Gail Goodrich knew Miami would beat Boston the other night.
He knew even a 17-point deficit, the largest they had faced in six weeks, wouldn’t stop LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“Once they got back in the game, there was no doubt in my mind they were going to win,” Goodrich said of the Heat’s 105-103 victory Monday. “They just are better than everybody else.”
So were the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Goodrich were a Big Three to rival what Miami has, the core of a team that racked up routs on the way to an NBA-record 33 straight victories. They rarely felt threatened, either by their opponent or the stress of the streak, making one of sports’ most remarkable achievements seem rather routine.
“We had one of those teams that comes along every once in a while,” West said. “The only bad thing about it is we were really too old to be able to sustain it. But it was easy. And when we lost, it was like, ‘I can’t believe we lost.’ It was like two-and-a-half months. It was a very special time.”
Miami has won 23 in a row heading into its game Wednesday at Cleveland. After that, it’s home for Detroit and Charlotte, then off to Orlando, a four-game stretch against the bottom four teams in the Eastern Conference. So after years when no team came close to threatening their record, the Lakers recognize this could be the end of their time at the top.
“I really didn’t think that that record, after really thinking about it, was going to be broken. Now, I’m starting to change my mind,” Goodrich said during a phone interview. “I think they have a good shot at it.”
Yet as good as the Heat have been, they can’t match the ruthlessness of the Lakers’ run.
It started after a loss — two of them, actually — early in the season. The Lakers fell 109-105 to Golden State on Halloween 1971, then franchise cornerstone Elgin Baylor retired because of a knee injury.
They returned with victories on three straight days from Nov. 5-7 — players complain now about playing on back-to-back nights — with two coming by single digits. From there, the games got progressively easier and the margins more lopsided.
The Lakers outscored opponents by an average of 123.3 to 107.3, according to STATS. They had one three-game stretch in which they scored 139, 132 and 138 points, part of a nine-game span in which their low total was 123 points.
“I think we might have only played two close games the whole time. The rest of them were just routs,” West said at a recent Golden State game.
Like golfers who suddenly feel they can make any putt from any distance, the Hall of Famers remember the game getting easier as the streak went on. They actually enjoyed the run instead of feeling any kind of burden to keep it going.
“You’re very, very confident. Your shot is going in, you just do things, you don’t even think about the streak. You don’t think about the entirety of it,” Goodrich said.
“Certainly we had a lot of confidence and that confidence grew among us that somehow, some way, we were going to find a way to win, and I think all great teams do that. We really didn’t think about the streak, at least I didn’t. I mean, we knew it wasn’t going to last forever, I mean that just doesn’t happen, but we were dominating.”
Chamberlain was more defender and rebounder at that late stage of his career, but West (25.8 points per game that season) and Goodrich (25.9) provided plenty of points. Defense wins championships, the cliche goes, but a potent offense can keep a winning streak going, and the Lakers knew they had it.
“We were capable of having runs, streaks, running off 12 or 15 points in a game,” Goodrich said. “Pretty much we were confident we were going to do that, but I think the confidence builds that you’re better than your opponent. That doesn’t mean you disrespect them, but you are better.”
The Heat have had it tougher. They trailed by 16 before rallying for a six-point victory over a Knicks team that had beaten them badly twice earlier in the season. They went two overtimes with Sacramento and needed a layup by James with 3.2 seconds left to beat Orlando. His jumper with 10.5 seconds remaining allowed them to escape Boston with the streak intact.
The toughest obstacle for the Heat — already one of the most scrutinized teams in sports from the moment James and Bosh joined Wade in 2010 — may be the attention they’ll face. The streak has made the reigning champs larger than life, even drawing attention away from college basketball’s postseason during what’s usually a quiet time in the NBA schedule.
The Lakers, even with Chamberlain’s outsized personality, didn’t face nearly the level of media interest. The then-record of 20 in a row had been set by Milwaukee less than a year earlier, the Knicks had won 18 in a row a couple of years before that, and there just wasn’t the fascination with a feat that didn’t seem as extraordinary at the time.
West, a consultant now with the Warriors, was watching a national news program recently and saw a segment about the Heat’s streak. But asked how much the Lakers heard or thought about theirs, he said: “Honestly, not much.”
“I think athletes have the ability to focus in on what’s ahead of them,” he said. “Today it’s much different than it was before because you have so much more media around today. And then toward the end there when we really got in the 20s, there wasn’t a lot of interests.”
The streak finally ended on Jan. 9, 1972. The offense that had been humming for so long managed only 17 points in the second quarter, and the defending champion Bucks beat them 120-104 behind 39 points from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
That started a stretch of four losses in six games before the Lakers regrouped and won eight in a row en route to a 69-13 record and their first championship in Los Angeles. They’d had great individual talent for years, but knew that season they had something more.
“We had veteran guys on our team. Veteran players like that, you don’t have to come in the locker room and say a word,” West said. “It was, ‘Let’s see who we’re playing tonight. Don’t change anything you’re doing and go play.”’
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