The streak is over. The big prize is still out there.
That's what mattered most to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
The Heat's bid for NBA history ended Wednesday night when their 27-game winning streak was snapped by the Chicago Bulls 101-97, setting off a raucous celebration inside United Center. Miami finished six shy of the 33-game record held by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
With 11 games remaining, there's no time for Miami to take another shot at the record. A big run in the postseason would seem to be a sure bet.
After all, that's what it's about for the Heat. It's been that way ever since James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami in the summer of 2010.
They delivered last season, capturing a championship, and are eyeing a repeat.
The record? It would have been a bonus.
What stood out about the streak?
"I just think the way we compete," James said. "How we are on and off the floor. ... Ultimately, we want to win the NBA championship."
The streak that began on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3, came to an end despite his best efforts.
James tried to spur yet another comeback in the final minutes, getting mad after a rough foul. But the reigning MVP could never get the defending champions even, much less ahead, down the stretch.
Luol Deng scored 28 points, Carlos Boozer added 21 points and 17 rebounds, and the Bulls brought the Heat's run to a screeching halt.
Miami's superstar did all he could to keep it going, scoring 32 points and even collecting a flagrant foul during a physical final few minutes.
"We haven't had a chance to really have a moment to know what we just did," James said. "We had a moment, just very fortunate, very humbling and blessed to be part of this team and be part of a streak like that."
The Heat hadn't lost since the Pacers beat them in Indianapolis on Feb. 1. But after grinding out some close wins lately, including a rally from 27 down in Cleveland, no one counted them out until the final buzzer.
For the better part of two months, they were the NBA's comeback kings. They erased seven double-digit deficits during the streak. They found themselves trailing in the fourth quarter 11 times, and won them all.
"We understand, probably more so later on in our careers, the significance of that. And then that was it," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We took that moment to acknowledge it, to acknowledge each other, that experience, but it was never about the streak. We have a bigger goal, but also right now, it's about 'Are we getting better?'"
They walked off the floor stoically, not exchanging handshakes or pleasantries with the Bulls. James slapped high-fives with a couple teammates and coaches, then glared at a fan who touched his head as he walked toward the tunnel leading to the visitors' locker room.
James was frustrated on the court at times, and showed more of the same in the locker room afterward with regard to how he's officiated.
He cited two instances from Wednesday — a play in which Kirk Hinrich took him down with two hands in the first quarter, and Taj Gibson appearing to hit him around his neck with about 4 minutes remaining — where he thought the contact was excessive. Referees reviewed the Gibson hit, but did not award a flagrant foul. So, seconds later, James tried to barrel through Carlos Boozer on a screen, and got called for a Flagrant 1 himself.
"Those are not basketball plays and it's been happening all year," James said. "I've been able to keep my cool and try to tell Spo, 'Let's not worry about it too much,' but it is getting to me a little bit."
The Bulls, meanwhile, whooped and slapped hands with anyone they could reach after clinching a playoff berth.
"It's a five-second moment of reflection before we move on to the rest of the season," Wade said. "In here, it didn't feel like we were on this amazing streak."
What a run it was, though.
It will go down as the second-longest winning streak in the history of American major pro sports. And some of those Lakers believed their time would pass as Miami's streak rolled along, with Jerry West among those saying that he believed the reigning champions had a real shot at pulling it off.
The streak began in Toronto, a day when Heat players were mildly annoyed about having to miss the NFL title game. When San Francisco and Baltimore were to be playing, the Heat were to be flying home for a game the following night.
So team officials team changed course, as a surprise.
Miami beat the Raptors that afternoon, then stayed in the city several more hours to watch the Super Bowl together, an event highlighted by Shane Battier giving an unplanned speech about appreciating little moments as a team.
For whatever reason, the Heat were unbeatable for nearly the next two months.
And they won games in a number of different ways.
They blew out good teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Bulls, then inexplicably struggled with lottery-bound Cleveland, Detroit, Sacramento, Charlotte and Orlando. They rallied from 13 points down in the final 8 minutes to beat Boston, from a 27-point, third-quarter hole at Cleveland, and from 11-point deficits against Detroit and Charlotte — all those coming in a seven-day span, no less.
"There are several teams that can do it," Pistons guard Jose Calderon said, when asked what it would take for someone to beat Miami. "It's difficult to maintain this concentration every day. It will likely take everyone to have a bad day."
Even when those bad days happened, the Heat found ways to win.
A layup by James with 3.2 seconds left against Orlando. Double-overtime against Sacramento. Huge comebacks. Whatever it took.
There were times when even the Heat themselves didn't know how long the streak was. Because it was interrupted by the All-Star break, Spoelstra was surprised when a staff member said something about Miami having won nine in a row. When it was at 24 games, Wade made a reference to "23, 24, whatever it is."
