To morph into a title contender overnight, Miami lured premier talent in the free-agent market to South Beach. Call it "Anti-Moneyball." The A's, albeit in a different sport with different ways of operating, took a contrasting approach to develop into a perennial playoff team a decade ago.
Seeking their second consecutive championship, the Heat's 27-game winning streak -- the second longest in NBA history -- ended Wednesday night with a 101-97 loss on the road against the Chicago Bulls. Players from the 2002 Oakland squad can relate to the streak, after their journey to an American League-record 20 straight victories in August and early September of that year, all of which was chronicled in a book and movie. The New York Giants hold the Major League record with 26 wins in a row in September 1916, though that streak included a tie.
The A's needed every bit of the ability carried by the 25 men in the dugout in 2002. They relied just as heavily on their vaunted starting rotation, anchored by Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, as they did on their bench. A pinch-hit walk-off home run by Scott Hatteberg propelled Oakland to consecutive win No. 20.
"The Hatteberg homer," Zito recalled, "that was kind of an obvious cap [to the streak]."
The Heat benefited largely from their All-Star triumvirate of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh throughout their lengthy streak. Their supporting cast also made contributions, however. Veteran reserve Shane Battier connected on a trio of 3-pointers in the third quarter of last Wednesday's contest in Cleveland to help the Heat erase a 27-point second-half deficit.
"There are certain things that happen through the course of the streak where you just realize that it's meant to be," said former A's outfielder Eric Byrnes. "Look at [last Wednesday] night: The Heat are down 27 points, and they miraculously find a way to come back. If you can get through a couple of games that you should've lost, that you come back and win, that helps."
Prior to the 27-point comeback, the Heat climbed out of a 17-point hole before topping the Celtics on March 18. The A's encountered their share of seemingly insurmountable leads, as well. Byrnes identified a contest in Detroit on Aug. 25, 2002, in which the A's trailed, 7-2, entering the seventh inning. They proceeded to score eight times over the final three frames to prevail, 10-7, and capture their 12th straight win.
"I remember coming to the ballpark and thinking -- no, knowing -- we weren't going to lose a game," said second baseman Mark Ellis, now with the Dodgers. "We just had the feeling that we couldn't lose."
After the Heat completed their second straight comeback last week, James said that during the course of the game, "The streak wasn't on my mind, but us getting blown out was." Zito shared a similar sentiment.
"You try not to think about it," Zito said. "Because once you start going out there and try to win a game, it's not going to happen. So we just tried to have fun and let it surprise us every time."
As the A's learned, however, a streak of such magnitude commands national attention. The Heat have been under the microscope ever since James, Wade and Bosh declared they would bring multiple championships to Miami. The A's, a small-market team, savored the spotlight.
"At that time, the Oakland A's were never a big national story," Byrnes said. "By no means were we the lead story on 'SportsCenter.' All of a sudden, once the streak hit 13 or 14 games, we became the lead story every night. So it became a joke in the clubhouse. It was like, 'Hey, let's make sure we're the lead story again.'"
As a streak evolves, each game seemingly becomes more and more difficult. Despite their last-place standing in the Eastern Conference's Central Division, the Cavaliers pushed Miami to the brink last week. And though Miami bounced back with double-digit victories over the Pistons, Bobcats and Magic -- who, along with the Cavs, sport the East's four worst records -- the Heat couldn't withstand a physical Bulls team on Wednesday night.
For Byrnes, in the end, the streak was all about embracing the pressure that came along with it and enjoying the ride.
"I don't think there was another point in my career that I was that nervous playing in the outfield, because I didn't want to be the person to blow the streak," Byrnes said. "I also don't think I ever remember playing the outfield with so much focus. It really became a playoff-type atmosphere, where you were hanging on every single pitch.
"Looking back, it was one of the most fun times that I had in my career, but really in all of my years of playing baseball. It was one of those magical things that I was just very, very fortunate to be a part of."