Something finally has come along to make the otherwise pointless exercise of the final six weeks of the NBA regular season meaningful. It's called the Miami Heat.
This is the night-in, night-out, can't-miss spectacle we all thought the Heat would be when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together in 2010. In fact, the Heat themselves thought this would happen overnight. They thought winning free agency in July 2010 would translate into instant success, into multiple championships.
It turns out those things have to be earned. And it turns out to be far more entertaining to watch the Heat earn their accolades and stamp their greatness than it would've been to watch it happen with no effort, without struggle.
The struggles, for now, are in the past. The rocky start to their first season together, the failure in the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas. Miami's 2012 championship validated their talent. This 20-game winning streak in the otherwise meaningless portion of their title-defending season has validated something much more important: the application and maturity of that talent, not to mention the joy of watching NBA greatness earned as opposed to anointed.
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With a gritty, sometimes spectacular and other times ugly 98-94 victory against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night, the Heat equaled the third-longest winning streak in NBA history. Their 20-game streak ties the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks and is only two behind the 2007-08 Houston Rockets (22). Dare we point out that they're 14 shy of eclipsing the 1971-72 Lakers' iconic 33-game winning streak? And that with 19 games left, they actually have a realistic shot at it?
Will they do it? Hell, no. With a virtual lock on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Heat will need rest, good health and a mental break more than they need their name in the record books.
Other than watching with jaw-dropping amazement as the Heat dominate, this time of year in the NBA unfortunately is about stars on playoff teams taking nights off and lottery teams pretending to try while they jockey for more ping-pong balls. All eight playoff spots in the East are locked up (though not the order), and the only question in the West is whether the Lakers can hold off the Jazz for the eighth spot. That question becomes sillier by the day.
Plenty of ideas for easing the boredom of the NBA's regular-season stretch run have been proposed, but none has been adopted. So Miami's utter dominance and a potential date with history is a welcome development. But the way the Heat are playing, they're much more than a diversion. They're a rare dose of Must See NBA in March. They're the NCAA Tournament, only more compelling.
I see plenty of winnable games between now and April 9, when the Heat theoretically would have a shot at breaking the Lakers' record at home against the Bucks. I also see eight road games and six home games, though the Heat are 8-0 on the road during the streak. I see two back-to-backs, but of course Miami is 10-1 on the second night of back-to-backs this season, including Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
I see the streak potentially coming to an end Friday night in Milwaukee. Or Monday night in Boston. Or March 31 in San Antonio, in the improbable event that the Spurs show up for that game at full strength.
Basically, I don't see this lasting too much longer. It's impractical, unnecessary and there's a reason it hasn't been done in 42 years. But there's no question that it's fun to watch. The Heat have earned their greatness, and they've become a spectacle that is not to be missed. Enjoy it while it lasts.