1. Twenty, Won: Heat Feeling Strong In Philly
PHILADELPHIA -- The crowd was on its feet as the 1970s-era anthem "Here Come The Sixers" was blaring, with the words displayed on the scoreboard so everyone could sing along, as the Miami Heat squeezed into a huddle to hear coach Erik Spoelstra yelling.
"We have to earn it!" Spoelstra barked while giving a hard stare to his players.
This was a Wednesday night game in mid-March between a team with a 10-game lead on its closest competitor in the Eastern Conference standings and a team playing out the string of a miserably disappointing season that has been wrecked by injuries.
But this Heat winning streak, now at a sparkling and round 20 games after a 98-94 victory, is an apathy killer. It has grown into a full-scale phenomenon.
The Philadelphia 76ers had lost eight of 10, zapping their dim playoff hopes, but they played with the awareness that this single upset would at least generate a smile for the next several months whenever they watched the Heat on TV. Their fans felt it, too. They were wrapped up in it, standing without being asked, as if it were an elimination game.
Over on the Heat's bench, there was a rally being called for even as players felt the drain of playing one of the more demanding back-to-backs of the season. They'd blown a 10-point fourth-quarter lead but they couldn't just brand it a "schedule loss" and shut it down. Not with this on the line.
So the Heat made a few plays, namely a Dwyane Wade putback and clutch free throws from LeBron James, and the Sixers kicked a ball away and missed an open layup. It left the Heat talking about their good luck and Sixers coach Doug Collins talking about how he "couldn't be more proud of the way our guys fought."
A run like this has a way of completely adjusting perspective, and that's what the Heat have now, only the fourth team to win 20 straight in one season in league history. Three of those wins have come against the Sixers, another facet in Philadelphia's season of misfortune. They've played the Heat three times in the wrong 17-day span.
"When you have a streak like this you have to have some luck and you have to win some games you probably shouldn't win," said James, who had 27 points. "But you also have to play very good basketball and you can't panic no matter what is going on."
Over the past three seasons, Philadelphia has been an anti-panic zone for the Heat. The James-Wade-Chris Bosh triumvirate got its first win together at Wells Fargo Center in 2010 after a bad loss in Boston to open the season. They won their first road playoff game together here later that season.
Last year, after a sluggish loss in Milwaukee that stirred up some team-wide frustration, the Heat held a fiery, finger-pointing meeting in Philadelphia that turned out to be a pivot point in their season. They won 12 of the next 13 games and, eventually, the title.
After Wednesday, they've now won 18 of the past 19 games they've played against the Sixers. Yet when the score was tied with 1:20 left there was a feeling of tension, not inevitability.
"Those guys were on a streak and they didn't want it to end," Sixers forward Thaddeus Young said. "And we wanted to end it."
The NBA would prefer you to believe that every game counts and possesses huge potential excitement. But the truth is once you get this late in the season, a certain group of teams start thinking about just getting it over with. As David Stern has said throughout the years, there's only a finite amount of wins to be had.
But Wednesday was an event and not just because the Heat's stars were in town. It was the home team's chance to make a statement and grab the spotlight, maybe the last chance of the season to do so. Now that focus moves to Milwaukee, where the Bucks get the next shot at the Heat on Friday night.
The Heat will continue to try to downplay it. Spoelstra said Wednesday that even though he talks to team president Pat Riley every day, they have yet to discuss or compare what's going on with the Los Angeles Lakers' record 33-game win streak in 1971-72, which Riley was a part of as a player.
Despite that attempt at respecting the bigger picture, what is happening with the Heat is good for the league and, perhaps in the long run, good for the Heat as they start to hone up for the postseason.
"We usually get teams' best shots on the road and now once a team starts sniffing they have a chance to win the game and the streak, they take it to another level," said Shane Battier, who was on the Houston Rockets in 2007-08 when they won 22 straight games, currently the second-longest streak ever.
"So we better match that energy or concentration or it'll be over. Obviously, our goals are bigger but we're going to try to keep this going on as long as possible."
