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Lakers feel the Heat as Miami threatens LA's record 33-game streak

The Lakers' 33-game win streak in 1971-72 is a U.S. pro sports record. Now Miami has won 25 straight — while avoiding travel and scheduling issues L.A. often faced.

March 23, 2013|By Ben Bolch
  • Lakers' Gail Goodrich gets away from Dave Wohl of the Philadelphia 76ers after Wohl trips over Wilt Chamberlain.
Lakers' Gail Goodrich gets away from Dave Wohl of the Philadelphia… (Associated Press )

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.

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