Former Lakers great Jerry West, a key member of the team that (for now) owns the longest winning streak in NBA history, was watching the Heat-Cleveland Cavaliers game Wednesday night when Miami fell behind by 27 points.
“My wife said, ‘They’re going to lose.’ And I said, ‘No, they’re going to win by 10.’
“When you’re playing at that level, you have a different gear.”
Miami ended up winning by three, but West’s instinct was generally on target.
And he has another suspicion, too: His Los Angeles Lakers’ record 33-game win streak, achieved in 1971-72, “could very easily be broken this year” by a Heat team that has won 25 in a row heading into Sunday’s home game against Charlotte.
“They have a great chance to do it,” West said. “Look at their schedule. Unless they have just a horrible shooting night, I don’t think those teams are capable of getting close to them.”
He excludes one team: San Antonio, which hosts Miami on March 31, in what could be Win No. 30 if the streak survives Charlotte, Chicago and New Orleans.
“That’s a terrific team and a game I would be concerned about,” West said.
If the Heat keeps winning, No. 33 in a row would be at home April 6 against Philadelphia. Win No. 34 would come three days later against visiting Milwaukee.
Unlike a few members of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, the ’71-72 Lakers aren’t openly rooting against the team chasing their place in history.
“If you say to me, ‘Does it bother you?’ Absolutely not,” West said. “I think it’s great for the league. I’m delighted for my friend, [Heat president] Pat Riley.
“If they break it, my gosh, it’s a wonderful story. I would have no problem with that.”
Gail Goodrich, who led that Lakers team in scoring at 25.9 points per game, told Fox Sports: “I’d like to keep the record, but I’m not going to root against the Heat. They’re head and shoulders over the rest of the NBA.”
Bill Sharman, who coached those Lakers, told Fox that Riley, who was the eighth-leading scorer on that team, “has put together an amazing team, and I have to admit this one makes me a little nervous. If they break the record, I would be happy for Pat Riley. Naturally, part of me wants to hold on to that record a little longer.”
Former Lakers great Elgin Baylor, who retired nine games into that season — just before the Lakers began their streak — told NBA TV last week: “The Heat is not an overpowering team. They don’t overpower you.
“They just finesse you, and they’re just more talented than other teams. I like to see them do well. I just give them all the credit.”
So what does Dwyane Wade think about members of that Lakers team pulling for the Heat to break their record?
“I don’t believe it,” Wade cracked Friday night, after Miami extended its streak to 25 by dumping Detroit.
But LeBron James said it’s “cool” that the Heat is being lauded by those Lakers and “crazy” that Mercury Morris and a few other members of the 1972 Dolphins openly root against the teams chasing them.
“I just appreciate the history,” James said. “I appreciate guys like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, and all those unbelievable guys who paved the way. For them to say they’re pulling for us to get the streak, I think that’s cool.
“When you read stuff like that, it’s cool. Guys like Mercury Morris, when you read stuff like that, it’s crazy.”
West, meanwhile, has been effusive in his praise of James and the Heat.
“You look at how they play together,” West said Thursday on a conference call arranged by the Golden State Warriors, who employ him as a consultant.
“Miami has the best player in the game. He makes it so much easier for those guys. He’s amazing. I’m thrilled for him because of all the negative things said about him as a player. He’s proved what kind of a player he is and more importantly what kind of a person he is.”
So how would West envision the streak ending?
“It may not end,” he said. “Some nights you can’t make a shot and it becomes contagious. The one thing they’ve got going for them is defensively. They can really get after you, because of Wade and particularly LeBron. They’re ball-hawking. When you turn the ball over against them, it’s going to be a layup. It’s not going to be a jump shot.
“Those two guys in the open court, you can forget it. They’re going to score or get to the free-throw line. It’s going to take a combination of a team shooting the ball well that also has the capability to defend to beat them. And also a poor shooting night on Miami’s part.”
West said he never thought the Lakers’ 33-game streak was untouchable.
“This is what makes sports so intriguing,” he said. “Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. The Dolphins [going] undefeated. A lot of people don’t think those things are possible but they are possible.
“Particularly in basketball, if you get a really unique team. Miami has a really unique team. They’ve got great three-point shooting and they’re never out of a game because of that. And they have the best player in the game. I never thought this streak would live forever.”
West’s Lakers team — which also featured Wilt Chamberlain, among others — won by an average margin of 16 points during its streak, well above the Heat’s 11.0-point margin of victory.
“Our games weren’t close,” West said of a team that finished 69-13 and went on to win the championship. “They’ve played some closer games.”
During the streak, those Lakers won four sets of games on three consecutive nights. Aside from last year’s lockout-shortened season, the NBA no longer schedules games on three consecutive nights.
Also, West said NBA travel now — which includes chartered flights after games — gives teams “a tremendous advantage” over his Lakers.
West isn’t convinced the Heat’s competition is better than what the Lakers faced 40 years ago.
“I see a lot of players in the league today that I don’t think are very good,” he said. And he said Miami wouldn’t have had an answer to stop Chamberlain in the post.
Even with the Heat just eight short of 33 in a row, James insisted after Friday’s game that “it is not a goal and it has never been a goal of mine” to break the record.
“We don’t get caught up and say, ‘OK, eight games until we get it.’ We just play our next game and we see what happens.”