Lakers feel the Heat as Miami threatens LA’s record 33-game streak
The wins kept coming. So did the games.
Three in a row. Five in six days.
It didn’t matter that the rest of the NBA, and the calendar, conspired against the Lakers 41 seasons ago.
Logistics couldn’t bother them in a season when they didn’t seem to grasp the meaning of Ls.
The team that would win 33 consecutive games, still the longest streak for a major U.S. professional team, often arrived in a city on a midday flight and played a game that evening, a no-no in today’s NBA.
“Some of our travel was maybe more difficult than the games we played,” recalled Jerry West, the legendary guard on a team that also included three other Hall of Famers in Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich and, briefly, Elgin Baylor.
The Lakers also endured four sets of back-to-back-to-back games and three additional back-to-backs during a streak that lasted more than two months during the 1971-72 season. Current league rules allow only back-to-back games in seasons not shortened by lockouts.
“That, in one way, makes our streak even more remarkable, 33 with that situation,” Goodrich said.
The Miami Heat, winner of 25 games in a row, is approaching the Lakers’ streak, albeit while enjoying the perks of charter flights and more breaks between games.
So while the debates commence — would you rather have Chamberlain or LeBron James? West or Dwyane Wade? — there is no disputing which team faced the more eyelid-drooping itinerary while attaining purple-and-gold status of legendary proportions.
The Lakers flew commercially in those days, catching the first flight out of town when they traveled and often playing later that night. They carried their own basketballs and knew what to do with them.
West led the league in assists despite supposedly being in the twilight of his career, and averaged 25.8 points. Goodrich averaged a team-leading 25.9 points and made nearly half his shots. Chamberlain dominated with defense and rebounding, his presence somehow larger than his 7-foot-1 frame.
The team was so deep that it hardly mattered when Baylor abruptly announced his retirement nine games into the season. Chamberlain assumed Baylor’s captaincy and second-year forward Jim McMillian took his spot in the starting lineup.
All the Lakers did from there was win their next 33 games, starting with a 110-106 triumph over the Baltimore Bullets on Nov. 5, 1971. The victories came by an average of 16 points. Two games were decided by five points or fewer and only one went to overtime, on Dec. 10 when the Lakers lost a 12-point lead in the final five minutes of regulation against Phoenix before wilting the Suns in the extra period to win, 126-117.
“It got to the point where you would go to the games and if you didn’t win by 15 you were disappointed,” said West, who retired after the 1973-74 season. “For us, it was almost like a picnic.”
The Lakers’ back-to-back-to-backs included their first three victories in the streak, quieting critics who contended the team was too ancient to win a championship. Chamberlain was 35 at the time and West was 33.
The only thing that got old was the monotony of the schedule.
“A lot of times the game was over at 10:30, 11" at night, remembered point guard Jim Cleamons, the only rookie on the team. “You’d go back to the hotel, try to grab something to eat and if your uniform was wet, you hung it up to dry a little bit. If there was a 7 o’clock plane the next morning, that means you had to be at the airport by 6 or a little bit after, so your wake-up call was at 5:30 and you had to be packed and down in the lobby to catch a cab or the bus to the airport.”
The Lakers often traveled alone early in the streak. The Times didn’t send a reporter on the road with the team for some games that season.
Several players said they didn’t even think about the streak until it reached double digits on Nov. 19 with a triumph over a Houston Rockets team with a new coach: Tex Winter.
Beating defending champion Milwaukee at the Forum two days later allowed the Lakers to tie the franchise record for consecutive wins at 11, though they soon had another mark in mind: the Bucks’ then-NBA-record 20-game winning streak.
The Lakers achieved that with a 104-95 victory over Atlanta on Dec. 12. West drank 7-Up after his team’s 21st consecutive triumph, ignoring rows of champagne glasses in the locker room.
It did seem like a momentous occasion to some.
“A lot of teams have won championships in the history of the NBA,” Lakers Coach Bill Sharman said that night, “but nobody has ever done this.”
The Lakers kept on winning. They never needed a 27-point comeback like the Heat did Wednesday against Cleveland, though the Cavaliers did give the Lakers perhaps their biggest scare in the streak.
A bad Cleveland team led by five points with seven minutes left in victory No. 32, the biggest deficit the Lakers had faced that late in a game since the start of the streak.
“It was like, jeez, how can we lose this game?” recalled McMillian, who led the Lakers with 29 points that night.
They wouldn’t. Chamberlain blocked five shots in the fourth quarter and the Lakers used a 15-0 spurt to pull out a 113-103 victory on Jan. 5, 1972.
McMillian said the pressure to keep the streak going had long since faded.
“At that point, we weren’t taking them one game at a time,” he said. “You’re looking at the schedule and saying, ‘Wow, we may have a bump in the road maybe three games from now but we should beat the other teams.’”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would represent more than a bump; the Milwaukee center was a 7-2 mountain. To extend their streak past 33, the Lakers would have to get past Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks on Jan. 9 in Milwaukee.
McMillian said he had a bad feeling at the shoot-around that day when he noticed that the glare of the special lights used to illuminate the arena for the nationally televised game made it harder to see the rim.
The Lakers certainly lost their shooting touch during the 120-104 defeat, with West making only five of 16 shots. Abdul-Jabbar collected 39 points and 20 rebounds, fellow UCLA alumnus Lucius Allen had 18 points, and former USC and Lakers forward John Block scored 17 for the Bucks.
“I think all of us went in the locker room and felt like we had lost our best friend,” West said.
The joy would return three months later when the Lakers beat the Bucks in the Western Conference finals on the way to the team’s first NBA championship in Los Angeles. The Lakers, 39-3 after beating Atlanta for consecutive win No. 33 on Jan. 7, finished the regular season with a 69-13 record, which stood as the league record until the Chicago Bulls won 72 games in 1995-96.
Now they face the possibility of losing their greatest legacy if Miami keeps winning. Complicating their feelings is the fact that Pat Riley, a scrappy guard on that Lakers team, is the Heat’s president.
“I’m not hoping Miami wins,” said Flynn Robinson, the former Lakers sharpshooting guard, “but if they win, congratulations, because they really put up a hell of a battle.”
Said Goodrich: “If it goes down, it goes down. We’ve had it for 40 years.”
Some might say the Heat’s streak would warrant an asterisk considering the schedule the Lakers played and the journey they endured. West equated today’s NBA players to wealthy jet-setters.
“They get on the plane and they have their own seats, they have their own buddies, they have their own food,” West said. “It’s just a different era and it certainly makes it a lot easier for players.”
Miami would need to persevere through two more sets of back-to-back games (making it eight overall) to own the record, hardly the back-to-back-to-backbreaking schedule the Lakers faced.
“Today, I hear teams say, ‘Jeez, we’ve got back-to-back games,’” Goodrich said. “They’re going to play [Charlotte and] Orlando on a back-to-back, and that makes it really tough.
“Now come on, guys.”
Times researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this story.
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