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Tuesday, March 26, 2013
A team that beats the Heat every time

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

West/James
Jerry West and LeBron James played in vastly different eras. Comparing their teams' famous winning streaks underscores the point.

Not to disagree with LeBron James, but I disagree with LeBron James. And so does Jerry West.

James says the NBA wasn't as competitive in 1971-72 as it is now because the ABA was a separate league then. Therefore, the 33-game winning streak by West's Los Angeles Lakers that season is a watered-down light beer compared to the Heat's Dom Perignon streak of 27 and counting.

Sorry, LeWrong, but (A) no, and (B) hell, no.

Let me count the ways that what the Lakers did then is harder than what the Heat are doing now, even if they get to 33, starting with …

1. Yes, the ABA

The 1971-72 ABA had only 11 rickety teams and was doing more folding than a Gap clerk. Most really good players didn't want to take the risk. It had some legends, but after Julius Erving (Virginia), Rick Barry (New York), Dan Issel (Kentucky), Billy Cunningham (Carolina) and Artis Gilmore (Kentucky), the talent pool went downhill faster than Vince Wilfork on a water slide.

After the merger in 1976, four teams transferred into the NBA plus another dozen or so other players. "If they were so great, why didn't we see them in the league?" West asks.

I know why. I was 18 then. I loved the ABA, but even I knew most of those guys couldn't have made an NBA roster. Some of them could barely make a jumper.

2. Travel

The Heat have their own plane. The Lakers flew commercial. Sometimes -- coach. Sometimes -- layovers. Here's how different road life was: They'd have to take their uniforms back to their rooms and dry them over the shower bar.

One game during the streak, they played in Chicago, woke up the next morning, went to O'Hare for their flight to a 7 p.m. game that night in Philly, and couldn't take off for five hours.

"We just sat on the plane forever," West remembers. "And this was the day of the game. That's when Wilt [Chamberlain] said, 'If I had a gun, I'd shoot somebody right now.' Next thing I knew, they were pulling him off. We didn't see him again until 6:55 that night!"

(Not that it wasn't fun. They used to find somebody short, surround him on all sides, and begin talking over the poor guy's head. Six or seven 6-foot-6 guys pretending they didn't know he was down there. "Some guy would be trying to get his luggage and he'd have nowhere to go. We'd do it on elevators, too.")

3. Back-to-back-to-backs

The Lakers played three games in three nights four times during the streak alone. Playing three games in three nights is as dead now in the NBA as the set shot. If you asked the Heat to do it even once you'd be hearing from their lawyers.

4. Two questions

If the competition is so superior now, as James says it is, how come two of the three greatest streaks in league history have come in the past six years? Why are four of the top seven from 2000 and later?

5. None-and-dones

In those days, no player could come to the league until his college class had graduated. There's a huge difference between playing against veterans and a lot of six-whisker 19-year-olds who've never checked into a hotel much less into a 260-pound center. "We weren't playing against a bunch of kids," says West. "We were playing men."

6. Beasts

The NBA in those days was a kind of traveling triage. Every team seemed to have some walking Sears Tower in the middle who handed out contusions free of charge. And yet, during the streak alone, the Lakers beat Wes Unseld (Baltimore), Nate Thurmond (Golden State), Elvin Hayes (Houston), Bob Lanier (Detroit) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Milwaukee), who finally killed the streak with 39 points at home. Would you rather play them or Bismack Biyombo?

"It's funny," West says. "After the games, we weren't all that excited about the streak. We were excited about how much money we'd just made. They paid us $5 for every assist, steal and blocked shot. I can remember Wilt would get 14 or 15 blocked shots some nights. I'd get 10 steals in a night, no problem. We'd go back to the locker room and try to add it up."

Can't you see Heat coach Erik Spoelstra handing LeBron James $105 and saying, "Now you save some of this, young man."

West
Jerry West is enjoying the current Heat winning streak. But not as much as he enjoyed the Lakers' streak in 1971-72.
7. Immortality

The Lakers made those 33 look easier than the People crossword. Only one opponent finished within four points of them. (Heat: five times, so far.) They trailed at halftime in four games. (Heat: nine times.) Only once did they trail after three quarters. (Heat: five times.) The Lakers' margin of victory was almost 50 percent more than the Heat's.

The Heat have needed luck that the Lakers never did. They beat Boston (barely) without Kevin Garnett, Chicago without Derrick Rose and Cleveland (barely) without Kyrie Irving. It has been a squeaky streak.

The Lakers -- with West, Wilt and the purest shooter in the game at the time, Gail Goodrich -- were a tidal wave of O that has rarely been seen in basketball since. They scored over 120 points 22 times in that streak, with no 3-point line. They laid 154 on the Philadelphia 76ers one night during the streak, without overtime. Then, of course, they cleaned out the New York Knicks in five games to win the title.

"We just didn't see how anybody could beat us," West says.

The one opponent the Heat have that is much tougher is the media. The Heat are covered like freckles on a redhead 24/7 by dozens and dozens of daily media. The Lakers had one traveling beat writer, my old pal, the late Mal Florence, from the Los Angeles Times. When they finally lost in Milwaukee, his editor called him off the trip early to save money.

The next morning, Lakers coach Bill Sharman saw Mal holding his suitcase in front of the hotel, waiting for a cab.

"Where you going?" Sharman asked.

Without a pause, Mal sniffed, "I don't cover losers."