By DERON SNYDER
Cleveland guard J.R. Smith is disappointed that the Golden State Warriors finally lost. He wanted them to remain undefeated entering their game against the Cavaliers on Christmas Day. At least he had a reasonable chance. Had Golden State survived the seventh game of a grueling road trip and handled business in three contests at home, Cleveland would’ve rolled into Oracle Arena to face a 28-0 Warriors team.
That was much more probable than my impossible dream scenario for Feb. 3, when Washington hosts the defending NBA champions. Now, after the 108-95 defeat Saturday night at Milwaukee, Golden State’s best record for its lone trip to Verizon Center would be is 47-1.
We knew the streak had to end at some point, most certainly before February. But it was fun to imagine Golden State chasing down the 2012-13 Miami Heat, who won 27 consecutive games, and then the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who hold the record with 33 wins in a row. Those milestones have faded from view but the biggie – the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins in a season – remains a distinct possibility.
Since the NBA limits each team’s’ number of appearances on national TV, maybe some Warriors games can air on the History Channel. The network would enjoy boffo ratings and could justify the decision as part of its mission, arguing that we’ve never seen a phenomenon quite like Steph Curry & Co.
During the just-concluded road trip, each venue took on a playoff-like atmosphere. We’re talking about regular-season games in early December, when the NFL and college football command attention and the NBA is barely warm. Disinterest has become so prevalent in recent years, observers have suggested that the season begin with the annual Christmas hoopsfest.
Christmas for NBA fans is the day Golden State comes to town, especially Eastern Conference markets where it’s one-and-done. Celtics-Warriors on Friday night was the toughest regular-season ticket in Boston since 2008, the night the team hung its first championship banner in 22 years. Fans among the raucous Milwaukee crowd wore prophetic “24-1” T-shirts and celebrated the victory like it was Game 7 of the Finals. Management was just as giddy, releasing confetti from the rafters.
Throughout the process, going 18-0 before embarking on a two-week trip across six states and two countries, the Warriors never quit smiling. They never stopped relishing the moment or enjoying the spotlight. Not once did they appear frazzled or annoyed by the constant attention. If the streak produced pressure, they were oblivious or immune, yet another reason we love the way roll.
Golden State is giving us a new lesson on human nature, debunking widely-held theories that championship teams will suffer from malaise or dysfunction the following season. Some players are supposed to be too content with their laurels while others are supposed to be frustrated with their recognition, role, salary or all of the above.
Curry is the NBA’s reigning MVP, en route to an encore, but he’s only the fifth-highest-paid player on his team, behind Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut. Nonetheless, Curry exhibits the same unselfishness that has become a Warriors hallmark, evidenced by the way they whip passes and help each other on defense.
“Yeah, you should get paid market value, paid for what you’re worth,” Curry told Yahoo Sports. “But at the time, ($44 million in 2012) for four years, I was comfortable with it. You can’t look back, because it’ll bring negativity. It’ll cause dissension in the team if you allow it to.”
The only visible dissension might be who’s the biggest cheerleader. The Warriors’ bench is always fully engaged, even when it’s filled with resting starters. Curry pulls up for ridiculously long three-pointers every now and then, field-goal attempts that would enrage teammates on other squads. But the Warriors understand that Curry has ‘broke the game;’ there’s virtually no such thing as a bad shot if he’s the one hoisting it.
The 24-game streak provided tremendous entertainment for fans and value for the league. It wasn’t overbearing for the Warriors, who embraced the challenged. But it wasn’t normal either. “I told the guys postgame,” Green told reporters Saturday, “‘Now we can have a regular season.’ It’s been kind of a playoff feel to this, just with the streak and all the media around, all the attention around.”
Players and interim coach Luke Walton conceded that wins had begun to cover up mistakes. They said the team slipped over the last several games, neglecting little things though coming away unscathed. “When your continued victory results in so much national acclaim, it’s easy to ignore what needs improvement,” Walton told reporters.
The idea that Golden State has room for improvement might scare some opponents. But it gives hoops fans a warm sense of anticipation. One loss in 24 games hasn’t quenched the appetite for Warriors basketball.
Instead, it makes us hungry to consume more.