The playoff rampage has already added another historic accomplishment to the Warriors’ remarkable three-year run, which includes an NBA title and a 73-win season. By sweeping the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, they became the third team to enter the Finals without a playoff loss, and the first to win its first 12 games in a single playoffs. They joined the 1989 and 2001 Lakers, who both entered the Finals 11-0 because the NBA used a best-of-five format in the first round.
Almost nobody understands, firsthand, the position the Warriors find themselves in. Even the 1989 Lakers had a different experience. They lost guard Byron Scott to an injury before the Finals began, and they were swept in the Finals after Magic Johnson went down with another injury, capping one of the more bizarre playoff runs in league history.
The 2001 Lakers, really, provide the only comparison for the 2017 Warriors. The relationship between peak Shaquille O’Neal and ascendant Kobe Bryant reached its greatest, most harmonious stage, and the Lakers destroyed all comers. It might be the only team with an idea of what the Warriors feel right now.
“There was just a complete feeling of invincibility in our locker room,” said Mark Madsen, a rookie forward on the 2001 Lakers and currently a Lakers assistant coach. “San Antonio was supposed to be a test that year, and we were able to sweep them. Kobe was playing at the highest level. Shaq was dominating people. Invincibility is the word that comes to my mind in terms of how we were playing, how we felt and how we were going to dismantle the opponent. That was the confidence.”
But their dominance turned into their biggest challenge, a predicament the Warriors now face. The Lakers had to wait nine days for the Finals to start while the Philadelphia 76ers outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games. Coach Phil Jackson gave the Lakers two days off entirely, and over the next week tried to keep the Lakers sharp and focused. He could not.
The 76ers stunned the Lakers in Game 1, beating them in overtime after Allen Iverson, the league MVP, nailed the game-clinching shot and created a lasting image. After hitting his step-back jumper in front of the Los Angeles bench, Iverson stepped over defender Tyronn Lue — now the coach of Cleveland, Golden State’s overwhelmingly likely Finals opponent.
“We were hungry,” Madsen said. “We were ready. But we were out of rhythm. We had not been in a lot of battles lately. Philly took it to us on our home court. After the game, in our locker room, everyone was in shock. There was a feeling of shock. There was a feeling of, ‘Oh my goodness. They just came in and beat us on our own home court.’ ”
The Lakers regrouped in time to win the series in five games, finishing the playoffs 15-1, the best winning percentage in playoff history. The mark gives the Warriors something to shoot for, if they want to. By winning in five games, the Warriors would set a record for winning percentage in a single postseason. By sweeping the Finals, they could stamp themselves as perhaps the greatest team of all time.
The Warriors, though, have a different aim. They have played all season to avenge their performance in last year’s Finals, when the Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit and prevented them from winning consecutive titles.
“At the end of the day, had we went 4-3, 4-3, 4-3, we’d still be in the same position,” Green said. “So it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean too much. It means we got a little more rest. We played a few less games. But it’s not like you get some trophy or something for being undefeated throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. Like I said before, it’s about winning the championship, and we’re four games away from that. Now, if that’s 4-0? Great. If it’s 4-3, great. It doesn’t matter how you get those four wins as long as you get them.”
Curry concurred, saying, “12-and-0 is great, but it doesn’t mean anything going into the next series, and we have to understand that.”
The Warriors may have their sights on only the Cavaliers, but the 2001 Lakers provide historical competition. The Lakers outscored opponents by 15.6 points per game before the Finals. The Warriors have surpassed that mark, thumping playoff foes by an average of 16.3 points.
Those Lakers and these Warriors took similar paths to the Finals even before the playoffs started. Late in the season, on the first day of April, the Lakers lost three out of four games to drop to 48-26. The Lakers won their final eight games in the regular season, which meant their 11-game rampage through the Western Conference pushed their overall winning streak to 19 games.
The Warriors dropped three straight games, to the Celtics, Timberwolves and Spurs, in late March before they reeled off a 14-game winning streak. The Utah Jazz beat them in their penultimate game of the regular season, and they have won every game since. And so, they’ll begin the Finals with a 27-1 record over a 79-day period.
Golden State has an opportunity to create more history. Simply beating the Cavaliers, though, might override the uniqueness of plowing through the playoffs without a loss. Madsen said his teammates never rue the lone loss during 2001, only savoring the ultimate achievement. The Warriors can probably relate.
“I’m going to guess they probably don’t care about winning every single game,” Madsen said. “I’m guessing they have just one goal: Win a championship. They’re probably not worried about trying to make it a perfect season. The Warriors had that phenomenal regular season last year where they broke the Bulls’ record, but it may have taken a toll in terms of the mileage on players. I think anyone would have done the same thing. Knowing hindsight is 20-20, I’m guessing there is one singular goal, and that is to win a championship.”