One way or another, winning an unprecedented 73 games was going to define this season for the Golden State Warriors.
Either it would be the brightest jewel in their championship crown or it would be an all-too-expensive, energy-sucking bauble. Either they would be geniuses for daring to outdo the legendary Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls or they would be viewed as fools for losing sight of the ultimate prize.
Fair? Hell no. But let the second-guessing begin.
That's because a team that seemed to routinely blowtorch opponents down the stretch for the last two years, a team that almost never lost back-to-back games, a team favored to win this year's championship right down to tipoff of Game 7, lost three in a row and its reign as champions to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The finale consisted of the Cavs landing the last two punches in a two-and-a-half-hour brawl Sunday night. The Warriors swung first and last in the final minutes and missed both times. Despite Cleveland's riding of three players for the vast majority of big plays—Finals MVP LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson—the Strength-in-Numbers Warriors looked as if no one other than Draymond Green could match it.
It was a game of attrition—the two teams combined to miss 16 of the game's last 17 shots—and the deeper, younger, more versatile Warriors were left gasping. On their home floor, no less, a place where the energy of Oracle Arena practically crackled, usually leaving opponents toast by the start of the fourth quarter.
Not so Sunday night. The combination of James' practical leap over the backboard to block Andre Iguodala's layup and Irving's dagger three-pointer gave the Cavaliers a 93-89 win and ended a 52-year championship drought for the city of Cleveland.
That's how this season will now be remembered. The Warriors' 73 wins? Placed firmly in the "also" category.
The talking points for the rest of the summer and beyond:
- How much did the health and energy expended in their drive for regular-season wins have to do with coming up empty in the last of the 25,473 minutes they played this season?
- How much did fatigue result in Andrew Bogut's awkward landing on his leg in the third quarter of Game 5 and a series-ending sprained knee?
- How much did the grind contribute to Green's increasing frustration, resulting in enough flagrant fouls to earn a Game 5 suspension? Or Iguodala's back locking up in Game 6?
- How much did it contribute to Steph Curry rolling his ankle and spraining his knee in the first round against the Houston Rockets?
- How much did it induce coach Steve Kerr to give the first postseason career start to the youngest of his big men, Festus Ezeli, in Game 7 and then, inexplicably, not only start him in the second half, but also bring him back a third time despite the fact that Ezeli was an utter disaster?
"I'm not sure if it's more so about what we did," said Green, the Warriors' lone shining light. "You just have to give them credit. They battled. They deserved to win."
He would be right if not for what made the Warriors so lethal for so much of this season. Their rallying cry, "Strength in Numbers," couldn't have been more apt. Yes, they had the first-ever unanimous regular-season MVP in Curry, but what made them so difficult to beat was their depth and versatility.
Quiet Steph and Klay Thompson could torch you from distance. Pay too much attention to those two, and Harrison Barnes would knock down wide-open threes from the other side of the floor. Prevent Green from being a point forward, and Iguodala would make you pay instead.
In all, no team could boast as many two-way players as the Warriors. They ran at least seven deep with guys who could pass, score and defend in multiple ways.
There is a real possibility the Warriors could've come up a couple of regular-season wins short and still lost the championship. Seeing the results and then reflecting back on what produced them is natural, but it's not fair.
Kerr was careful in how he managed minutes; not one Warrior averaged more than 35 minutes a night during the regular season. Both Jordan and Scottie Pippen, already in their 30s during that 1995-96 season, averaged more.
Nor does it seem right to suggest the Warriors were wrong in going for the record. The youth of their key players, the versatility and depth of the team, the excellence of their medical staff and the dedicated work ethic of their players all suggested it was a fair gambit. If you don't care to achieve great things, you never will.
Then again, regular-season success and postseason excellence aren't scripted the same, particularly when it comes to repeating as champions. Versatility, execution and depth are what makes tough regular-season teams. Repeat title winners have all that and, invariably, a dominant superstar or two, someone who, no matter what the opposition throws at him, can rise above one more time than anyone else.
The Warriors were good enough to win a championship. They were good enough to win 73 games. Just not in the same season. It took them until the final minute of the season to find that out.