The streak is over. The big prize is still out there.
That’s what mattered most to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
The Heat’s bid for NBA history ended Wednesday night when their 27-game winning streak was snapped by the Chicago Bulls 101-97, setting off a raucous celebration inside United Center. Miami finished six shy of the 33-game record held by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
With 11 games remaining, there’s no time for Miami to take another shot at the record. A big run in the postseason would seem to be a sure bet.
For the better part of two months, they were the NBA’s comeback kings. They erased seven double-digit deficits during the streak. They found themselves trailing in the fourth quarter 11 times, and won them all.
“We understand, probably more so later on in our careers, the significance of that. And then that was it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We took that moment to acknowledge it, to acknowledge each other, that experience, but it was never about the streak. We have a bigger goal, but also right now, it’s about ‘Are we getting better?'”
They walked off the floor stoically, not exchanging handshakes or pleasantries with the Bulls. James slapped high-fives with a couple teammates and coaches, then glared at a fan who touched his head as he walked toward the tunnel leading to the visitors’ locker room.
James was frustrated on the court at times, and showed more of the same in the locker room afterward with regard to how he’s officiated.
He cited two instances from Wednesday — a play in which Kirk Hinrich took him down with two hands in the first quarter, and Taj Gibson appearing to hit him around his neck with about 4 minutes remaining — where he thought the contact was excessive. Referees reviewed the Gibson hit, but did not award a flagrant foul. So, seconds later, James tried to barrel through Carlos Boozer on a screen, and got called for a Flagrant 1 himself.
“Those are not basketball plays and it’s been happening all year,” James said. “I’ve been able to keep my cool and try to tell Spo, ‘Let’s not worry about it too much,’ but it is getting to me a little bit.”
The Bulls, meanwhile, whooped and slapped hands with anyone they could reach after clinching a playoff berth.
“It’s a five-second moment of reflection before we move on to the rest of the season,” Wade said. “In here, it didn’t feel like we were on this amazing streak.”
What a run it was, though.
It will go down as the second-longest winning streak in the history of American major pro sports.
The Heat trailed by as many as 13 in the first half, took the lead while outscoring Chicago 22-14 in the third quarter and were within two early in the fourth after a basket by Wade.
That’s when Deng answered with a 3-pointer from the wing and Kirk Hinrich brought the crowd to its feet with a floater. Then, after a layup by James, Deng nailed a 3 to make it 83-75 with just over six minutes left.
It got testy after that. James did all he could to keep the streak going, taking enough hard hits that even his headband was dislodged, and finished with seven rebounds.
Bosh scored 21. Wade added 18 points after a sore right knee sidelined him for victories over Charlotte and Orlando, but the Heat fell to a team that continues to give them fits even though Derrick Rose has been sidelined all year.
Deng came up big, burying four 3-pointers. He also had seven rebounds and five assists.
Boozer was a force inside. Jimmy Butler provided a spark with 17 points and the Bulls stopped Miami even though they were missing Joakim Noah (right foot), Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain) and Richard Hamilton (lower back).
“It says we have a good team,” Gibson said. “It’s all about what we think in the locker room. A lot of people kind of write us off every other day, but we just stick to our principles and do what we have to do.”
There was a rumor that Rose would make his long-awaited return from a knee injury after rapper Waka Flocka Flame posted on Twitter, “Word is D.Rose back.” The two are fans of each other, but the superstar point guard squashed it at the morning shootaround, with two words — “Not tonight.”
The Bulls were the biggest threat to Miami in the Eastern Conference the past two years, but without their superstar, they’re just part of the pack.
Even so, no one has given the Heat more trouble since James and Bosh united with Wade in 2010. They had split 14 games leading up to this one, with Chicago winning at Miami in early January and the Heat returning the favor at the United Center last month.