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Venkataraman: Burning out too brightly

In NBA Jam (only one of the greatest arcade games ever created) a player could enter “on-fire” mode by making three baskets in a row. When in this mode, a player was bestowed infinite turbo and pretty much made every shot. “On-fire” mode was pretty much the god-mode cheat code in NBA Jam, except it wasn’t a cheat — it was part of standard gameplay. Needless to say, I probably spent over $200 plugging quarters into NBA Jam arcade machines. I also wished that I myself could enter “on-fire” mode, mainly to wreak havoc and destruction with the flames shooting out of my arse, but also because I wished that I could be unstoppable at something, even if it was for a limited time.

How does this relate to actual sports, you might ask. Hang tight, we’re about to get there. I hadn’t really reminisced much on that part of my childhood until recently, when every sport I watched seemed to have an “on-fire” team. To whit:

The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl on the strength of a 5-1 record down the stretch (their only loss was in week 17, when they had already clinched a playoff berth) and some divine intervention.

The Chicago Blackhawks didn’t lose a game in regulation for the first 24 games of the season. Lest I understate the absurdity of this streak, some teams won’t win 24 games in a lockout-shortened season at all (cue Winnipeg Jets fans nodding sadly).

The Miami Heat continue to pound the rest of the league; as this column was being poetically penned they beat the Pacers for their 18th-consecutive win, most of them decisive, thanks to the completely ludicrous play of LeBron James, who appears to be an alien sent to Earth to dominate our basketball leagues.

In the world of soccer, Real Madrid football club, having looked sluggish, sloppy and silly for much of their season, finally decided to put petty squabbles aside and come together as a team, and in the course of the last two weeks have won nine consecutive matches in La Liga, beaten FC Barcelona three times and advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals. All of this occurred despite the fact that earlier in the season Cristiano Ronaldo was “sad,” Iker Casillas was benched, and their coach Jose Mourinho has done all but beg Real Madrid to fire him.

There is but one common thread to this whole sequence of events: a team catching fire, NBA Jam style. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that none, yes none (you heard me right) of these teams will win their respective titles.

Many experts have debated the merits of a team peaking at the right time; in many sports, the team that ends up with silverware to add to its trophy cabinet is the team that rolls up a winning streak at the end of the regular season and continues it into the playoffs. One of the harsh realities of any sport is that very few teams can be perfect throughout an entire season. The more games a team plays, the more luck and random opportunities come into play and the more chances for a miraculous upset to occur.

When the 1972 Miami Dolphins went undefeated, they played a grand total of 17 games, with a 14-0 mark in the regular season and a 3-0 mark in postseason play.  25 years later, when the 2007 New England Patriots looked to challenge that mark, they played 19 games, losing the Super Bowl in heartbreaking fashion. In retrospect, it’s pretty interesting to compare the two teams’ relative progressions. The Dolphins started slow and picked up steam, with small margins of victory early and enormous margins later on in the season. The Patriots, on the other hand, opened the season on a tear, ripping through the earlier half of their schedule. But they could never recreate that magic later on in the season, and it cost them in the playoffs, where they barely held off the Chargers in the AFC title game and eventually succumbed to the Giants.

If you don’t believe me, look to other sports. Few would argue that last year’s Champions League winner, Chelsea, was the most talented squad. Yet they managed to upset Barcelona and Bayern en route to claiming an improbable Champions League title. The San Francisco Giants weren’t the most loaded squad; yet they peaked just as the playoffs rolled around and won their second World Series title in three years.  The Dallas Mavericks of the 2010-11 NBA season were supposedly overmatched by the “Dream Team” Miami Heat; yet they rode Dirk Nowitzki’s incredibly hot hand to a surprise NBA championship. I could keep going, but I think my point has been made.

The key insight here is that it isn’t sufficient to assemble a monster roster to win a championship. A lot of other factors, like team chemistry, injuries, luck, and most importantly, momentum, play a not insignificant role in determining who gets to go to Disneyland at the end of the season and who walks home in tears. On the flip side, a team that peaks too early almost never wins a title (cue sobbing from all across the globe, but most violently in New England).

On that note, I would like to apologize to the Blackhawks and the Heat. Good you may be, but you aren’t winning championships this year.

Nostraviggy hath spoken.

Vignesh Venkataraman also claims the 35-29 Warriors are just holding back, saving energy for the NBA Finals. Predict what’s really in their future at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu or follow him on Twitter @Viggyfresh.