They insisted they did not care about it, whatever the number was.
Heat President Pat Riley played for the Lakers team that won 33 in a row, and remained silent throughout Miami's streak, mainly because he rarely gives interviews these days but more so because the official team stance was that it simply did not matter. This season is championship-or-bust for Miami, where nothing else other than raising yet another Larry O'Brien Trophy will satisfy.
Still, the streak will go down as the story of the regular season.
"It was more important to everybody else than it was to us," Chris Bosh said. "We never cared too much about talking about it. It wasn't a subject of conversation until (others mentioned it)."
When it started, Miami was 5½ games behind San Antonio for the overall NBA lead, only a half-game ahead of New York in the Eastern Conference race, held just a four-game edge over Atlanta in the Southeast Division and were the league's ninth-best road team in terms of winning percentage.
Funny what two months or so without losing can do.
The Heat now sit atop the overall NBA standings, having gained 12 games over New York in the East entering Wednesday, put away the Hawks for good several weeks ago and become, by far, the league's best road team. And with the streak over, all that's left is getting ready for the postseason.
"When you look at what they've done, to be the defending world champions and to have a winning streak like that knowing that everyone's chasing you, credit them," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I think you can learn from them."
The Heat trailed by as many as 13 in the first half, took the lead while outscoring Chicago 22-14 in the third quarter and were within two early in the fourth after a basket by Wade.
That's when Deng answered with a 3-pointer from the wing and Kirk Hinrich brought the crowd to its feet with a floater. Then, after a layup by James, Deng nailed a 3 to make it 83-75 with just over six minutes left.
It got testy after that. James did all he could to keep the streak going, taking enough hard hits that even his headband was dislodged, and finished with seven rebounds.
Bosh scored 21. Wade added 18 points after a sore right knee sidelined him for victories over Charlotte and Orlando, but the Heat fell to a team that continues to give them fits even though Derrick Rose has been sidelined all year.
Deng came up big, burying four 3-pointers. He also had seven rebounds and five assists.
Boozer was a force inside. Jimmy Butler provided a spark with 17 points and the Bulls stopped Miami even though they were missing Joakim Noah (right foot), Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain) and Richard Hamilton (lower back).
"It says we have a good team," Gibson said. "It's all about what we think in the locker room. A lot of people kind of write us off every other day, but we just stick to our principles and do what we have to do."
For the Heat, luck simply ran out after recent wins in which they rallied after trailing Boston by 17, Cleveland by 27, and Detroit and Charlotte by 11 each. They were also tied with Orlando late in the third quarter before pulling away, and when Battier nailed a 3 with 4:30 left in the third, it looked like they just might pull this one out, too.
They were leading 59-58 after that shot, and they were up by two before Boozer converted a three-point play off a neat bounce pass from Gibson in the closing seconds to send Chicago into the fourth quarter with a 69-68 lead.
But they came up short down the stretch, fans chanting "End of streak! End of streak!" in the closing minute.
"We were much more competitive in the second half. It became make or miss in the fourth quarter, and we couldn't get the necessary stops we needed to," Spoelstra said. "In the last handful of games, those shots were going down and maybe that masked a few things going down the stretch."
There was a rumor that Rose would make his long-awaited return from a knee injury after rapper Waka Flocka Flame posted on Twitter, "Word is D.Rose back." The two are fans of each other, but the superstar point guard squashed it at the morning shootaround, with two words — "Not tonight."
Rose actually sounded more like someone who will sit out the entire season, saying his recovery is "in God's hands." He hasn't played since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in last year's playoff opener against Philadelphia, sending the top-seeded Bulls to a first-round exit, and his comeback has become an ongoing soap opera.
The Bulls were the biggest threat to Miami in the Eastern Conference the past two years, but without their superstar, they're just part of the pack.
Even so, no one has given the Heat more trouble since James and Bosh united with Wade in 2010. They had split 14 games leading up to this one, with Chicago winning at Miami in early January and the Heat returning the favor at the United Center last month.
"All in all, it's been a great one," Bosh said. "We still have a lot of work to do. The streak wasn't important to us. What's important to us is winning the title. That's what we work on. That's what we're here for."
NOTES: Miami had won 13 straight on the road and fell one shy of the club record. ... Thibodeau said Noah was improving but wasn't ready to return. ... Tom Boerwinkle, the former Bulls center who had a franchise-record 37 rebounds in a 1970 game against the Phoenix Suns, died Tuesday. He was 67. Boerwinkle played 10 seasons with the Bulls from 1968-69 to 1977-78 and also worked as an analyst on the team's radio broadcasts from 1991-94.