CHICAGO – The Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak was snapped Wednesday night by the Chicago Bulls, 101-97, when a furious comeback by LeBron James and his teammates fell short.
The Heat finished six shy of the 33-game record held by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Luol Deng scored 28 points, Carlos Boozer added 21 points and 17 rebounds, and the Bulls brought the Heat's pursuit of NBA history to a screeching halt.
Miami's superstar did all he could to keep the run going, scoring 32 points and even collecting a flagrant foul during a physical final few minutes.
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.
And when they walked off the floor in Chicago, faces were stoic as the Heat trudged toward the locker room. James turned and glared at one fan who grabbed at his head.
The Bulls, meanwhile, whooped and slapped hands with anyone they could reach.
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 on Super Bowl Sunday in Toronto, a day when Heat players were mildly annoyed about having to miss football's 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 Toronto 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 buzzer-beater by James against Orlando. Double-overtime against Sacramento. Huge comebacks. Whatever it took.
"To do something like this, everyone needs to step up," said Battier, who was part of a 32-game winning streak at Duke, a 22-gamer with the Houston Rockets and now played a role in this epic Heat run.
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, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was surprised when a staff member said something about Miami having won nine in a row. When it was at 24 games, Dwyane 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, one where nothing else other than raising yet another Larry O'Brien Trophy will satisfy.
"I understand the history of the game," James said after the streak reached 25. "I appreciate the history of the game. But this team has a bigger goal than winning a number of consecutive games in a row."
Still, the streak will go down as the story of the regular season.
When it started, Miami was 5 1/2 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, gained 12 games over New York in the East entering Wednesday, put away the Hawks for good several weeks ago and are now, by far, the league's best road team. And with the streak over, all that's left now is getting ready for the postseason.
They trailed by as much 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 Luol 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.
Chris 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).
For the Heat, luck simply ran out after recent wins in which they rallied trailed 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 Shane 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 Taj 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.
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 been 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.
Notes: Coach Tom Thibodeau said Noah was improving but wasn't ready to return. "It's better, but he's not quite there," Thibodeau said. "I just want to be smart about it." ... Tom Boerwinkle, the former Bulls center who had a franchise-record 37 rebounds in a 1970 game against the Phoenix Suns, has died. He was 67. Bulls spokesman Tim Hallam said Wednesday that a family member informed team officials of Boerwinkle's death, and the University of Tennessee issued a statement saying the former Volunteers player died Tuesday at his home near Chicago after a lengthy illness. 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.