Streaks are nice, championships are better

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STREAKING–Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade (3) and LeBron James (6) stand together during the second quarter against the Orlando Magic in Miami on March 6. (AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, David Santiago)

 

by Paul Newberry

AP National Writer

Blowouts. Narrow margins of victory. Lucky breaks. Overwhelming opponents with superior skills.

It all adds up to a pair of remarkable streaks in Miami and Chicago.

Yet, the funny thing about these testaments to consistent success: They don’t mean nearly as much if you don’t come out on top in the final game of the season.

Just ask the 2007 New England Patriots, who were 18-0 until they lost in the Super Bowl. Or the 2002 Oakland Athletics, whose 20-game winning streak might have been good enough to produce a best-selling book and the hit movie “Moneyball,” but didn’t add up to a World Series championship. Or the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers, who put together the longest unbeaten run in North American sports history, a staggering 35 games.

In the last series of the year, the Flyers lost four games and won only two.

It was the New York Islanders who skated off with the Stanley Cup.

“Streaks are wonderful,” said Bob “Hound Dog” Kelly, who was part of the record-breaking, runner-up Flyers. “But if you don’t win (a championship), it’s no good.”

Down in Miami, the Heat passed the halfway mark to the NBA record for consecutive wins, winning their 17th in a row Friday night with a 102-93 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

In Colorado, the Blackhawks’ season-opening stretch of 24 consecutive games earning at least a point finally ended with a 6-2 loss to the last-place Avalanche.

Neither result mattered all that much. These teams will be measured by what they do at the end of the season, not now.

The Heat are certainly mindful of that. The main number they’re concerned about is 16 — the number of playoff wins it will take to capture their second straight NBA championship. They’re not getting too worked up about some stellar play in March.

“We’re enjoying it,” forward Shane Battier said, “but we have bigger goals.”

The Heat still have a ways to go before they even start worrying about matching the 33 consecutive wins turned in by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by Hall of Famers Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain — and, by the way, had a backup forward named Pat Riley, who just happens to be Miami’s team president these days.

Then again, LeBron James & Co. would love to emulate another accomplishment of that great Lakers team, which went on to capture the NBA title with a five-game wipeout of the New York Knicks in the finals.

The Blackhawks’ run already came with a bit of an asterisk, because they had actually lost three games in shootouts before their first regulation setback of the season.

During their streak, the Flyers won 25 games and tied 10 others. Back then, there was no overtime until the playoffs, and the shootout was still a far-off creation. If the teams were tied after 60 minutes, that’s how it ended. Each got a point. No one lost.

Everyone seems to agree that the key to keeping a long streak going is avoiding any talk about keeping it going. The Flyers, for instance, never really sensed the significance of their run until they were heading to Boston with a chance to eclipse the previous record.

“We were just playing the game and trying to win the game,” said former Flyers great Bobby Clarke, one of the leaders on that team. “Pretty soon, it just stretched a long way. I don’t ever recall anybody talking about the streak until that game in Boston. I don’t think there was ever any time where keeping the record going was ever more important than winning the individual game we were playing in.”

When Philadelphia’s streak ended, it happened with a thud. The Flyers were blown out at Minnesota by the North Stars, 7-1. But the Flyers bounced right back to win the next game; in fact, they didn’t lose two in a row until there were about two weeks left in the season, their only back-to-back defeats of the entire regular season.

“You can get complacent and that’s how things start steamrolling against you,” said Brian Propp, another key contributor on that team. “If we ever had a loss, we said, ‘We never want to lose two in a row and let’s not let that happen.’ I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be good and never allow a bad streak to get in place.”

The 1982 Atlanta Braves couldn’t avoid it. They started the season with a record 13 straight wins — a mark since matched by the Milwaukee Brewers — but slumped badly in the second half and barely made the playoffs. Not surprisingly, the Braves were swept by St. Louis in the NL championship series.

“What can I say? It was a crazy year,” Dale Murphy, the star of that Braves team, said shortly before he coached for the United States in the World Baseball Classic at Phoenix. “We won 13 in a row and then, in August, we lost 19 out of 21. Then we ended sneaking in the back on the last day of the season. It was the most fun I ever had playing baseball.”

Perhaps the most striking example of a winning streak not being the true indicator of a season’s worth came way back in 1916. The New York Giants won 26 straight games — a major league record that still stands — on top of a 17-game streak earlier in the season. But they only finished fourth in the National League, seven games behind pennant-winning Brooklyn.

A long time ago, to be sure, but worth considering before they start setting up for a victory parade in Chicago.

As for Miami, we’re OK with the Heat doing some advance planning for another celebration.

They seem destined to win a second straight title, no matter when their streak finally ends.

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

AP Sports Writers Dan Gelston in Philadelphia and John Marshall in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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