In many ways, the last days of the NBA Regular Season are anticlimactic. Generally, at least a quarter of the league is in full tank mode, with superstars missing games left and right with phantom “injuries”. Most of the playoff spots have been decided so in most years, even the best teams in the league will be resting its guys in preparation for a deep run in the postseason. To say that 2016 is not most years would be an understatement.
The excitement and intrigue around the league was palpable heading into April 13th, the final day of the regular season. While some of it was related to the heated playoff race for the third-through-sixth seeds in the Eastern Conference, the vast majority of attention was being focused on California.
Up north in Oakland, the Golden State Warriors were looking to leave their imprint on the history books by toppling the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls’ hallowed mark of 72-10, set in 1996. Further south at the Staples Center, one of the most enigmatic and divisive superstars in NBA history laced them up for the last time as Kobe Bean Bryant took the floor for the pitiful Los Angeles Lakers. What followed exceeded all expectations and certainly had people talking at the water cooler on the next morning.
Starting with the Warriors: they almost didn’t make it here. After looking nearly invincible for the first three-fourths of the season, Golden State faltered ever-so-slightly over the last few weeks. With improbable home losses to the Celtics and Timberwolves (gasp), the Warriors needed to win their last four games in order to break the Bulls’ record. Two of the games were against the league’s second-best team: Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. This included one game in San Antonio, where the Spurs had not lost all season.
Lo and behold, when it appeared that the grind of the season and chasing the record had finally caught up to “Dub City”, the Warriors reached down and won those games. Sandwiched between the victories against the Spurs was a frantic comeback against Wednesday’s opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies. There was even some controversy, as it appeared the Grizzlies’ Lance Stephenson was fouled on his game-winning shot attempt. Regardless, the Warriors pulled through, won both contests, and set up Wednesday’s showdown for the record.
No one gave the Grizzlies much of a chance in this one, and with good reason. Generally a formidable bunch, they have been decimated by injuries. Star center Marc Gasol and point guard Mike Conley have both been out for an extended period of time. True to form, the Warriors came out hot and held a 14-point lead after the first quarter, which ballooned to 20 at halftime.
What the game lacked in drama, it more than made up for in historical significance. 73 wins… single digit losses. Wow.
Much has been written about these Warriors, so I will be brief. From an analytical standpoint, the Warriors win because they are nearly impossible to stop. Steph Curry is a transcendent talent at the absolute peak of his powers. Draymond Green is the perfect compliment to Curry and a superstar — that’s right; a superstar — in his own right. Klay Thompson may be the best shooter in the NBA right now, including his otherworldly teammate. The front office has surrounded this core with role players perfectly suited for their system: Andrew Bogut gives them 20-25 solid minutes a night and is a defensive force. Andre Iguodala is a playoff-tested super sixth man. Harrison Barnes is a bit inconsistent, but very talented, youngster. Even guys like Mo Speights and Leandro Barbosa, essentially castoffs from other teams, give the Warriors valuable minutes off the bench.
It all begins and ends with Curry though. What he has done this season is nothing short of breathtaking. He is — without exaggeration — the most dominating force in the league since Michael Jordan. He is truly unique in that he takes over without physical superiority. Even Jordan could jump over everybody once in a while. With Curry, it is all skill. He has the best handle in the league and legitimately has to be guarded 30 feet from the basket, a brutal combination for anyone looking to slow him down. His once paper-mâché ankles have held up for two straight seasons now. He has vastly improved as a playmaker and has gotten stronger on defense too. Quite simply, he is the best player in the game and it isn’t close. The other thing that sticks out with Curry is how the Warriors have built their team around his specific skill set. Similar to the Phoenix Suns’ teams with Steve Nash at the point, you get the feeling that the offense wouldn’t be nearly as successful with anyone other than Curry. It has truly been a joy to watch him.
With all that said, there is some concern the Warriors may have burned themselves out a little bit chasing the record. As good as Golden State is, the Spurs have been almost as impressive. In any other year, we would be talking about where THEY fall historically.
Also, even discounting the Spurs, the Western Conference is no cake walk. The Warriors first-round opponent, the disastrous Houston Rockets, are tailor-made for them. The Rockets game is outscoring people and that will not work against Golden State. It’s hard to imagine anything other than a sweep.
Round Two is where things could get interesting. If the Clippers can make it by the Blazers, they present a unique challenge for the Warriors. If there is a point guard in the league who can play with Curry, it is Chris Paul. Also, with the returning Blake Griffin and stalwart DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have the beef up front to give the Warriors problems. If they get by the Clips, the Spurs will most likely be waiting for GSW in the Conference Finals in a battle for the ages.
Finally, even if they make it out of the West, the Warriors will most likely have to face a Cavaliers team that took two games from them last year without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. In other words, it was great to break the record, but they may have sacrificed too much to do so. This is an important postseason for Golden State. Will they be remembered in the same rarified air as the Bulls team they caught by winning a title, or will they be the NBA version of the 2007 New England Patriots, a team that strove for immortality but fell just short? We shall see.
Onward to Los Angeles…
As good as the Warriors have been this season, the Lakers have been just as bad. Kobe’s extended farewell tour has been marred by loss after loss. Nagging injuries kept him out of a number of games throughout the season. The feeling coming into the final game of the season against the Jazz was very mixed.
While Kobe certainly deserved all the accolades and adulation he received this season, it is difficult not to think that his leaving is actually a good thing for the Lakers. As a team clearly in need of a full rebuild, they should be giving their youngsters big minutes to see what they have. Instead, for most of the season it has been The Kobe Show. Personally, I was expecting another dud in the final game of the year. Boy was I wrong.
While I’ve never been a fan of Kobe’s, I do have respect for his accomplishments. He’s been the closest thing to Jordan since MJ himself: a homicidal competitor who wasn’t always the best teammate. A true alpha dog who blew up a multi-title winning combination with Shaq so that he could be THE MAN and get one on his own. A guy who always wanted the ball in his hands when it mattered most. A player who single-handedly willed some very mediocre teams (Smush Parker anyone?) to the playoffs. A guy who openly quit on his team by not shooting in the deciding game of the Conference Finals. When it’s all said and done, Kobe’s legacy is that he did things his way, for better or worse. He never joined up with other superstars to try to cherry pick a title. He was a true workhorse – routinely playing the most minutes in the league even though he got to the NBA at the age of 18 and had a lot of mileage on the tires at the end. I think you can make a pretty compelling argument for him as the second best shooting guard of all time, which is not too bad at all.
In his final night, Kobe went out in the most Kobe way possible. Long criticized for shooting too much, Kobe launched a ridiculous 50 shots. He also scored 60 points and led his team one last time from a fourth-quarter deficit by outscoring the Jazz 23-21 on his own. The following day, instead of unabashed praise from the media, the story was about how Kobe selfishly paraded his way to outshining the Warriors on what should have been their historic day.
Always divisive. Always an enigma. That is who Kobe was. He refused to go gentle into the good night and went out firing. He went out the way he wanted to. He went out his way.
The only way he ever knew.