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Most valuable player: Kenneth Faried's omnipresent energy -- particularly on the glass -- helped throw into high relief just how different a brand of basketball these two teams are trafficking in right now.
X factor: The Nuggets ran the Bockers ragged from the opening tip, waxing them on the glass and turning the crowd's Carmelo Anthony animosity into schadenfreude shenanigans. This team is scary, and getting scarier.
That was a nightmare: A second lopsided loss in two days, Tyson Chandler crumpling into a flesh avalanche, Melo following him to the locker room soon thereafter -- there is quite literally nothing more that could've gone wrong for the Knicks.
MVP: Marc Gasol had an efficient 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting, but also anchored Memphis' defense, blowing up all the primary movement against a Clippers team without a reliable secondary action.
Least valuable player: Lamar Odom is merely the representative for a team that looked out of sorts against the second-ranked team in defensive efficiency. Offensive sets consistently funneled down to Odom at the 3-point line, where he was reluctant to shoot. And that's exactly what the Grizzlies wanted.
That was a fresh start After Rudy Gay was traded, there were cries that Memphis lay victim to the new CBA mentality of cost-cutting. But winning 14 of their past 15, the realization has set in that the Grizzlies weren't shedding salary so much as streamlining efficiency. Scary news as the playoffs are around the corner.
MVP: Stephen Curry, the all-important member of the "Splash Brothers," finished with 31 points (11-for-17 overall, 5-for-7 from 3-point range) and 8 assists in 43 minutes in one of his more efficient games since the All-Star break.
LVP: Jose Calderon isn't likely to re-sign with the Pistons this off-season, and games like this only make it easier for Pistons president Joe Dumars to make that decision. Calderon finished with only 6 points (2-for-5 shooting) and 6 assists in 30 minutes of action.
That was soaring: Harrison Barnes, also known as "The Black Falcon," soared for four dunks Wednesday night. Two of the dunks came off baseline cuts, further displaying his impressive ability to smash toward the basket. Calm down, DeAndre, Harrison still has the dunk of the year.
MVP: Even on an off night, Kevin Durant was nearly unstoppable with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Despite eight turnovers, KD controlled the night and found time before the game to help up a fallen fan.
X factor: Kendrick Perkins (zero points, three rebounds) didn't contribute much on the offensive end, but completely locked down Al Jefferson and effectively cut off any reliable scoring options for the Jazz. The Thunder D took over.
That was embarrassing: The Jazz certainly didn't look like a team with playoff pretensions. Only Gordon Hayward (20 points), Enes Kanter (12 points, 5 rebounds) and Earl Watson (9 points, 6 assists) kept the Thunder from doubling up the Jazz.
MVP: I could easily give co-MVP honors to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for the milestone nights (20th and 15th on the NBA all-time scoring list), but the MVP on Wednesday is really the MVC. Doc Rivers gets the Most Valuable Coach award as he gets the C's to rebound from their worst loss of the season while limiting his stars' minutes.
LVP: Rudy Gay may have finished the game with 19 points on 7-for-19 shooting, but eight of those points came late in the fourth quarter with the Celtics comfortably holding a 20-point lead. Gay settled for a bevy of contested jumpers that, as one would expect, didn't go in.
That was All-Star Game-esque: It seemed as though every other play was a dunk, a crossover, or an example of how not to play defense. It was unwatchable at times and AWESOME at others.
MVP: Donatas Motiejunas led the Rockets with a career-high 19 points, finishing on easy baskets in transition and making corner 3-pointers look like layups. The 7-foot rookie also delivered a beautiful behind-the-back bounce pass to Omer Asik in the first quarter, resulting in a dunk. That play alone deserved MVP honors.
That was quick: With 5:37 left in the second quarter, Houston trailed Phoenix by five points. The Rockets closed the half on a 20-2 run, behind quick 3-pointers and relentless aggression at the rim. The rout was on after that.
X factor: The free-throw line. Houston spent the night attacking the rim, getting into the paint at will and drawing contact. The Rockets attempted 30 free throws. Phoenix did none of those things, and took only 10.
