The number that matters is not 33 or 70 or 72 or 82. The number that matters is 11, as in 11th Street in downtown Oakland, where the Warriors’ parade would launch again next June unless a charming route into the future is planned over the Bay Bridge. The other that matters is 16, as in the number of postseason victories necessary for a second NBA title, with the tournament not starting for another four months.
In the biggest lens of what this franchise is capable of accomplishing, there are fun milestones amid the journey, and then there are monuments that truly will define them in history. “The records don’t mean anything,” Stephen Curry has pointed out every day in every city, “if we don’t win the championship at the end.”
Which made it even more meaningful and gonzo Friday night when The Streak rolled on in double overtime, somehow, without the injured Klay Thompson. Their most important victory this season — larger than any of the previous 23 — was winning No. 24 AFTER the wise decision by the braintrust and medical staff not to use a hobbling Thompson in Boston. Why risk turning a right ankle sprain into a potential crisis, a season-long drama that could jeopardize another ring ceremony, just to prolong a winning streak? Everyone in the league, everyone in sports, is aware of what the Warriors have become and what they’re attempting to achieve over the long term. Are they any less a juggernaut by losing a game without one of their best players? Falling short in mid-December is a much smarter fate when the option is playing their two-way star if his sore, tender ankle isn’t ready to comply.
And yet, in their grittiest win to date, without Thompson and Harrison Barnes, the Warriors didn’t fall short, holding on for a memorable 124-119 victory that lifted The Perfect Storm to 24-0 — and extended their winning streak over two seasons to 28, pushing them past the 2012-13 Miami Heat for the second-longest in NBA history.
“Just pressure-packed and intense. It’s about who wants it more,” Curry said. “Nothing was pretty about this game the whole time. We got stops. Everybody contributed. I can’t say enough about everyone considering all the injuries we have.
“Just a huge win for us. Most people thought we were gonna lose this game. We live for those moments. We’d rather it not come down to dramatics like that, but we got the win.”
And preserved The Streak, under arduous circumstances. The Warriors were exhausted, committing turnovers, shooting wildly. They shot 39 percent. It was surreal, almost, watching them teeter on losing for the first time since June. Curry threw up airballs and kept stepping out of bounds in the final minutes of regulation as the Celtics beat him up all night without his fellow Splash Brother. He also missed his final shots in regulation and the first overtime, giving the Celtics chances that Isaiah Thomas — no Isiah Thomas — couldn’t convert. Draymond Green’s stat line was insane, filling it out as no one else in the NBA can — 24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five steals, five blocks — even while playing with five fouls. There was Boston’s David Lee, once the best and best-paid of the Warriors in humbler franchise times but now the enemy, hitting big shots inside after the front office had no choice but to trade him and recoup his $15.5 million.
The Warriors still came out on the other side, nonetheless, in a classic game that revealed more about their perseverance than their skill.
“We fought,” Green said. “We’re getting everyone’s best shot, but we’re giving everybody our best shot, too.”
The temptation for them was to use Thompson anyway, especially when he was lobbying so vigorously and wanted so much to play after heating up for 39 points Tuesday night. “Not feeling great, but it’s not feeling bad,” he said. “It’s like somewhere in between. It’s like 60 percent — nah, 70.” That was the wrong answer, as everyone from general manager Bob Myers to the undefeated/winless interim coach, Luke Walton, to out there-lurking-somewhere Steve Kerr agreed. The medical staff didn’t have to make the call. The bosses did.
“He’s not well enough to risk it,” Walton said. “We kind of told him going into it, and I think he knew. With where we’re at as a team, we don’t want him fighting through it. Obviously, if it was a playoff game, I think he’d be out there playing. But right now, in the regular season, it’s more important that he gets healthy.”
Never, ever forget the variable that helped the Warriors stand out and survive last season. They were healthier than everyone else, and while Doc Rivers says that’s a byproduct of luck, it’s also a result of being smart about when the rest players and not take chances. What is remarkable about The Streak is that they’ve had their share of injury woes this season — Thompson also has been dealing with back issues, Harrison Barnes has missed two weeks with his own ankle sprain, Andrew Bogut is playing through back soreness, Leandro Barbosa is fighting flu-type illnesses and, of course, Kerr has had his headaches related to spinal-fluid leaks following back surgery. They’ve carried on with their savvy, their bench, their chemistry and their spirit.
“We miss our brother,” Festus Ezeli said of Thompson, “but our motto is, everyone has to contribute.”
Thompson vowed to be ready for Milwaukee on Saturday night, the final stop in the monster seven-game road trip. He should take his time. The championship is not won in December, even if the fans adore you everywhere — Warriors gear by the parquet floor in Boston? Really? — and the media are describing you as one of the greatest teams ever. Said Walton of Thompson: “It’s kind of one of those things where we have to police him a little bit, because he’s one of those guys who wants to play through anything. We respect that, and that’s kind of the way it should be in the NBA. But we’re lucky enough to be 23-0, so there’s not that need to make him push through injury to play.”
It has been fascinating watching Curry, Walton and the Warriors handle the hysteria with a cool aplomb. Everywhere they go, they’ve been asked about winning 33 straight — which would tie the all-time record of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. They’ve kept it in perspective thanks to Curry, whose equilibrium is that of a man who has lived 50 years, not 27.
“The 33 number, we can talk about it and not shy away from it,” Curry said. “When you’re chasing NBA history in this kind of fashion, there’s no pressure. If we don’t get there, it’s not the end of the world.
“It’s fun to try to chase something like this. How many times are you going to get the opportunity to do that? So you’ve got to embrace it, just appreciate the moment.”
Nothing is wrong, by the way, with still trying to win a game when shorthanded. Some of the recent published opinions boggle the mind — the streak isn’t worth the bother? Sure, it is, with all the healthy hands available. If you lose because you’re not entirely healthy, so be it.
“It’s the regular season,” Green said. “How much pressure can there be?”
“We told them, ‘If we lose, we’re 23-1, worst-case scenario,’” Walton said. “We all know we’re going to lose a game. When it does happen, we’ll be fine with it.”
They weren’t ready to succumb, not yet.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.