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Heat just became must-see television

 
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Monday night, inside Boston’s TD Garden, this Heat Wave suddenly transformed from interesting to gather-around-the-big-screen-TV or set-the-DVR serious.

LeBron James and the Heat are legitimately chasing history now.

Having survived Jeff Green’s out-of-nowhere, 43-point explosion, 10 Celtic 3-pointers, a rabid playoff atmosphere and double-digit deficits in both halves, Miami is 10 games from equaling the NBA’s second-greatest regular-season feat — the 1971-72 Lakers’ 33-game winning streak.

Thanks to LeBron’s magnificent play down the stretch, the Heat erased a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit, beat Boston 105-103 and claimed sole possession of the league’s second-longest winning streak, breaking their 22-win tie with ’07-08 Rockets.

Now it gets real. Monday’s scintillating victory over the team that stopped Houston’s streak on March 18, 2008, is just the kind of conversation-starting thriller that should make curiosity-seekers and non-NBA fans tune into the Heat’s pursuit. James and the Heat are front-page news, worthy of mention on the national evening news, “The View”, “Good Morning America” and NPR.

They’re bigger than Tebow 2011.

In my mind, James and the Heat are McGwire and Sosa 1998, Cal Ripken 1995.

I know that’s blasphemous to some. Major League Baseball’s fabled history, former place as the national pastime and sports writing’s and broadcasting’s reverence of the game makes any NBA comparison seem laughable. Fortunately, I don’t mind being laughed at when I’m right.

Given the benefit of what we know now about the means many athletes used during the 1990s (and today) to accomplish their remarkable feats, this James-led team accomplishment could be every bit as significant (if not more) than any individual record.

You follow what I’m saying?

I put more faith in and have more respect for a team accomplishment than an individual one. A percentage of individuals on every team is likely using performance-enhancing drugs. The team playing field is more prone to be level than the individual one.

It is through this prism that I marvel at what James and the Heat are achieving. What they’re doing, what they’re pursuing, what we’re witnessing is what many of us believed was stolen from professional sports — particularly the leagues that play more than 80 regular-season games — by the massive influx of TV money over the past two decades.

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For the Heat, winning really matters on a nightly, game-to-game basis. This is so refreshing. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing basketball and baseball players take nights off figuratively and literally. The Spurs, a great team led by a tremendous coach, routinely leave Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili at home or on the bench. Late in his career, Roger Clemens skipped road trips and home games when he wasn’t scheduled to pitch. The Indianapolis Colts nonchalantly passed up a chance to catch the ’72 Dolphins.

Sports teams and their high-priced competitors ask more and more from fans while seemingly giving us less and less during the regular season. James and the Heat are giving us all that we could want.

With its preponderance of tatted and African-American participants, NBA players don’t fit the American stereotype of hard work, discipline, humility and unselfishness. James and the Heat fit the stereotype to a T. They might be the hardest working, most unselfish, humble and fun-loving team we’ve ever seen, and that statement doesn’t even take into account the money James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh sacrificed to play together.

“What they’re doing is unprecedented,” NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas told me Monday night. “You have to consider the responsibilities they undertake during the summer playing in the Olympics. LeBron has played a lot of basketball going from the NBA Finals to the Olympics and then to this season.”

The Heat dug deep Monday night. People who didn’t watch the game will dismiss its significance because Kevin Garnett sat with the flu and a groin injury and Rajon Rondo was lost for the season weeks ago. If you watched, you saw a prideful Celtics team do what every Heat opponent does this season — Boston gave the Heat its A+ game.

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Jeff Green was spectacular. Paul Pierce turned in a solid all-around performance. Courtney Lee and Jason Terry were efficient. Avery Bradley tormented the Heat defensively. The Celtics should’ve won. LeBron wouldn’t let them.

Trailing 96-90 with a little less than six minutes to play, LeBron was responsible for the Heat’s final 15 points (four baskets and three assists). James is a closer, a finisher, a destroyer and, most important, a winner.

“You notice the big argument in the ’80s and early ’90s was a guy like Jordan who takes 25 or 30 shots a game and whether you could win it all that way,” Thomas said. “You supposedly couldn’t win with the leading scorer in the league. Jordan’s whole quest was about proving you could do that. And when he did, it became ‘This is the way you go about winning championships.’

“LeBron is taking it back to a team concept. Everybody gets to shoot, everyone gets to play, everyone gets to touch the ball. He’s not shooting it 30 times to get his 25 points. He’s shooting it 18 times, which is awesome. Like Justin Timberlake brought sexy back, LeBron is bringing team back.”

This is a televised revolution.

There will be haters who diss the Heat’s competition in the Eastern Conference. Let ’em hate. They’re wrong. When it comes to the NBA regular season, the only thing that would surpass a Miami 34-game winning streak is Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point night. Winning 33 or 34 in a row is slightly more difficult than finishing 72-10, the feat Michael Jordan’s ‘95-96 Bulls accomplished.

The Heat play 10 games over the next three weeks, including a stop in San Antonio for what conceivably could be victory No. 30 at the end of a four-game road trip. Come April 9, when the Bucks visit Miami, the Heat might suit up with a shot at 34.

If it happens, let’s hail the Heat and their King with the same reverence and passion we hailed McGwire, Sosa and Ripken.

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