CLEVELAND – If the Golden State Warriors finish the job, taking out the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 on Friday night to become the first team in NBA history to go 16-0 in the playoffs, they will have done it the right way.
Game after game – win after win – they refused to get distracted by anything that didn’t directly involve the Larry O’Brien trophy that was ripped from their grips by these Cavs a year ago. They pushed because this was the playoffs, sweeping Portland then Utah and San Antonio before going up 3-0 against Cleveland. And just like that, they had played their way into the best-team-of-all-time debate.
What they didn’t do, and what makes this chapter of their story so different from last season, is get greedy. The chase for 73 wins, in other words, this was not.
The 2015-16 Warriors had every reason to think they could do it all: Break the regular season record for wins set by Michael Jordan’s 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, barrel through the playoffs, defend their crown, go down as a historically great team and be well on their way to a basketball dynasty. It was intoxicating to watch, the nation captivated for so many months by this special group that was seemingly unstoppable.
But it came at a cost that is impossible to quantify. The Warriors found themselves in playoff-style atmospheres in March and April when occasional rest and a focus on the long view would have been more prudent. Fast forward to Thursday afternoon, and the irony in the air was thick: Warriors forward Draymond Green, who captained this ‘73’ cause last season when others in the organization weren’t so sure it was the right approach, admitted it was a mistake.
Going for ‘73’ didn’t cost them the title, though. Steph Curry’s struggles and his ailing left knee played a bigger part. The Green suspension in Game 5, and the Andrew Bogut injury in the final two games didn’t help. The Cavs kept coming, and the Warriors’ place in NBA history was forever changed.
This is a tricky discussion to have with the Warriors now, in large part because even they don’t all agree on the part the regular season pursuit played in their eventual demise. But no matter the individual view of each player or coach or team executive, it’s impossible not to notice the change in tone this time around.
The universal message, which has them swearing they’ll be just as happy if they finish the Cavs off in seven games or in four, is that the championship is all that matters now.
“Sixteen and oh came up once last night, but I think the only reason it came up is just because we want to win this next game, and (if) we win, it’s 16-0,” Green said on Thursday. “It definitely wasn’t one of those things where it was a goal, like ‘hey, let’s go into this playoffs and go 16-0.’ That’s too much on the mind. But now that it’s a legit possibility, one game away, I think you could think about it at this point.”
Translation: It would be a fantastic footnote. But as they all learned the hard way, a footnote that comes in addition to a championship is a whole lot more meaningful than one that does not.
A win on Friday would put them in rarefied air even if you focus solely on the Finals. Only eight teams have pulled off a sweep on the game’s biggest stage, the last in 2007 when the San Antonio Spurs made quick work of LeBron James’ Cavs. The 2001-02 Lakers (over the New Jersey Nets) were the only team to do it since 1995, when Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets swept Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic. But the bigger picture, should they finish painting it, puts them in an even better light.
Those ’96 Bulls dropped three playoff games en route to winning it all – including two in the Finals to the Seattle SuperSonics – giving them an overall record of 87-13 (.861 winning percentage), marginally better than the Warriors’ mark with a win (83-15; .846).
In terms of the playoff standard bearer, it’s the 2000-01 Lakers team that went 15-1 (the lone loss was against Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals). But that squad, for what it’s worth, was only 56-26 during the regular season. The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers, with Julius Erving and Moses Malone, went 67-15 in the regular season and 12-1 in the playoffs.
But this is all fodder for us media types and fans, all of it part of an apples-to-oranges comparison that clearly doesn’t matter anymore to these Warriors. They want the trophy again. They want the rings. They want the parade. However long it takes to get them.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.