Sometimes when watching something happen, whether it be in sports or just in the news, we understand in real time that what we are witnessing is historic and memorable. It can be for good or bad reasons depending on the circumstances, but some things are just clearly in that realm of events that stay with you.
In sports specifically it can be an individual event or it can be a broader thing like a team or athlete as a whole. I recently wrote about Black Caviar and Michael Jordan and they both fall into this category as individuals. Jordan’s Bulls’ historic 1995-96 season where they finished 72-10 also falls into it. In terms of individual games we can look at memorable finishes like both Rabbitohs vs. Roosters games from 2012, which fans who watch will always remember.
The 2012-13 Miami Heat and specifically LeBron James are without question in that category; even if they do not go on to win the championship. At time of writing they have just completed their 23rd consecutive victory after beating my own beloved Boston Celtics in Boston, for the first time in years. The Celtics may have been without Rajon Rondo or Kevin Garnett, but watching the game you could tell it was truly a moment. The crowd was insane, the Celtics who did play were ferocious against their rivals and Uncle Jeff Green was playing like one of the aliens in Space Jam.
Despite having a big lead in both the first and second halves (both times they were run down) the Celtics couldn’t shut the door and then LeBron slammed it shut himself with a dagger three. When LeBron returned to the game with nine minutes remaining the Heat were down double digits and regardless of the crowd or the Celtics’ pressure, he simply wouldn’t be denied.
At the end of the day, one team had LeBron James and the other one didn’t. The same can be said of every game they have played this season and particularly during what is now the second longest win streak in NBA history and counting.
In June, the value of the streak and the season will hinge dramatically on whether they are able to go back-to-back and retain their championship, but even if they do not, I will never forget the quality of basketball I have witnessed during this run. I have watched a lot of basketball in my life and whilst I never saw the Showtime Lakers or Russell’s Celtics, I did see Jordan’s Bulls and even the Shaq/Kobe era Lakers. This LeBron season is the greatest individual basketball performance I have ever seen, in what is arguably the most talented NBA player pool ever.
In any other season Kevin Durant would be on his way to an easy MVP season and people would say it was deserved and not controversial. But yet he isn’t even a close second to what LeBron is doing right now. LeBron always had the physical capability to go to this level but it would require the mental aspect as well as the hard work to improve his game to actually reach it. Clearly all of those stars have now aligned and the rest of the league is in trouble.
Many NBA fans that are not Heat fans hate the Heat and hate LeBron. I certainly fall into that category, especially as a Celtics fan. It is hard to reconcile my hatred for their winning with the appreciation as a basketball fan for what they are doing. But sometimes the joy of the game overtakes the jersey they are wearing and whilst I may hate the Heat, I respect them to no end.
Heat fans however will mostly believe this streak and season is meaningless if it doesn’t end in a ring. Obviously that is true in a large sense, but I still believe that win or lose, this season will be remembered forever and talked about for years. The 2007 New England Patriots season which ended in Super Bowl disaster will never be forgotten (many other factors in that one too) and clearly it would be a different narrative had they won the title, but that season will always be remembered for them more than anything else.
Even the Houston Rockets 22 game win streak that the Heat just surpassed will never be forgotten and that team never got close to winning the championship and they never displayed quite the level of play the Heat have reached.
It is hard to compare across eras, especially with the rule changes and league expansion, but the peak level of this Heat team could very well be higher than the peak reached by those legendary ‘96 Bulls or ‘86 Celtics, which are considered by many to be the two best individual season teams in NBA history.
The best comparison I can think of for this Heat/LeBron team is across the Atlantic Ocean. Lionel Messi and Barcelona reached a level of football performance that I had never seen before in any team sport, until now. Stylistically the teams are worlds apart, as the Barcelona style would compare better with the aforementioned ’86 Celtics and their passing. This heat team is built around stars and a few key role players; more like Barcelona’s great rivals Real Madrid.
But despite their differences, both the Heat and Barcelona have transcended the game and put on a performance that is more like art than sport. At this stage, both teams are competing against themselves more-so than the team trying to defend them and both are doing so behind the performance of a once in a lifetime athlete.
Barcelona have already won plenty of trophies during this era, whereas the Heat have only won the title once so far, but in both instances we will be telling our grandkids about watching both LeBron James and Lionel Messi dribble a ball.
Love him or hate him, as Nike likes to tell us, we are all witnesses.