They weren’t sad, angry, annoyed, verklempt or the least bit bothered, really. When the Warriors finally lost a game for the first time since June 9, in a world that has undergone any number of insurrections and tech launches and Taylor Swift wardrobe changes since, they simply smiled and reminded us that the end of a historic winning streak only signaled the beginnings of a potential treasure trove.
“We have bigger goals,” Stephen Curry said, “and those can’t take place until June.”
“Now,” said Draymond Green, “we can focus on what we need to focus on.”
To start their encore season with a 24-0 cannon shot, after winning 83 times and losing only 20 last season, only reinforced the belief that a basketball dynasty could be forthcoming. No one knew what to make of the Warriors, including the Warriors themselves, when they took their quantum leap from the growing pains and internal combustion of Mark Jackson to the freewheeling joyride of Steve Kerr. Now, after the most successful entry into a season in the history of American sports, their identity is as transparent, illuminative and exhilarating as three or four quick passes, followed by a stepback and a jack-up and a splash.
They are the golden standard of athletic entertainment, the envy of every sports franchise competing for eyeballs and profits, the model of how to channel the gleeful unity of brothers on and off the court into a triumphant experience most every night. The Warriors are a ballet on hardwood, capable of playing games in the refurbished Museum of Modern Art if politics delay the Mission Bay project. And if we haven’t detected even a slight seepage of ego or greed, attribute that modern miracle to the sublime presence of Curry, who could and should receive Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award today — no man, woman or horse is more deserving — yet still will spend his afternoon at the Oakland Marriott, as scheduled, distributing bagged holiday lunches to the needy with teammates and coaches.
This entire story is too good to be true, seemingly belonging to some less complicated age. But even as the planet around them goes mad, sporting division included, Curry and the Warriors are simple and easy in their continuing dominance. They’re a bunch of young dudes who don’t know any better, playing with the maturity and savvy of world travelers who know exactly what they’re doing here.
“Obviously, nobody wanted it to end,” Curry said of The Streak. “We wanted every night to be another notch in that belt of the streak and keep rattling wins off. But when you’re in the moment, that’s how you’ve got to think.”
“I’m not happy that it’s over, because it was pretty cool. But it’s almost like a sense of relief,” said Green, who almost seems like the head coach at times. “I just told the guys that now we can have a regular season. It’s been kind of a playoff feel just with the streak, all the media around, all the attention around. When you turn on the TV and all you see is `Warriors streaking,’ ‘Warriors making history,’ ‘Warriors unbeaten,’ ‘Who’s going to stop them?’ — then, you start believing that.”
The mission, as they said at every road stop on the rock star journey, was not extending the winning streak to 34, which would have topped the NBA record of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. They never shied from it and actually began to embrace it, but more importantly, through the national media blitzes, they focused their gaze on the biggest prize. They want a repeat title, and if they win a record 73 games along the way, so be it. I say No. 73 won’t happen because the braintrust must prioritize the long-term health of a team already dealing with injuries to Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. Fact is, even at 24-1, they’re only four games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference standings.
“You go 25 games before getting your first loss, it’s definitely weird (to lose). You forgot what the feeling is like. But I like the way we’re handling it,” Curry said. “No one is down. We’re all pretty proud of what we accomplished. We were very unlikely to go 82-0, so this moment was going to happen at some point. On the road trip, we found ways to win games, but I don’t think we ever played our A-plus game. The big goal of the season is to find that as we go into the playoffs.”
Which, as a public-service reminder, aren’t happening for more than four months.
Until then, the Warriors must treat their larger place in American life like a race driver who has just discovered the staggering speed of his car. Apply the brakes when wise, pace yourselves, keep your good health, make resounding statements along the way. One opportunity is coming Christmas Day, when LeBron James returns to Oracle Arena, much more respectful of Curry and the Warriors than when he tried to personally manhandle them in June. If 73 is in the back of their minds, they’ll have to aim for certain milestones — the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan, the only team to win 72, were 32-3, 38-3, 54-6 and 62–8 en route to 72-10. My guess is, barring more injuries, the Warriors will be 39-2 going into a Jan. 18 rematch in Cleveland — a possible loss coming in Houston on New Year’s Eve, the second night of their only road back-to-back remaining in December. Or, maybe they’ll beat the Rockets and resume another long streak. The priority is how well they’re playing, and if the wins come in heaps, they’ll be happy.
“I think probably the last seven or eight games, I think we’ve stopped getting better,” Green said. “We just know how to win, so our playing and knowing how to win has just gotten us through. But our playing and knowing how to win won’t get us another NBA championship.”
“Winning covers up a lot of mistakes,” said Luke Walton, who no longer can be described as the undefeated/winless interim head coach. “Our guys, they know how to win. But by doing that, you don’t get that same focus and growth on the little things.”
With The Streak in the past, the next pressing daily angle is the return of Kerr, who, according to Walton, is “chomping at the bit” to be on the sideline. Will the first loss expedite his return? Was he waiting simply not to jinx or interfere with The Perfect Storm? His headaches will have to be completely gone, for at least several weeks, before his doctors will allow him to resume the stressful grind of intense game coaching, media responsibilities and arduous travel. Having Kerr back for Christmas Day would be a nice story.
Certainly by Jan. 25, when the Spurs arrive at Oracle for a ballyhooed national event, Kerr should be back to face mentor/friendly nemesis Gregg Popovich. What’s most amazing about 24-0, before the Saturday evening exhaustion crash in Milwaukee, was how they achieved the unprecedented without Kerr. If anyone was remotely ticked off about the first loss, it was Walton, who, with little head coaching experience on any level, fell into a professional challenge unlike any other and pulled it off to the point of now having his pick of attractive jobs next summer.
“With what they did to start the season, there’s no reason for anyone to hang their heads for losing that game,” Walton said. “They’ve been incredible all year, and losses are going to come. We didn’t have it tonight. That’s why it’s so hard to do what these guys have done. It caught up to us. We didn’t have our shots falling, we were a little slow on our defensive rotations, and that happens. It takes nothing away from what they did to start the season.
“Losing sucks. Even if you’re 24-1, losing still sucks. But I’m sure, with guys just kind of unwinding a little bit, I bet there will a little bit of relief mentally going forward from this point on. It was a lot of fun.”
All that ended here was one cool streak. What it did was prepare the global stage for future joyrides and storms, for weeks and months and years to come.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.