Wednesday night I watched as the Miami Heat slept walked their way through a first half against the highly depleted Chicago Bulls team. Miami, one of the better defensive teams in the league, gave up 32 points to a lousy Bulls offense in the first quarter and seemed a bit lackadaisical heading into halftime. I had a feeling, ever so slight, that this might be the game when the streak finally ends, and Miami’s quest for 33 straight wins disappears into history. Turns out I was right, the Heat finally lost a regular season game, the first one in 27 and now, only the grumpiest of sports fans can try to take some solace in what was at one point the savior of the NBA season.
In the four major sports in America, Football, Basketball, Baseball and Hockey (NASCAR is still iffy as a sport in my book) the regular seasons have become increasingly irrelevant over the years. Football, with its short 16 game regular season and games focused on Sundays and Monday manages to keep everyone interested for most weeks but last few Superbowls and playoffs have dulled the luster of the regular season. Over the last decade teams that play lousy all season regularly “get hot” at the last minute, sneak into the playoffs and get to the Superbowl (the 2006 Steelers and 2007 Giants come to mind), rendering the season long maneuvering and jockeying amongst contending teams almost irrelevant. Baseball is even worse, with over 163 games every year played at all times of day and night, half the games don’t even matter, and attendance has been slightly creeping down since a peak in 2008. The same goes for hockey and in general the same goes for the NBA. The regular NBA season is 82 games and 15 out of 32 teams make the playoffs. What’s worse, in any given NBA season there are really maybe 4 or 5 teams that have a legitimate chance of making the NBA finals, let alone winning it all. Consequently the regular season becomes a pointless slog after awhile, the players, the fans and even the coaches coast through December, pick it up a bit heading into the All Star Break in mid-February then once playoff positions look to be set most steams coast through late March and April prepping for the playoffs. Except this year, thank to the Heat.
Miami with their incredible winning streak over various quality teams with close games, blowouts and last minute game winning shots actually gave NBA fans and the league itself something to market in the doldrums of March. While other contending teams like the New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers were half-stepping their way through the last few games Miami was actually honing their craft, playing better basketball, and most importantly of all, giving the fans their money’s worth. That’s the part that the few lingering LeBron James and Miami Heat haters, now cheering for the end of this streak, seem to have missed. The goal of professional sports is not to teach us about ourselves, or inspire kids or even reflect on the nature of man against man, the goal of professional sports is to entertain people. And entertainment comes from both teams actually trying to WIN every night, instead of looking at the schedule, taking games of, running at 60% during fast breaks and generally reserving themselves for the playoffs or (for about half the league) their early summer vacation. At this point to cheer that the Miami Heat win streak is over is to cheer against what actually makes sports fun in America. The wistful notion that everyone you have paid money to see or sat down to watch is actually trying to do their best. Rather than hit the snooze button until the playoffs fans were given reason to watch games against some of the lousiest teams in the league (Orlando Magic, Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons) just to see them put up their best against Miami and to see Miami actually put effort out to win.
Ultimately last night’s loss is really not going to make a huge difference in the long term for the 2012-2013 NBA season. The Heat loss to Chicago does not suggest some larger flaw in the defending champions; or some significant psychological advantage for the Bulls if the two teams meet in the playoffs. The loss really doesn’t change the overall playoff picture in the Eastern Conference where Miami has a 12 game lead on 2nd place and a 1 ½ game lead on the San Antonio Spurs in the West for the best NBA record overall. However, it does take a little bit of the shine off of this part of the season. There is a bit less interest in watching some of the remaining games because we are no longer witnessing history but just part of a process. That is something that any sports fan, casual or not can feel sad about. Even if you root against the Heat, you have to love sports history and we just saw a team fall just short of making it.