By now, the Golden State Warriors should be accustomed to the scrutiny produced by their championship last season and their pursuit of 73 victories this season. Everything they do is magnified, which was evident again on Sunday.
Their bizarre loss to the woeful Los Angeles Lakers generated great debate throughout the sports world. On ABC, it was announced that no NBA team with 55 victories had ever lost to a team with 51 losses.
So that is the biggest regular season upset in NBA history.
But then we have one renowned statistical web site announcing that it was in fact only the 23rd greatest upset, a full 12 spots behind that Steam Rollers’ victory over the Royals in 1948. That should certainly make the Warriors and their fans less embarrassed and frustrated, especially when they find out who the hell the Steam Rollers and Royals are (Providence and Rochester, of course).
Surprisingly, the Lakers have yet to earn praise from the ever-pleasant Oscar Robertson, who says the Warriors are good only because defenses are bad. On Sunday, the Lakers’ defense must have been good because the Warriors were 4-of-30 from 3-point range. The Splash Brothers produced numerous belly flops, with Steph Curry 1-of-10 on 3-pointers and Klay Thompson 0-of-8.
So, Oscar … Lakers? Great defense?
The Warriors were back to normal on Monday and Tuesday, defeating the Orlando Magic 119-113 and the Utah Jazz 115-94 as Curry hit another shot from beyond midcourt. It’s like watching someone go on a crazy gambling run at SpinPalace. The Warriors have improved their record to 57-6, still one game ahead of the pace set by the 72-10 Bulls in 1995-96.
To better that record, the Warriors have to duplicate the Bulls’ final 20 games of that season when they were 17-3. Seventeen wins in their last 20 games will give Golden State a 73-9 record, and that may finally be a record that can’t be broken.
The chase has been a compelling story all season, and the factors that will positively or adversely affect the final outcome continue to be fascinating.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said last week that he will not hesitate to rest players down the stretch to ensure they are fresh for the playoffs. Yet after the way the season has gone, he might not have a choice.
San Antonio is playing at a 69-win pace and only 3 1/2 games behind Golden State for home court advantage. The Spurs’ brilliant season may force Kerr to continue playing his stars, because San Antonio refuses to go away.
How about this for a scenario? The Warriors and Spurs have three games left this season and two of those are in San Antonio. What if the Spurs win all three games but the Warriors still win the other 17? The Warriors could finish the season 73-9 but still be only one game better than the Spurs.
That is unlikely, of course, but the Spurs have the ability to put so much pressure on the Warriors that Kerr may not have the option to rest players.
But there is another question. Do they really need rest? Last year, the Warriors ended the season nine games ahead of the second-place Los Angeles Clippers in the West. They clinched the home court advantage in the playoffs with five games left in the regular season, yet Curry played each of those last five games. He played 34 or more minutes in three games before averaging 24 minutes in the final two.
It is a different situation this season because the Warriors played 21 games in the playoffs a year ago, which they had not done in 2014. But the Warriors are likely to have an easy time with their first-round opponent, so players probably will have an opportunity to rest when the playoffs begin.
It also is interesting to look back at that great Bulls team and how it closed the 1995-96 regular season. In their 79th game, the Bulls broke the record of 69 wins. But despite a 70-9 record, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman played the final three games of the season.
Their minutes were down. Jordan averaged 37.7 minutes in the regular season, but 26.3 minutes in the last three games. Pippen averaged 36.7 during the season and 28 in the last three games. And Rodman’s averages were 32.6 and 24, respectively.
As an aside, there was no rest for Steve Kerr with those Bulls. He played in all 82 games that season, although as a reserve, and averaged 23.4 minutes.
The larger point is that it has become popular in recent years to rest players, but that wasn’t the case in the 1990s. When Pat Riley coached the Lakers, in fact, he was fined for resting Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the regular season finale.
In 2012, the Spurs were fined $250,000 for resting players, but since Adam Silver replaced David Stern as commissioner, he has taken a more lax view, understanding that the teams have legitimate reasons for giving players a game off.
Kerr and his players have mixed feelings about pursuing the record. While Kerr told reporters, “We will rest guys if they need it,” Curry told Yahoo! Sports, “Honestly, if we are a 70-win team and champions versus a 73-win team and depleted energy and banged up going into the playoffs, we’re trying to avoid that. But at the same token, it’s a tough balance. How many times are you going to have this opportunity?”
The Warriors have a favorable schedule ahead. Thirteen of their remaining 19 games are at home, where they have won their last 47 and are 28-0 this season. With two games against Minnesota and one each against the Knicks, Sixers, Suns and Pelicans, it is likely that Kerr will be able to find time to rest his stars.
But one-fourth of the season is left and as Curry noted, opportunities to break a record of this magnitude are rare. As the Warriors continue to pursue one of the greatest accomplishments in team sports, the sports world will be watching closely, prepared to overreact at every turn.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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