The Golden State Warriors, who are 23-0 as I type this, have painted themselves into the same corner that all historically great teams—and those with historically great aspirations—inevitably find themselves in.
They’re chasing teams and players they can’t ever play, numbers and records compiled against competition different from who they’re facing and reputations that can no longer be sullied or questioned by the latest off-night or shooting slump. They’re fighting ghosts, basically.
Take Tuesday night’s game at Indiana for example. The Warriors got off to a huge lead, as is their custom, thanks to the twin-barreled gunnery of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Pacers were thought to be a fair bet to be the ones who finally knocked the Dubs from their undefeated perch, but the visitors quickly showed us all the folly in such thinking. However, a lineup comprised of subs could not finish Indy off in the fourth, so Luke Walton felt he had no recourse but to bring Curry and the fellas in to ensure victory. Mission accomplished, but Thompson suffered a mildly sprained ankle in that time and is now questionable to play Friday night at Boston.
A year ago, with a huge lead in the standings for homecourt advantage already built up, Steve Kerr may not have handled that situation in the same way. He may well have left the reserves out there to either figure things out on their own and lose if need be, just to give his starters more rest and protect them from injury after they’d already cooled their heels on the bench.
He’d have shown faith in his reserves to get it done to build team unity and trust and depth. Good coaches don’t cut and run every time their role players struggle, especially in relatively meaningless regular season games. If you lose, you lose. It’s not a big deal, and it provides fodder for teaching moments in the film room.
At 23-0 (or 27-0, if you’re counting the last four wins of the 2014-15 regular season, as the NBA league offices officially are) however, there are changes to the calculus on such thinking. Walton and the players have made no secret of the fact that they went to eclipse the record of 33 consecutive wins held by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers and to also surpass the 72-10 season the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls accomplished.
Thus, it’s not enough for the Warriors to be worried about killer threesomes like LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love with the Cavs or Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan with the Spurs. No, they’ve got their sights on Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman (and Kerr, it should be noted) with those 90’s Bulls and Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich on that all-time Lakers squad.
Everywhere the Warriors look they can’t help but be compared to those teams of old and can’t escape those ghosts. Not only is Kerr very much a part of them, obviously, but so is West as an executive and senior consultant.
They’ve become a touring bunch of rock stars now, must-see TV every night and every opponent’s NBA Finals. Everyone they play will want to be the ones who deliver that first defeat and then the second and third and so on to 11. Just repeating the title isn’t a grand enough goal anymore, and you wonder if that’s healthy for the team in the big picture. Maybe Walton or Kerr will feel pressure both internal and external to play their stars in every game when the most prudent course of action would be to rest them now and again. Maybe it’s asking too much of Curry to play at this breakneck pace for eight straight months or Green to play with that chip on his shoulder and a Game 7 edge every single night without boiling over.
What can the playoffs mean to a club when every single game is being treated like it’s do-or-die? Can they maintain that intensity into late June without wearing down physically or mentally? Can they step their games up a notch in the playoffs when the dial already seems to be cranked to 11 just to win road games at Toronto?
“Why not? The Bulls did,” you’re arguing, but those Bulls were not defending champs. The 1994-95 edition played only into mid-may, not June, and Jordan, who returned late in the regular season after abandoning his baseball career, only had 17 regular season games and a couple of playoff rounds worth of wear-and-tear to recuperate from. The Bulls did win 69 games while repeating the following season, but again Jordan is a sociopath and a superhuman and not someone who should be emulated if you want to keep your mind, body and soul in working order.
While the Warriors are chasing history and breaking their backs every other night, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are quietly going about their business, practically anonymous. They’re resting guys on back-to-backs, limiting minutes whenever possible and continually tinkering with lineups and combinations.
Popovich already knows the one seed is a foregone conclusion, and all he has to worry about is holding off the Thunder for the second seed. They have room to breathe and experiment, to treat the regular season for the laboratory and glorified scrimmage ground that it is.
It’s foolish to suggest that the Warriors would be better off losing games here and there. Their intentions are clear and all the best to them for going for it. They’ll have no one to blame but themselves, though, if they cost themselves a championship because they took the regular season too seriously. You worry they’ll melt their wings flying too close to the sun when the safer tactic would be just to sit Curry out against the Suns.