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Wednesday NBA Roundup: Warriors Officially Own 'Best Team Ever' with 73 Wins

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 14, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 13:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors gestures in the first half against the Memphis Grizzlies during the game at ORACLE Arena on April 13, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors' record-setting 73rd regular-season win changes everything.

It redefines the ceiling for NBA success, forcing us all to consider whether the sport we've been watching for years has been holding out on us until now. Aesthetically, statistically and even emotionally—this year's Warriors delivered us highs we never dreamed possible.

They gave us more of the same in Wednesday's 125-104 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

But in the more fundamental, less high-minded way we like to enjoy our sports, win No. 73 alters one of our biggest, most basic basketball conversations. Now, with more wins than anyone, the discussion about the greatest team in NBA history has to start with the Warriors.

It has to.

Advocates of the 2015-16 Dubs as the greatest team of all time can run down the resume to make their case. This year's Warriors set records by:

  • Winning 24 straight games to open the season
  • Running up a 54-game home winning streak (bridging last season and this one)
  • Earning 34 victories on the road
  • Never losing to the same team twice
  • Never dropping two games in a row
  • Hitting 1,077 threes (last year's Houston Rockets rank second with a mere 933, and they needed 88 more attempts to get there)

Stephen Curry will win his second straight MVP, perhaps unanimously, and all he did this year was revolutionize offensive basketball by shooting accurately off the dribble from distances previously deemed off-limits. He broke his own three-point-makes record by 116 and forced defenses to invert their most basic, time-honored rules. Because of him, opponents worried more about controlling space 30 feet from the basket than right underneath it.

He needed eight threes to reach 400 for the season, and he hit six in the first quarter alone. One blink-and-you-missed-it sequence typified Curry's singular long-range, quick-strike brilliance.

The new all-time mark for makes in a season is 402. Curry hit 10 against Memphis on the way to 46 points.

That is a sport-altering paradigm shift, and any discussion of the Warriors as the best team ever has to include mention of the player who may go down as the most significant and transformative of his era.

"What he’s done is just unbelievable," Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger told reporters before Wednesday's game. "It’s his league."

Contrarians have their ammunition as well—73 wins be damned.

Golden State's per-game differential, often a better indicator of overall quality than traditional win-loss records, ranks sixth all time. That's one spot ahead of this year's San Antonio Spurs, whom it beat in three out of four meetings and surpassed on this list with Wednesday's win after trailing them in that category all season. And it's easy to point to bullets dodged in close wins against the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and, just last week, the Grizzlies as signs of subtle frailty.

We even put together a list.

There's a good counter for that contention.

This year's Warriors were so good and so assured of their borderline invincibility, they coasted through plenty of games they could have blown open—either because they were pacing themselves or, more likely, because they found it hard to stay interested. Their clutch performance points to something important: The Warriors were great all year, but when the situation called for it, they summoned a level of dominance no team (past or present) could match.

Per NBA.com, Golden State's net rating in close-and-late situations was plus-38.6, more than twice that of the Dallas Mavericks and Spurs, who ranked second and third at plus-16.0 and plus-15.4, respectively. If the Warriors played every minute of every game like they did when the stakes were highest, they would have beaten teams by almost 40 points per 100 possessions.

And their "Death Lineup," which closed meaningful games whenever all five members were healthy, crushed opponents by an absurd 47.0 points per 100 possessions.

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 12: Klay Thompson #11, Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors celebrate a basket against the Phoenix Suns at ORACLE Arena on March 12, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Those numbers, more than anything else, encapsulate the 2015-16 Warriors' place among the greats. They proved they could sustain a ridiculously high level of play over a full season by winning 73 games. But they were so much better than that when they found reasons to really try.

Suggesting the Warriors were lucky to win 73 overlooks how consistently they imposed their will in close games. If something that seems lucky—like winning tight contests in dramatic fashion—happens often enough, there comes a point where you have to acknowledge it isn't luck at all.

It's skill.

And Steve Kerr, who has now held the wins record as a player and coach, doesn't think a team will ever come along with more, per Sam Amick of USA Today:

There's always room to argue, especially in sports, where emotions and stubborn adherence to pet eras or players often make objectivity an unwelcome interloper.

But it's so perfectly appropriate that this Warriors team, which spent a season disrupting a sport and reshaping expectations of how basketball could be played, is now reordering a list long thought unalterable.

If the question is "Who's the best team ever?", the Warriors are now the default answer. Because of those 73 wins (winning is still the point, right?), they are the presumption that must be rebutted.

For now and maybe forever, this particular historical debate starts with the Warriors.

'Mamba Out'

Kobe Bryant's NBA career is over, and it's hard to imagine a more fitting conclusion.

He scored an NBA season-high 60 points on 22-of-50 shooting in the Lakers' 101-96 win.

All of those numbers are real. They happened.

After 20 seasons, 18 All-Star selections, five championships, 33,643 points and an MVP award, Bryant leaves behind the game and an army of the most fanatically devoted followers a player has ever had. And with nights like Wednesday, it's easy for everyone to understand the impulse to deify Bryant.

This is what a departure of that magnitude looks and sounds like:

Talk about going out on your own terms.

