After another fantastic week of Thunder basketball, the team has amassed a 11 game win streak. It’s nothing remarkable in the scope of the NBA, with 10+ game win streaks happening virtually every year. But it’s easy for the mind of the passionate fan to race. What if the Thunder could win 34 straight games and beat one of the NBA’s longest-standing records?
In order to find out, it’s best to go straight to the source. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 33 straight games. Before the streak, the Lakers weren’t a particularly heralded team. They were full of household names that you might know, like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich. But despite their talents, they were the Buffalo Bills of the NBA. Throughout the 60s, they got continually beaten in the NBA Finals by Bill Russell’s Celtics, and hadn’t won a championship since the franchise was in Minneapolis.
Going into the 71-72 season, it looked like the Lakers were about to let their dynasty fall. The year prior saw injuries to both Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, leading to a first round playoff loss. Most of their stars were old, and no new players had come on to the scene.
But something was different this year. The Lakers got a new head coach in Bill Sharman, who had previously been a part of the Celtics teams that continually whipped Laker tail. He brought in a new philosophy to Los Angeles, using the up-tempo offense he had learned in Boston. You see, basketball was a very different game back then. There was no three-point line, and the general philosophy was that the center touched the ball at least once before the team ever took a shot. The 24-second shot clock had just been invented, and most teams thought that they should use all the time they could in order to get a good look, rather than taking the first opportunity that came up. In other words, imagine if the Thunder made sure Kendrick Perkins got the ball in the post during every possession, and Russell Westbrook slowed down fast breaks so he could set up the offense.
Part of the reason Boston won 11 championships during the 60s was that they got rid of this philosophy. Bill Russell functioned primarily as a defensive center, and they moved the ball up the floor quickly with athletic players.
Wilt Chamberlain. Legendary baller, lover, and sleeper.
Bringing this philosophy to Los Angeles was no easy task. Bill Sharman’s first step was to run an extremely hard training camp in Hawaii to get all of the players adjusted to his new system. He also had to convince his players to take on different roles. Jerry West moved to point guard and played the role of the facilitator, and Wilt Chamberlain had to see his point production drop so he could concentrate on defense and rebounding. But his biggest challenge was trying to instate morning shootarounds, something totally foreign to NBA players at the time. Wilt Chamberlain, who was legendary for having supposedly slept with over 20,000 women over the course of his NBA career, was one of the hardest converts.
Eventually, Sharman got his system going, and the Lakers started off the season 6-3. But there was still one problem in 37-year-old Elgin Baylor. Baylor was a Hall-of-Famer and had been a leader of the Laker teams in the 60s, but he recently suffered a lot of knee problems and didn’t have the quickness that he used to. Moreover, he was a player who liked to create his own shots, which didn’t fit into the selflessness of Sharman’s system. So when Sharman indicated that he wanted to bench Baylor, Baylor decided to hang up the sneakers and retire for good.
With Baylor out of the lineup, the Lakers were able to throw together a team that the league had never seen before. The youth of Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston allowed the Lakers to run and gun, and their newfound talent allowed them to put together the greatest offense the league had ever seen. To put it simply, the Lakers averaged 121 points a game, with no three pointers. The Thunder haven’t scored that much since a March 10th blowout of the Bobcats.
The team that did it all, sponsored by fake German food!
The Lakers would go on to win 33 straight games after Baylor’s retirement, and eventually won their first title in Los Angeles. Their road to 33 wasn’t without bumps, as they had to go to overtime in Phoenix to get win #20, and a few games were won by single digits. But by and large, they were cruising to victory by the time the final buzzer sounded.
It might be hard to draw a comparison between this year’s Thunder team and the Lakers of the early 1970s. They’re completely different teams playing in completely different places during completely different eras and are in completely different situations. When you look at the grainy film and the short-shorts, it’s hard to believe that they’re even playing the same sport.
But these two teams share more in common than you might think. Take Russell Westbrook, for example. In the past, he’s been a primarily offensive player who loves to run the ball up the court, jack up errant shots, and get lost on defense. But this season, despite his continually low shooting percentage, he’s undergone a clear change. Like Chamberlain, he’s put more emphasis into the defensive side of the game. He applies pressure when the situation calls for it, is smarter about getting steals, and doesn’t lose his matchup as much. Offensively, he’s evolved into more of a distributor, and takes less shots.
At least we know James Harden’s mohawk is better than the horrible parted-hair look Elgin Baylor sported.
You could also look at the departure of James Harden and compare it to the retirement of Elgin Baylor. Sure, Harden is a young guy at the beginning of his career who helped the team, while Baylor was an old guy at the end of his career who was hindering the team. But Harden’s departure might have changed the team for the better. Harden was a good scorer, but like Baylor, he worked best on the ball and directly against his matchup. Don’t get me wrong, he was an excellent passer as well, but his departure allowed the Thunder to focus on a more traditional offense that went through Westbrook and Maynor. This has led to greater production from other players, like Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka, who need that type of help in order to be successful.
But most importantly, the Thunder are hungry. They’re coming off of a Finals loss last season to a team they know they could’ve beaten, much like the Lakers could have beaten the aging Celtics in 1969. They have the talent to beat any team in the league, and their style of offense has only gotten greater as the years have gone on.
Don’t get me wrong, 33 wins is no small feat, and it would take a hell of an effort for the Thunder to beat it. Their next five matchups are against likely playoff teams, including a revenge game against the Heat in Miami. Not only that, but they’d have to win every single game in January as well, as the target on their backs got only bigger and bigger.
There’s also a few factors that were in the Lakers favor back in 1971 that I didn’t previously mention. Back then, the ABA, a rival league with the NBA, was still in existence. They took a lot of quality talent onto their rosters, so the NBA wasn’t as tough as it is now. Moreover, the NBA had recently expanded, adding the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, and Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) in the season prior. All three teams were atrocious, and gave the Lakers a lot of walkover wins. And during the 33 game stretch, the Lakers never had to face the Bucks, the league’s far and away second-best team. (Unsurprisingly, the Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson led Bucks were the team who would eventually snap the streak at 33.) All in all, the Lakers had a lot going for them in terms of regular season wins.
The Thunder don’t have things like that going for them, so it’s really hard to see the streak manifesting itself in the modern-day NBA. But then again, who thought that the Thunder would reach the NBA Finals in their fourth season? Certainly not I.
Random Thunder Highlight of the Week:
It might be hard to appreciate this highlight when you first see it, but when it’s played in slow motion, you can get a true appreciation for Russell Westbrooks greatness. Not only does he grab a loose ball, fool one of the best defenders in the NBA, and avoid a block from Tiago Splitter. He also does it with quickness, body control, and determination. Everything about this play screams Russell’s name.
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