A team that just a couple of months ago was accused by pundits of being bored with the regular season now has achieved what only one other defending NBA champion has: winning 19 games in a row.
And the Heat reached that plateau Tuesday without angst, drama or fourth-quarter suspense.
Disruptive defensively and balanced offensively, the Heat never led by fewer than 13 points in the final 14 minutes and coasted to a 98-81 win against Atlanta, thereby equaling the 2008-09 Celtics’ record for most wins in a row by a defending champion.
And Miami did it despite an uncharacteristically poor shooting night from LeBron James, who missed eight of his 11 attempts and closed with 15 points. He scored more from the line (9 for 12) than from the field. His three field goals were his fewest in a regular season game with the Heat — he also did that in a poor 2011 Finals game against Dallas — but it hardly mattered.
The Heat’s 19-game streak ties the fifth-longest in NBA history, and Miami can match two other teams for the third-longest streak by winning Wednesday night in Philadelphia to open a five-game road trip.
But Miami is still quite a ways off from matching the Lakers’ record 33-game streak.
“Let’s be honest,” James said of the streak. “We’re not saying this isn’t special. It’s an unbelievable streak. But we don’t want to get caught up in it.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra said he has not talked to his players about the streak because: “I don’t see how it helps us prepare for tomorrow. It really isn’t about the streak. We treat each game as its own. I told them it’s a privilege for us to get into Philadelphia at 4 a.m. and go do this again” Wednesday night.
The Heat — whose 15-game home winning streak is three short of a franchise record — dispatched the Hawks with a balanced attack, with Dwyane Wade scoring 23, James 15, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers 14 apiece and Ray Allen 12. Udonis Haslem had 11 boards in 24 minutes.
“It’s only fitting if LeBron is struggling, we still have to make plays,” Bosh said. “That’s what this team is built on. It’s a very deep team.”
The Heat shot 42.7 percent from the field — well below its league-leading 49.6 average coming into the game. But Miami feasted at the foul line, hitting 22 of 30 shots compared with 10 of 14 for the Hawks.
And the Heat was active defensively, forcing 24 turnovers leading to 27 points. Atlanta closed at 42.3 percent from the field. “It was good to see our guys creating havoc defensively,” Spoelstra said. “I liked the way the ball was moving.”
James, who scored a season-low 13 points Sunday against Indiana, opened 2 for 9 from the field. But as usual, he contributed in many ways, with seven boards, seven assists and two steals.
“I don’t feel off,” James said. “I took 10 shots the last game, 11 tonight. It’s not about me. It’s about the wins.”
Wade shot 9 for 18, extending his streak of shooting at least 50 percent to an 11th consecutive game, equaling a career mark achieved last season. He said he feels the best he has since 2010.
“It feels good to do things you’re used to doing,” he said. “When I feel good, when I can attack, our team has a better chance to win every night.”
Haslem looked like the vintage version, corralling more rebounds than the Hawks in the first quarter (seven to five) even though he spent the last three-plus minutes of the quarter on the bench. He nailed his first two jumpers, a shot he has hit with far less frequency the past two seasons.
Chalmers, off a splendid 26-point game against Indiana, continued his good work with four three-pointers, three steals, and a block of a Jeff Teague three-pointer in the final seconds of the first half.
The Heat led 79-65 after three, then buried the Hawks, largely in transition, with a 10-2 run to open the fourth. Atlanta closed to within 92-78 with 3:57 left, but Spoelstra opted to leave in five reserves instead of going back to his starters. Joel Anthony scored six points, and the Hawks never pulled closer than 14.
“Initially we took things for granted but not this year,” Bosh said. “We look forward to difficulties. We’ve been ready for that. It’s nice to play with the best team in the world and the best teammates in the world.”