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What we can learn from the end of a long win streak

Sometimes, it's more important to lose than to win.


"In athletic events, you go through good times and bad, often in the span of two hours. Do you have the composure to settle yourself down, or do you totally lose it and get thrown out of the game, which hurts both you and your team? All of that on-court experience has a real effect on how you deal with real-life situations."

-Flip Saunders, President of Basketball Operations - Minnesota Timberwolves

In the NBA, those shifts between good and bad times occur not only in individual games but in stretches lasting weeks, months, or even the entire season. What is often left unsaid is the fact that there are times when winning can do more harm than losing, and the best example of this occurred fairly recently.

The 2011-12 NBA season was a bizarre one for the San Antonio Spurs. They started off by winning their first nine home games of the season, only to have that streak end at the hands of the 22-44 Sacramento Kings. In a similar Spurs-like fashion, they were blown out of four of their first five road games until an overtime victory against the Orlando Magic, where Dwight Howard single-handedly almost won the rebounding battle against the Spurs' entire starting five with a score of 25-27. However, what truly made that season so memorable (or forgettable, depending on your outlook) was the long win streak and the way it all ended.

The Spurs headed into the 2012 Playoffs looking good. Really good. They finished the regular season with a 24-3 record over the final 27 games and were riding a 10-game winning streak. Shortly thereafter, Pop and friends breezed by a half-decent Jazz team and swatted away the genetic freaks from Los Angeles to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder. In all of my years watching professional sports, this was the first time I had ever thought that a team looked unbeatable.

Then Hack-a-Splitter in Game 2 happened. People can say all they want about the terrible reffing in Game 6 or the ridiculous shots James Harden made in Game 5, but I think the series was lost in the second half of Game 2. Tiago's injured wrist wouldn't let him knock down his free throws, and the offense that had been so gorgeous all season long deteriorated into the selfish isolation basketball that haunts every team but rarely surfaces on the Spurs. Sadly, the Spurs' funk didn't last just that one game. It was as if the basketball gods had put a curse on the Spurs that lasted through their last four games of the 2011-12 season.

In reality, the Spurs were unable to pull through into the 2012 NBA Finals because of their win streak.

Basketball analysts occasionally joked about this theory as the series was nearing the end, but I see no reason why it wouldn't be true. Breaking up a 20-game win streak with a bad loss in Oklahoma would be tough for any team, but especially for a Spurs team with so many players heavily dependent on confidence (Danny Green, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard in his rookie season, etc.). Pop attributed it to "identity theft", and the Spurs just couldn't find their way back to winning after forgetting what it feelt like to lose.

If you look at the 30 longest winning streaks in NBA history, there are only 12 teams that went on to shake hands with the President of the United States of America. Granted, this is a small sample size, but it means that only 40% of teams with a win streak greater than or equal to 15 games have gone on to win it all. There's a lot of data there, but this is the basic gist: what separates the championship teams from the rest is whether they had a positive or a negative response to the ending of their winning streak.

It's not just the 2012 Spurs that have been negatively impacted by such a lack of losing over an extended period of time, though. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • In the 2006-07 season, Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns had a 3-5 stretch immediately after their huge 17-game win streak. Later that year, they went on to lose in the Western Conference Semifinals to the greatest franchise ever and permanently confirm Robert Horry's status as one of the greatest ... Horry of all time.
  • After the Houston Rockets' historic 22-game win streak in 2008, they proceeded to lose five of their next eight games and were later eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
  • Midway through the 2008-09 season, the Boston Celtics ended their 19-game win streak by losing seven of their next nine games. In the playoffs, they were eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
  • Last season, the Los Angeles Clippers won 17 in a row and followed up the next 14 games with a 7-7 record. They were eliminated in the first round by Memphis.
  • Following the Miami Heat's 27 game win streak last year, they proceeded to lose their final 16 games, including a first-round sweep at the hands of Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks

Interestingly, there have only been four teams in NBA history with major winning streaks that carried over from the regular season and into the playoffs. The '89 Lakers (16), '04 Spurs (17), '01 Lakers (19), and '12 Spurs (20) all had major win streaks that stretched into the postseason. Of these four teams, the '01 Lakers were the only ones to win it all, and while this is an extremely small sample size, these outcomes suggest that month-long win streaks aren't necessarily beneficial.

Now, win streaks aren't the only place where we see good teams fail to meet expectations. Of the 67 NBA Championship teams, just under half of them (33) had the best record in the NBA. This may seem trivial, but it's important to realize that most teams heading into the playoffs with the best record in any professional sport are heavily favored to win it all.

It's often forgotten how terrible the Thunder were in 2008-09, even kicking off the regular season with a 3-29 start. They took each loss as a learning experience, and finished the rest of 2009 with a 20-30 record. The following season, the Thunder finished with a 50-32 record and qualified as an eighth seed in the playoffs.

By no means am I saying that losing is always conducive to future success (just ask the Toronto Raptors). However, it is from losing that teams learn to prevent future mishaps. One of the Spurs' most memorable recent games in my book is the January 29, 2012, overtime loss in Dallas.

With about three minutes left in the third quarter, the Spurs were down by 18, and it just seemed like one of those nights where nothing would go in. Just when all hope seemed to be lost, Pop put in the benchwarmers, and they took over. With Danny Green, James Anderson, and some Gary Neal madness from three, added to some phenomenal D, the Spurs were back in the game. In my opinion, what makes this game so memorable is the fact that the young guys met with a tough challenge and responded with spirit. They learned to persevere through the adversity, and even though San Antonio lost in the end, that game set Green's career with the Spurs in motion. While he might have occasionally slumped, he hasn't looked back since.

In the regular season, winning isn't everything; the learning opportunities mean a lot more.