March 17, 2013

Miami Heat gunning for another milestone

A victory Sunday in Toronto would tie Miami with the 2007-08 Houston Rockets for the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.

It’s not the games Chris Bosh will remember.

It’s not the dunks or the highlight-reel plays that will be filed away in his memory when someone, 20 years from now, asks him about his time with one of the best teams of his generation. The camaraderie, the brotherhood, the silliness: These are the things Bosh and the rest of his Heat teammates will hold close and cherish.

For example, Shane Battier’s speech on Day 1 of the winning streak will be etched into Bosh’s consciousness forever.

It was a joke, more than anything, Battier’s spontaneous oration on the team bus from a sports bar in Toronto to the airport. The Heat had just watched the Baltimore Ravens defeat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. That the team was even allowed to stay in Toronto a few extra hours after defeating the Raptors was a break in NBA custom the team will never forget.

Sensing the significance of the moment, feeling the pulse of the room so to speak, Battier rose to his feet on the team bus and delivered what Mario Chalmers would later call, jokingly, a speech to “touch the people.”

“I don’t remember it exactly,” Bosh said. “He hit a whole bunch of points, everything, life. It was just having fun, man. [Battier] could be a politician if he wanted to be. He was just talking crap, but it was fun.”

You want to know what moves a team to win 21 consecutive games during the slog of an NBA season that is February and March? It’s not “energy commitment,” as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra likes to say when he’s in front of a microphone. It’s not the desire to win games at all costs. Everyone wants to win games, but only three teams in NBA history have won at least 21 games in a row.

The inspiration is as simple as it is complex — fun.

Fun is not needing two overtimes to defeat the Sacramento Kings. Fun is Dwyane Wade and LeBron James cleaning the shelves of every costume store in Miami for a Harlem Shake video.

Fun is not grinding out a four-point victory on the second night of a back-to-back in Philadelphia. Fun is James doing the robot dance through the middle of Bosh’s postgame interview in Milwaukee.

Fun is why every school in America has a basketball goal on its playground. Fun is why James throws down pregame dunks during warmups like a kid goofing off on a blacktop somewhere back in Akron, Ohio.

On Friday in Milwaukee, Battier was pressed by a reporter to divulge the details of that speech he delivered way back on Feb. 3. Since his words on that team bus, the Heat has won 20 games in a row, the most difficult of which might have been the first, a 99-94 victory against the Charlotte Bobcats less than 24 hours after the Heat crowded into Real Sports Bar and Grill in downtown Toronto. “I can’t give the same speech twice,” Battier said. “It’s like a rainbow. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

“I’m just going to let that speech be. Let it be. That’s the beauty of it.”

As Bosh recalls, Battier rambled on aimlessly with a tongue-and-cheek nod to political discourse. The words weren’t important, but the underlying message was profound. Bosh remembers one phrase distinctly.

“He was like, ‘When I’m done playing, you guys are going to miss me,’ ” Bosh said. “If I took anything away from it, that was it.

“It was funny, but you can turn it into motivation because those are the things and moments you tend to remember — not so much the games. When guys say they’re hanging out on the bus with the fellas and having a good time, that speech was pretty much the poster child of that.”

Battier delivers the comedic speeches, Wade wears the clownish clothes and Bosh provides the quirky “photo-bomb” gags, but James is the fountainhead of the funhouse. Like the victories, the personality of the team begins with its leader.

Yet even a leader of James’ lighthearted luminosity must be given freedom to shine. The Heat’s coach has done that. Spoelstra has learned a lot from the master, but a clone of Pat Riley he is not.

Spoelstra can be formulaic and dry during his postgame news conferences, but it was the Heat’s coach that made the last-minute call to remain in Toronto for the Super Bowl. The suit and tie that sits at a dais after home games and fields questions from reporters is a different man in the locker room.

Spoelstra and Riley understand that a good coach gets the best out of his players. In any sport at any level, that’s the mark of greatness. At a fundamental level, the link between Spoelstra and Riley begins and ends there.

Does that Harlem Shake video happen with Riley in charge? Would James be allowed to put on a nightly dunk contest with Riley on the bench? You think the team stays over in Toronto for the Super Bowl with Riley calling the shots? Does Battier deliver that speech with Riley sitting at the front of the team bus?

The answer to all those questions is probably not. That’s not a knock on Riley but rather a testament to his vision. The winning streak began in Toronto on Feb. 3 and on Sunday it can hit 22 at Air Canada Centre and tie the 2007-08 Houston Rockets for the second-longest run in NBA history.

Perfectly, poetically, Battier was on that team, too. Prophetically, here’s what he said back on Feb. 4 about that detour to the sports bar for the Super Bowl:

“I’d like to think it was a team-bonding activity that will propel us to bigger heights. It was one of the best team days I have had in the NBA. It was one of the best days I have had as a pro socially with my teammates.”

Now there’s a speech worth remembering.

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