It was a dream regular season that comes along once in a lifetime, a joy ride so utterly consistent in its dominance that it triggered comparisons to Michael Jordan and his 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the gold standard for NBA excellence in the modern era.
But after the Warriors’ shocking lack of poise and testosterone against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, that debate can cease once and for all. Instead of the GOAT, as in Greatest Of All Time, they’re just plain goats — the Greatest Team Ever To Gag On A 3-1 Lead In The NBA Finals.
Yeah, choke is a strong word but not in this instance. Think about it. The Warriors had a 2-0 stranglehold in the final series before it dropped four of the last five games by 30, 15, 14 and four points. Two were at Oracle Arena. Remember, this was the freight train that hadn’t lost as many as two consecutive games in the regular season. It had been virtually unbeatable (39-2) at home.
In terms of athletic talent, from top to bottom, the Warriors were every bit the match for the Jordanaires and then some. But so much of basketball has to do with intangibles and the postseason, when only a select few can stare adversity in the face and rise up as champions. It is there that the Warriors fell short by a considerable margin.
“We had done so well and now we’re faced with the same thing that the Warriors were faced with,” Scottie Pippen told ESPN’s Mike & Mike after the fact. “Can this team be considered one of the greatest teams? Well, you can’t be considered a great team until you win a championship.”
Tweeted former teammate-longtime knucklehead Dennis Rodman, “Congrats @cavs for winning @NBA title. @warriors u had a great regular season. But the greatest team of all time is the 95-96 @chicagobulls”
To be sure, several factors conspired against the Warriors in the postseason, not the least of which was the inability of Stephen Curry to play up to his two-time Most Valuable Player billing. But don’t blame only the basketball gods for his subpar health. A lot of that is on them.
If coach Steve Kerr had one mandate at the start of the postseason, it was to keep his most dominant player as fresh and healthy as possible. The turning point came in round one, when Curry insisted that he play on a gimpy right ankle against an inferior Houston Rockets team. At a time when Kerr and general manager Bob Myers should have instructed Curry to take the rest of the series off, they allowed him to talk his way back onto the court. In his first test after a two-game layoff, he promptly twisted a knee, which was given no leeway because of a brace on the same foot.
From that point on, Curry was never the same player. Not coincidentally, neither was his team. The Warriors were able to advance to the NBA Finals, but it was a grind to get there. They did well to overcome a 3-1 deficit against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, a series that drained them emotionally and mentally.
Still, the Dubs were in position to make short work of the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals when a dunderheaded move in the heat of the moment shifted momentum drastically. Draymond Green was socked with another flagrant foul 1 after further review, which resulted in an automatic one-game suspension. Mind you, the fit of selfish mindlessness came not in a loss but in a well-executed road victory that put his team within one victory of a parade. That Green had been reminded more than once about the possible consequences beforehand was another indication that he and Curry called the shots, not the coach and GM.
At that point, one sensed trouble ahead. Sure enough, the Warriors lost Game 5 at home with Green in civvies, then they were blown out of Game 6 in Cleveland, too. The situation called for iron wills and cool heads — Jordan and his coach Phil Jackson come to mind — but the Champs regressed to panic mode. The squeaky-clean Curry had a childish, profanity-laced fit, flung his mouthpiece into the crowd and was lucky not to be suspended himself. A bewildered Kerr had no answers but lots of criticism for the referees and league.
Even Ayesha Curry got into the act with a short-lived tweet that NBA games were fixed — of all things. That left 3-year-old Riley as the most mature member of the Curry family.
No, this didn’t have the look of an all-time great team. More like one in need of Dr. Phil.
Despite all that, a repeat championship was there to be had late in the fourth quarter of Game 7. In the final 4:39, the Warriors clanked all nine of their shots and failed to score a point. The itchy-fingered Curry misfired four times, including an open 3-pointer that would have tied the score. Faced with their first real adversity in two seasons, the Warriors came up small, that’s how many will remember them.
The critics who said the Warriors would die by the 3-pointer were right after all. Where were the post-ups and drives to the bucket? Why the heck was Harrison Barnes on the court, anyway? Where were Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston, among the select few reserves who didn’t melt under the spotlight? They played barely 20 minutes between them. Strength in Numbers, remember?
Jordan-inspired teams rarely put their fate into something so fragile as a seventh game. Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t win every game, but none understood the importance of short series and their effect on fatigue and injuries more. In their six championship seasons, they were extended to a Game 7 all of two times in 24 series.
In the 1996 postseason, the Bulls were at their dominant best until age began to take its toll midway through the final series. If not for an overtime road loss against the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals, they would have won their first 15 games in a row. In the NBA Finals, they bolted to a 3-0 lead against a talented Seattle SuperSonics team that had won 67 games in the regular season. After consecutive road losses, the Bulls returned home to seal their legacy, a game in which a rubber-legged Jordan struggled to score 22 points but willed his way to 12 trips to the free throw line.
Therein lies a major difference between the Bulls and Warriors and the players who set the tone for each. Whereas Jordan is the all-time cut-throat competitor, a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer, Curry plays too nice and has too much sugar in his game to be much of that.
But let’s not pile on too much here.
Years from now, we’ll look back on the 2015-16 regular season and ask ourselves in amazement, “Did the Warriors really do that?!” Their 73-9 record is a remarkable feat, one that deserves its rightful place in the record books. And their legacy hasn’t been written yet. The Thunder and Cavaliers may have offered blueprints of how to beat them, but this remains a young, talented group that’s capable of more championship banners in the near future.
Until then, though, let’s put a stop to those Jordan Bulls-Curry Warriors comparisons. Where great teams are made and legacies are forged — the playoffs — there is no comparison, really.
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