Warriors Looking to Erase Pain of Last Year with Perfect Postseason

Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterMay 22, 2017

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry signals after scoring against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of Game 2 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals, Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — You know the ideal way to atone for the disappointment of winning a record 73 games but losing the championship to Cleveland with a 3-1 lead?

Setting a different—arguably better—record with 16 consecutive playoff victories…and winning the championship over that same Cavaliers team.

That perfect scenario is lurking in the minds of the Golden State Warriors, a crew that we know by now gets amped not just to win, but to do so in special ways.

The Warriors dialed back their efforts this season as a lesson learned from how hard they pushed last year. As bitterly as last season ended, their march toward history also showed how much the Warriors yearn to play with style, how much they want to make a historic impact.

Unsolicited, Klay Thompson brought up the potential for a 16-0 postseason now that the Warriors are one Monday victory away from a Western Conference Finals sweep over the San Antonio Spurs.

"We are 11-0, trying to make it 16-0," Thompson said Saturday night. "It is going to be very difficult, but we are on the way—and we just have got to stay patient and not really worry about statistics. I almost averaged 25 points a game last year in the postseason, and look what it did for us: We lost."

Thompson was responding to a question about his decreased individual production this postseason. He redirected it toward the history potentially lying in front of his team, except with a reference to the still-fresh failure of last season.

Considering the talent, leadership and motivation of these Warriors, it's no surprise they aspire to 16-0 instead of just simple NBA Finals redemption.

Of course, the Warriors will take the title any way they can get it, but put yourself in their shoes for a moment and consider how much flak they got for accomplishing something as amazing as surpassing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' 72-10 record but not winning a ring.

May 20, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) dribbles the ball as San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green (14) defends during the third quarter in game three of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Ce
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors are viewed as the team that beat it…but blew it.

And that 3-1 lead over Cleveland a year ago is never far from their minds, which is why Draymond Green—again unsolicited—said of their commanding 3-0 series lead on the Spurs: "We lost a lead before."

The end to last season has shaped so much of the current Warriors identity. There's the inherent confidence of being the 2015 champs at their core, but the Warriors have approached this season with utter determination to redeem 2016.

Stephen Curry told Bleacher Report last month that he wouldn't ever want to go for 74 regular-season victories, given what he has learned about the toll it takes—and pointed out that the Warriors instead built up slowly and properly to peak toward the playoffs this season.

For a team that already showed us a breathtakingly shiny silver lining to losing last season—hello, Kevin Durant—what better way to show a lesson learned than to follow up the all-time best regular season and playoff failure with a less spectacular regular season but all-time best playoffs?

Curry isn't about to come out and proclaim a perfect postseason the goal or jinx it at a time when he says San Antonio's "back is against the wall" and the Spurs are going to "leave it all on the floor" in Game 4. But as of Sunday, Kawhi Leonard wasn't expected back from his ankle injury, and coupled with how seamlessly Curry feels his game and his team fit right now, well, 12-0 is looking pretty good.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 20:  Stephen Curry #30 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors react on the bench during the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Three of the 2017 NBA Western Conference Finals at AT&T Center on May 20,
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"Yeah, I feel good," Curry said. "Obviously, we've got a nice rhythm, a nice feel to what I'm doing: playing aggressive, trying to balance playmaking and scoring—all my different responsibilities when I'm out there on the floor. But things are going well. Just want to hopefully sustain it for however long it needs to be."

To that end, the Warriors' video session Sunday was meant to show the team how much worse their attention to detail was in Game 3 than in Game 2. It's human nature to be more driven by negative than positive, after all.

Complacency, or lack thereof, undeniably played some part in LeBron James and Cleveland winning last season over Curry and Golden State. That shouldn't be the case this year for a Warriors team that has felt the sting of a year's worth of 3-1 jokes and watched history slip from its grasp. Indeed, sour feelings can be some of the most powerful in sports.

The team that put together the greatest playoff run in NBA history used negativity in a major way also.

The 2001 Los Angeles Lakers went 15-1 in the playoffs. (The NBA didn't expand the first round to seven games until 2003.) The Lakers' sole loss came in the NBA Finals opener at home in overtime against the Philadelphia 76ers. Shaquille O'Neal believes they lost only because he got complacent and took it too easy on someone he viewed as a very nice man, Dikembe Mutombo.

Those Lakers swept top-seeded San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals by an average of 22.3 points per game, and approached the season in the same manner Curry mentioned last month: positioning themselves to surge late in the regular season.

Those Lakers won only 56 regular-season games, but they started flexing in the weeks before the playoffs, and went 23-1 to close the season, including playoffs.

The pertinent question is why they were able to surge.

During the regular season, the Lakers deeply felt the negativity of Shaq's feud with Kobe Bryant and the jeopardy in which it placed the team. When I asked Phil Jackson after the championship was won to sum up his tumultuous push-and-pull season with Bryant, he paused and then said softly, "I can't."

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 6:  Kobe Bryant #8 dishes to teammate Shaquille O'Neal #34 of the Los Angeles Lakers while being defended by Dikembe Mutombo of the Philadelphia 76ers during Game one of the 2001 NBA Finals on June 6, 2001 at Staples Center in Los Angel
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It was that unpleasant and scary, except toward the end, when Bryant shifted his push to be the best individual player he could toward the Lakers being the best team they could—and not a man among them was going to let such a wonderful feeling of redemption get away.

The Warriors have a similar mission—and thus a plausible opportunity to break the Lakers' record by going 16-0—or even 16-1, which would represent a slightly better winning percentage.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich compared the grave disappointment of losing Leonard to injury at the most consequential time of the year to being seconds away from the 2013 NBA title before blowing it to Miami. He hasn't forgotten that loss, but he has done his best to compartmentalize it.

"If you have half a brain and want to live a decent life," Popovich said, "you've got to move on."

Well, it's easier for Popovich to do so because the Spurs, steeled by their crusade for redemption, came back to beat the Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, not unlike what the Cavaliers did last year to avenge their loss to the Warriors in 2015.

For the moment, it is still about the Warriors facing the Spurs in the West.

But for this season, it has always been about the Warriors facing the Cavaliers in the Finals, and seeking the very greatest redemption they can possibly find.

   

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.