MVP: Kobe Bryant brought the Lakers back from down 12 at the half, scoring 20 points in the third quarter and 31 for the game. He also grabbed seven rebounds and dished five assists.
Defining moment: Devin Harris scored nine straight points to push Atlanta's lead to five late in the fourth quarter, culminating in a 96-92 win over the Lakers.
That was gutsy: With Josh Smith, Jeff Teague and Zaza Pachulia out due to injury, the Hawks used a total team effort to break a three-game losing streak.
MVP: For the first time in a couple of weeks, Jrue Holiday actually looked like an All-Star. He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and his game-tying dunk with 1:20 remaining might have been the highlight of the Sixers' frustrating season.
Defining moment: With 30 seconds left, LeBron James missed a layup, grabbed the offensive board, then missed another layup. But Dwyane Wade was there to pick up the garbage and give Miami a three-point lead. When the Heat needed points, they found a way to get them en route to a 20th straight win.
That was gutsy: The Sixers refused to quit. After trailing for most of the game, they went on a 17-4 run in the fourth quarter and briefly held the lead. Not a bad effort for a team that's out of the playoff race.
3. Wednesday's Best
Heat's winning streak:
Facing a motivated 76ers team, the Heat kept it together and left the arena with a 20-game win streak. Only three other teams have won at least 20 consecutive games in the same season: the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (33), the 2007-08 Houston Rockets (22) and the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks (20). Can they crack 33? The Heat's next four games are on the road.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Marco Belinelli, Bulls: The Bulls absorbed a 42-point loss (121-79) at the hands of one of the West's have-nots, the Sacramento Kings. Belinelli made the rout possible by missing all nine of his shots in 22 minutes of action. Less than a week ago, he hit a 3-pointer to beat Utah.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I can't get my mind past the fact that I got to wait a year to get revenge."
-- Kobe Bryant, upset after his injury sustained during his team's final meeting of the regular season with Atlanta.
8. Fallen Mamba
9. Stat Check
10. Dunk Of The Night
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MVP: John Wall had 23 points (10-of-19 on field goals), 10 assists (2 turnovers), 6 rebounds, 4 steals and a plus/minus of plus-16 in 43 minutes. Wall even made his third 3-pointer of the season and celebrated by throwing up a 3-monocle. Classic.
X factor: On a night where the Wizards were down to only two guards, Garrett Temple, a former D-Leaguer, stepped up with a solid game against two lightning-quick scorers in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Temple had 13 points (6-of-7 FG), 4 assists, 3 rebounds and a game-high plus-19 plus/minus.
That was a game of runs: The Bucks erased a 20-point deficit in the third quarter to steal the lead. But the Wizards responded with 14-5 run to start the fourth quarter and never looked back.
MVP: Roy Hibbert scored a season-high 27 points on just 15 shots while owning the offensive glass (nine offensive boards) and helping Indiana rack up second-chance points.
X factor: Interior dominance. With Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko all sidelined, the Pacers were able to live in the paint, scoring 50 points in the lane compared to just 24 for the Timberwolves.
LVPs: Minnesota's reserve guards J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved combined for just 12 points on 4-for-17 shooting (23.5 percent) in 54 minutes. Minnesota's starters actually kept them in this one for a while, but Ricky Rubio needed more help.
MVP: DeMarcus Cousins did not play because of injury, but fellow Kentucky Wildcat Patrick Patterson filled in admirably. In his first start as a King, Patterson made an instant impact, scoring 11 points and grabbing 5 rebounds in the first quarter. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and 9 rebounds in the blowout victory.
X factor: It's rare these days to associate bad defense with the Chicago Bulls. But this was one of those nights, specifically in transition. The Bulls allowed the Kings to hammer them 27-17 in fast-break points. In comparison, the Bulls have normally held their opponents to only 13 points in transition this season.
That was mind-boggling: Yes, the Kings have averaged nearly 110 points per game since All-Star break. But the Bulls are one of the best defensive teams in the league. To see the Bulls allow the Kings to score 65 of their 121 points in the first half is uncharacteristic.