(Pictured from left: Bill Sharman as player, Red Auerbach, Steph Curry, Jerry West, Yao Ming. Sharman and Auerbach were part of multiple streaks, the latter including one with the 1948 “Washington Capitols” that didn’t end in a championship. Curry and West led their teams to the top two winning streaks ever, and closed the runs out with titles. Ming took part in part of the Rockets 22-game streak, missed part of it, and was part of a Rockets team that couldn’t get past Kobe’s Lakers in 2008 or 2009.)
The good news for current Boston Celtics fans is, of the top 28 win streaks in NBA history, 19 ended in at least one championship. (Either that year, or for the team’s basic roster.) You can. review that history in chart form in part one of our “streaks and banners” posting, here.
Today we’re looking at some of the great streaks of the past, and some of the commonalities and differences. Here are some of our faves.
1. The Mother of All Streaks:
The 71-72 Lakers
Critics might say we just want to get this one out of the way, and critics would be partially right. Still, credit where due. The Laker winning streak ran for 33 games and 65 calendar days. ESPN calls it “the streak that won’t be broken.” The average margin of victory was 17 points.
With the retirement of Elgin Baylor the year before, and the rise of such powerhouses as the Clyde Frazier Knicks and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks, many people didn’t expect the Lakers to make much of a run. The team had lost multiple finals to the Celtics in the 1960s. LA had a downward-sloping feel to it.
Confounding expectations, for the 1971-72 season, the Lakers were as physically dominant as any team in history.
Wilt Chamberlain averaged 19 rebounds and was generally content to start one of the most prolific fast breaks in history.
Jerry West and Gail Goodrich each averaged more than 25 points on the season.
The Lakers running upcourt looked like the basketball version of the 1985 Bears pass rush, and ended the same way, in a championship.
Lakers: The end of a one-title dynasty…
Some interesting quirks about the streak:
— Though their on-court chemistry resembled (say) that of today’s Golden State Warriors, the Laker players weren’t particularly close. “People say, ‘Everyone must have loved each other on that team,’ Jerry West said. “That wasn’t the case at all. People went their own ways.”
“We didn’t hang out together. Wilt was single and there were a couple other single guys. ‘Someone’ players are obviously closer than others.”
— The Lakers were, for the most part and especially at their core, an older team. Wilt was 35, West was 31, Happy Hairston was 29, and Goodrich was 28. (In the 71-72 NBA, 30 was “the old 37.”)
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Laker streak marked more the end of an era than the start of one. Many other top-20 streaks came earlier in a team’s multi-year run, as fresh legs or an enthusiastic new group discovered their greatness. (For example, the 2015 Warriors, the 2000 Kobe-Shaq Lakers, the 1982 Celtics, the 1969 Knicks.)
Of course, even for a Laker streak, we do have a favorite game and date: January 9, 1972. That’s when 24-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks took them down. (The Bucks had a 20-game win streak of their own in the spring of 1971.)
2. The Saddest streaks: 2008 Rockets…
The Rockets and the long-ago “Washington Capitals” (sorry, DC sports fans) provide a cautionary tale for streak enthusiasts. The two teams, respectively, own the longest pro-basketball streaks ever to not result in a title. Indeed, the Rockets (of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, et al.) never reached the finals.
Ming’s Rockets established what was, at the time, the second-longest win streak in league history.
Did we say “Ming’s Rockets”? Although the towering center was the team’s centerpiece star, along with leading scorer Tracy McGrady, Yao injured his foot (eesh — sound familiar) during game 12 of the run. The team turned to veteran backup Dikembe Mutombo and won another 10 games straight. (The streak, which began in January ended March 18 against the Boston Celtics.)
The Rockets were 24-20 when the 22-game run began. The Rockets without Ming lacked a low-post scorer, but moved the ball and moved without the ball better.
Indeed, the following season in the playoffs, Ming went down again during the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. Although the Rockets lost the series, they shocked the Lakers by extending the series to seven games without their big man.
Game 7 of the conference finals was as far as that team got; there was no championship for that edition of the Rockets.
3. …and the 1948 Washington Capitols
The 1948 Washington Capitols (see above), coached by Red Auerbach, came along at the NBA’s infancy. (In fact, technically before it: The league, which would become the NBA, was then the Basketball Association of America. We’ve also seen “Capitols” spelled as “Capitals” — please don’t @ us.)
This makes them one of several “streak teams” in which Auerbach played a role as coach or GM, including the 1959 Celtics (17 straight), the 1964 Celtics (16), and the 1982 Celtics (18). There were no banners for any of those Capitols teams, but the win streak of 20 stood as the professional basketball record until 1969, when the Bucks tied it on their way to a championship.
4. The 1957 Celtics (The Banner #1 Boogie)
Boston’s 1957 regular-season win streak of 15 games straddled two seasons — it started in March, and ended in November. In between came the team’s first NBA championship in May. Indeed, the team’s streak covered only one game of the 56-57 year; Auerbach rested several players and the Celtics lost four straight games before ending the regular season with a win over the Knicks.
The Banner #1 Celtics featured two bright young stars (sound familiar?) taken in the 1956 draft, Tom Heinsohn and Bill Russell (who technically was the third player selected in that draft). Russell couldn’t join the team until December after taking part in the 1956 Olympics. Heinsohn won rookie of the year honors — a fact he loves to mention to Russell; Bob Cousy was the league’s MVP; and Bill Sharman made all-NBA first team.
It was the start of the “#1 NBA Dynasty” of all time. (Hey, that’s according to the authoritative Complex.com.)
“We think we have a pretty good team shaping up,” Auerbach said. “Not just this year but for the future.” Yah, not one, not two, but 11 banners later, Auerbach’s words have an understated grace.
5. Chasing Jerry West:
the 2015 Warriors
Another two-season straddle streak was featured in Golden State’s 28-game run, which began with 4 straight regular-season wins in April, and picked up during the 2015-2016 campaign. But there’s something especially impressive about going 24-0 to start the season. Fittingly, the streak was ended by the Milwaukee Bucks, who also put a halt to the Laker spree decades earlier.
The Warriors could lay claim to the longest season-starting skein, and by April, the best regular season won-loss record ever. They even raced to a 3-1 lead in the finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers…. before dropping the last 3 and launching perhaps the most popular sports meme theme in history (a streak in itself, of sorts.)