CHICAGO – By and large, basketball doesn’t have the same reverence for signature numbers that, say, baseball does. No one knows how many points Kareem Abdul-Jabbar actually scored – they just know he’s scored more than anyone else. Same goes for Wilt Chamberlain in rebounds and John Stockton in assists.
There are, however, three numbers that do truly matter in the sport. One is Chamberlain’s 100-point game. Another is the 33-game win streak by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
And the third took place here in the Windy City 20 years ago, when Michael Jordan – in his first full season back from his baseball sabbatical – and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to a 72-10 record in the regular season on their way to the fourth of their six championships.
That number, 72, is the biggest reason why most consider that Bulls team to be the greatest team of all time. And the fact the Warriors, after improving to 39-4 with their 125-94 throttling of Chicago inside United Center Wednesday night, have put themselves on pace to surpass that number means they owe it to themselves, as well as the sport, to try and chase history.
“We’ve got 40 games still,” Warriors interim coach Luke Walton said. “We’ve got a hard schedule … we’re a long way away from that. I can only speak for myself, but I’m not thinking about it yet.”
No one is saying it’ll be a walk in the park. In order to attain the minimum 34 wins over their final 39 games the Warriors will need to get there, it’s going to take navigating a very difficult closing schedule, one that includes four games left against the San Antonio Spurs, three against the Oklahoma City Thunder, two against the Los Angeles Clippers and a seven-game road trip spanning the All-Star Break in February.
And no one is arguing that Golden State isn’t allowed to give its stars an occasional night off, either, in order to preserve them for the playoffs. Obviously winning a championship is the ultimate goal here.
But when you have a chance to do something no one has ever done, you have to do everything you can to go for it.
After watching the Warriors obliterate arguably the top two teams in the Eastern Conference this week, beating the Cavaliers by 34 in Cleveland Monday night before winning by 31 here on Wednesday, it’s impossible to watch them and think they can’t.
And, for as much as they’ll try to say they aren’t thinking about it, you’d be lying to yourself to think that 15 hyper competitive athletes – not to mention Kerr, who was a member of that 72-win Bulls team – are reeling off win after win without considering the potential historical ramifications.
“I mean, you think of it,” Klay Thompson said, “but we don’t really talk about it. We just want to keep winning, take it week-by-week and not look too far ahead.”
The history of the Bulls is even more impossible to escape for Golden State, given its stars – Stephen Curry (27), Draymond Green and Thompson (both 25) – were coming of age as basketball fans when Jordan was recording it.
Take, for example, when Green was asked after the game about what it felt like to play here, and to hear the same intro music that was used when Jordan was at his peak.
“It’s amazing,” Green said with a huge grin. “I looked at Steph when that … I don’t know what the [intro] song is called. I call it the Jordan song, because every time I hear it I think ‘Number twenty-three: Michael Jordan’ is about to be said.
“When you hear that, man … I just think back to those days watching Jordan, watching ‘Space Jam,’ all of that stuff. It’s amazing.”
Yeah, Green and the rest of the Warriors aren’t thinking about the Bulls and their wins record at all. Right.
Given how they’ve played the past two games after being beaten soundly in Detroit Saturday night – the culmination, according to several players, of slippage in their level of play preceding it, and their second loss in three games after losing only two of their first 38 – it appears the Warriors are ready to get back to the business of chasing after it, too.
The Bulls may not be a championship contender, but they’re a quality opponent. And as Wednesday’s game went on, the Warriors methodically beat them into submission as if they were a varsity team pummeling the JV in a scrimmage back in high school.
Not only did Golden State have its usual 3-point shooting spree in this one, finishing 12-for-32 from behind the arc, but the Warriors also got one wide open dunk after another thanks to brilliant movement and spacing offensively, routinely leaving the Bulls standing around watching as guys would slice through the defense, catch a pinpoint pass and slam the ball through the hoop.
“They play the right way,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “All their guys move, they cut, and every guy on the floor can make a play.
“They are fun to watch if you are not playing them.”
If you are playing them when they’re on, though, good luck. The Cavaliers went into Monday’s game hoping to make a statement, and they did all right – they showed that they’re nowhere near the level of the team they lost to in the Finals last June.
The Bulls managed to hang in there for longer than the Cavaliers did, but the game never felt truly competitive. But once Chicago got to within 12 late in the third quarter, the Warriors immediately went on a 14-2 run to finish the third and finish off the Bulls.
“We kind of have that chip back on our shoulder,” Green said. “I think it kind of fell off a little bit, but we’ve been playing like that the past two games, and it’s exciting.”
When the Warriors play like this, they look virtually unstoppable – and often have been. That’s how this team has won 39 of its first 43 games this season.
It’s a start that has put Golden State in a position to chase the history that was made here 20 years ago. They owe it to themselves to do everything they can to try and make history of their own.