When it’s about NBA history, it always goes back to the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, and . . . Wilt Chamberlain.
The Miami Heat Monday night won their 23d consecutive game, recovering from a 13-point deficit in the final eight minutes in a spectacular 105-103 showcase triumph on the parquet floor. This was blood-and-thunder basketball for the full 48, easily the most entertaining game of the Causeway season. Subbing for Kevin Garnett, Jeff Green lit up the New Garden for 43 points, but it was not enough to keep the Heat from extending their winning streak.
Miami now trails only the 1971-72 Lakers, who won 33 in a row. Those Lakers had a center named Chamberlain. The Heat have the latter-day Wilt and his name is King LeBron James.
James finished with 37 points, 12 assists, and 7 rebounds Monday night. He hit the winning shot with 10.5 seconds left on the clock.
What was the call from the bench before that shot, Coach?
“Make a play,’’ said Erik Spoelstra. “Save us.’’
LeBron saved them. And now they have a chance for 33. Miami’s next four games are against the worst four teams in the Eastern Conference.
“It means a lot,’’ James said after the win. “No matter who is in the [Celtic] uniforms, they’ve got championship DNA.’’
The Celtics made it difficult for the Heat. Green had 26 in the first half during which the Celtics led by 17. It looked like Miami might lose for the first time since Feb. 1 and the New Garden was rocking like the Old Garden in the old days.
But the 2012-13 Celtics could not do what the 2007-08 Celtics did at Houston five years ago. They could not stop a 22-game win streak. And now the Heat can catch the Lakers. And LeBron can catch Wilt.
Nobody around here likes to admit it, but Wilt was the greatest player in NBA history (sorry, ESPN, we know you kind of like Michael Jordan). We all know that Bill Russell was the greatest winner, but Wilt retired with all the individual records. He averaged 50 points a game in a season. Rules were changed to limit Chamberlain’s dominance. He was 7 feet 1 inch of muscle and athleticism.
LeBron reminds me of Wilt. Maybe it’s the headband. Maybe it’s the muscular frame. Maybe it’s the delight we take in seeing LeBron lose. That’s the way it was watching Wilt.
James is not a center. He is not a 7-footer. But he is the NBA’s best player by a wide margin. These days it is popular to say that no player ever has had a stretch of great games like the one James is enjoying. But Wilt did it. Wilt averaged 50. That means on a night when Wilt was “held” to 30, he needed to get 70 the next night to maintain his average.
There are other Heat win-streak links to the Celtics and Lakers. The ’71-72 Lakers were coached by a Celtics Hall of Famer; Bill Sharman. Jerry West and Gail Goodrich were the stellar guards for those Lakers, but they had a rugged sub from Kentucky named Pat Riley. Today Riley, the coach of the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, is the big boss of the world champion Miami Heat.
We love to hate on the Heat, just as we love to hate on LeBron, just as we loved to hate on Wilt.
That’s why it was so sweet to see the Celtics threaten the Heat Monday night.
As strange as it sounds, the Celtics are the Heat’s primary rival in the Eastern Conference. That’s not how the conference seeding reads, but it’s the truth. And the Heat know it to be true.
Last year the Celtics threw a giant scare into the Heat. Boston led the Heat, three games to two, in the conference finals. There was national buzz about Miami’s chokers. We all agreed that LeBron just couldn’t win the Big One. Then LeBron came into Boston and had a Chamberlain-esque performance in Game 6 and that changed everything. The Heat went on to win Game 7 at home, then won the NBA championship. Now they are prohibitive favorites to win again. They are playing like champions.
“They have pride,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before the game. “They’re champs and they take that mantle and they want to prove it. They’re acting like they’re champs from last year.’’
There’s really no one standing in their way in the conference. But the Heat still fear and loathe the Celtics. They remember the Celtics beating them, 100-98, in double overtime Jan. 27.
“It’s no secret these games are very intense,’’ said Miami’s Chris Bosh. “Don’t think for a minute that we’re friends.’’
Dwyane Wade also spoke of the rivalry before the nationally televised joust. While LeBron reclined on a trainer’s table, wearing headphones, reciting rap lyrics, Wade answered a few questions.
“Dwyane, do you hate the Celtics?’’
“Yes,’’ he said with a smile. “The Celtics have veteran guys who get under your skin a little bit, especially here. When we play them and someone is missing, it doesn’t matter.’’
It was hard to hear the soft-spoken Wade because LeBron was making a lot of noise from the other side of the room. Immersed in his own world while his teammates engaged with the media, King James still managed to make himself the center of attention.
James was still loud when the game started and made all the noise down the stretch. It reminded me of something Wilt would have done.
A tough loss for the Celtics. But the best night of the year for basketball fans.