For five months, the Golden State Warriors have doggedly pursued history, piling one win on top another as they’ve barreled towards the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ seemingly unbeatable regular season record of 72 wins.
That’s why Friday night’s 109-106 loss to the Boston Celtics at Oracle Arena wasn’t a shocking result – at least, as long as you set aside the fact that it’s shocking whenever a team that is now 68-8 loses. The truth is, the cracks have been showing in the Warriors’ foundation for some time. Wednesday night in Utah, it took a series of events going Golden State’s way to prevent it from losing. If Utah’s Shelvin Mack made both free throws with 24 seconds left, if Shaun Livingston didn’t corral a missed Klay Thompson three-pointer on the ensuing possession and pass it back out to Thompson for the game-tying three-pointer, the Warriors would have lost instead of prevailing in overtime. And that’s not even factoring in Jazz power forward Derrick Favors leaving the game injured.
Nine days before that, the Warriors found themselves in a game right down to the wire with the cellar-dwelling Minnesota Timberwolves, who easily could’ve won if their talented group of youngsters was better prepared to handle a moment that was a bit beyond their years.
So what is happening to this team, one that seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut for much of this season? It’s not too hard to figure out. Andre Iguodala, Golden State’s best weapon off the bench, has played three games this month because of an ankle injury, while center Festus Ezeli has been out for the past two months with knee issues. That has led to extra minutes being placed on everyone else, preventing Steve Kerr from lightening the load.
Then there’s the simple fact that the finish line is, for the first time all season, truly within reach. It was one thing for the Warriors, after winning their opening 24 games, to spend the past five months trying to chase down that record-setting win total by Michael Jordan’s Bulls; it’s another thing now, with six games to go, to be within five wins of breaking it. The daily wear and tear of such a pursuit on a team’s mental state is as difficult to overcome as the physical strain of enduring the NBA’s 82-game regular season.
It would also be foolish to think this team wasn’t contemplating what it would mean to become the first team to go a perfect 41-0 at home for a season. After that goal was snuffed by Friday’s loss, Stephen Curry claimed it didn’t cross his mind during the game. Given how much Curry thinks about these kinds of things (a lot, just like every great player), that simply isn’t believable. At this point, the pursuit of history is all anyone around the Warriors is thinking about on a daily basis.
None of this is meant to signal that the Warriors are being figured out, or that their chances of defending the title have diminished. On the contrary, Golden State’s ability to survive – and thrive – under the weight it has been playing only reinforces how truly special this team has become.
There are only two teams that have won 65 games in consecutive regular seasons: the 1996 and ’97 Bulls and the 2015 and ’16 Warriors. There are only three teams – the 1996 and ’97 Bulls, along with the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers (69 victories) – that have won more games in a season than Golden State has to this point. It takes not only tremendous talent, but an equally impressive focus and determination to grind through the league’s unforgiving marathon of a regular season in such a way.
But to make history, the Warriors are going to have to summon the energy to run hard through the tape. It’s not going to be easy. The final six games kick off Sunday with a showdown with the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that beat Golden State by 32 earlier this season, before the Warriors face the San Antonio Spurs twice in four days – with the second meeting coming as the second half of a back-to-back.
But breaking a significant record isn’t supposed to be easy – especially not when doing so means Golden State would go into the playoffs knowing a title would given it claim to being the greatest team in NBA history.
Teams don’t manage to get to 68-8 without being able to handle any obstacle thrown their way. But as Wednesday’s escape in Utah and Friday’s loss at home to Boston proved, these final two weeks are going to be the most difficult by far of this remarkable season for these Warriors.
Immortality doesn’t come easily. For Golden State, it now sits five wins away.