Not every part of Bryant's final season was so great. Much of it felt tragic: a delusionally competitive force of nature raging against age and decline, with mostly bitter results. The end will not define the whole, though. We won't remember Bryant as the gracious, smiling centerpiece of a farewell pageant.

We'll remember the pathologically driven superstar—the guy who genuinely believed he could and often did bend everything about the game—rules, opponents, teammates—to his will.

His will be a conflicted legacy in many senses, but there will be no confusion about his earned iconic status or his unparalleled work ethic.

See ya, Kobe. It's been fun, weird, complicated but mostly great.

Finally, Closure!

Apr 13, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) dribbles the ball against the Miami Heat during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it took six months and 82 games, but we now know what the East playoff bracket will look like.

Forewarning: It's strange.

Eastern Conference Playoff Seeds
TeamRecordGB
1. Cleveland Cavaliers57-25_
2. Toronto Raptors56-261
3. Miami Heat48-349
4. Atlanta Hawks48-349
5. Boston Celtics48-349
6. Charlotte Hornets48-349
7. Indiana Pacers45-3712
8. Detroit Pistons44-3813
NBA.com

The Boston Celtics engineered a second-half comeback against the Miami Heat that erased a 26-point deficit and produced a 98-88 win. Isaiah Thomas (21 points), Evan Turner (16 points) and Boston's dialed-in defense shared in leading the manic charge, but the Heat were complicit in the process as well.

Miami's ball movement ceased entirely in a five-point third quarter, and there was just no reclaiming the momentum from the Celts or their delirious home crowd. Boston's victory may have actually hurt it, though, as it wound up in the No. 5 spot.

Sixth place would have meant a first-round series against the third-seeded Heat (against whom, in light of recent events, the Celtics should have felt pretty confident). Now, Boston gets the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, and a first-round victory would mean an immediate date with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semifinals.

The Heat, despite an epic collapse, keep the third seed thanks to the Hawks' surprising 109-98 loss against the packing-it-in Washington Wizards. Miami will face the Charlotte Hornets and can avoid the Cavs until the Eastern Conference Finals.

It's only fitting that the four teams fighting for position all year wind up with identical records, slotted into playoff spots based on tiebreakers and the results of two stunning outcomes on the final day of the season.

More Closure!

Apr 13, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles agains the Sacramento Kings in the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden scored 38 points, and the Sacramento Kings predictably no-showed in the Houston Rockets' playoff-clinching 116-81 win Wednesday. The result ended the Utah Jazz's playoff hopes about 15 minutes before their 7:30 p.m. PT tipoff against the Lakers.

Ouch.

The only remaining drama of the evening was over quickly, as the Grizzlies' early deficit against the Warriors made it clear they'd finish seventh in the West—on the wrong end of a tiebreaker with the Dallas Mavericks.

The Portland Trail Blazers actually started their game against the Denver Nuggets locked into the No. 5 seed. They won anyway, 107-99.

So, with the games all finished, here's what we've got:

Western Conference Playoff Seeds
TeamRecordGB
1. Golden State Warriors73-9
2. San Antonio Spurs67-156
3. Oklahoma City Thunder55-2718
4. Los Angeles Clippers53-2920
5. Portland Trail Blazers44-3829
6. Dallas Mavericks42-4031
7. Memphis Grizzlies42-4031
8. Houston Rockets41-4132
NBA.com

Parting Shots

We Need to Talk About Jimmy

NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 11:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on April 11, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls won their finale against the Philadelphia 76ers and got a triple-double from Jimmy Butler in just 26 minutes of court time.

Don't let either of those facts convince you the front office is satisfied with where it's at these days. Chicago will miss the playoffs after starting the year with expectations of contention, and Butler's place as a franchise cornerstone may be in doubt, per Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin:

The Bulls were disappointing top-to-bottom this season, even if injuries had plenty to do with it. For a franchise steeped in success, expect some bold, corrective moves this summer.

Seats Are Getting Hot

The Kings are going to fire George Karl, per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical:

For real this time.

Wojnarowski reports the coaching search will include Vinny Del Negro, David Blatt, Jeff Hornacek, Jay Larranaga and Kenny Atkinson. The Kings had their best season in nearly a decade but still fell comically short of their playoff aspirations. If recent history is any indication, whoever takes Karl's place will be in for a rough ride.

Oh, and the Washington Wizards canned Randy Wittman, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com:

That was fast...and also probably two years too late.

Get Buckets, Minny!

Apr 13, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) dunks the ball in the second half against the New Orleans Pelicans at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 144-109. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves closed their campaign with an NBA season-high 144 points in a win (obviously) over the New Orleans Pelicans. They shot 65.1 percent from the field as a team and registered 41 assists on 56 made hoops.

Karl-Anthony Towns scored 28 and grabbed 14 rebounds, putting an exclamation point on what should be a unanimous Rookie of the Year season.

You can't draw any real conclusions from a game played between two teams with nothing on the line. But coupled with the Wolves' overwhelming young talent, the outburst is a harbinger of what's to come. Minnesota is finished with the first phase of its rebuild.

Announcing that interim Sam Mitchell was immediately out, per Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, following the game was yet another sign.

Things get serious next year.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played April 13.