, he is still very much a 21-year-old. He admitted earlier this season he sometimes doesn’t give his all in games, and that seems to have been an issue lately as well.
Not only has his defense been especially shoddy during the Cavs’ recently struggles, but his leadership has come into question on several occasions. He scored a career-low four points Sunday in a hapless performance in Philadelphia. With three fouls in the first half in a one-sided game, Irving committed two fouls in the first 90 seconds of the third quarter, including a foul to stop a fast break to force his way out of the game with five fouls.
He later said he lost track of how many fouls he had.
On Monday, he was generally miserable until the game’s final minutes. He finally turned it on after 1-of-8 shooting to lead a Cavs comeback attempt before he was stripped on the final possession when he had a chance to win the game.
He then left the floor instead of participating with the rest of his teammates in a fan appreciation night event where players give away their shoes and jerseys. The Cavs later said he left the floor to get treatment on a sore heel, an issue that was previously unannounced.
Meanwhile, Norris Cole, who was taken 27 spots behind Irving in the 2011 draft, came one assist shy of a triple-double and made the game-clinching steal as a fill-in starter for Chalmers.
One of them is a world-class point guard who has the chance to become one of the best players in the league. The other is a player with limited talent who has fully adopted the Heat’s attitude of caring about every game no matter the circumstances.
“We just have to go out with a bang,” Irving said of the last game of the season, Wednesday in Charlotte. If he was being sarcastic, it didn’t come through.
Irving could learn a lot by studying the way the Heat have conducted themselves in their historic second half of the season.