Path to a Trilogy, Chapter V: The Quest for 73

Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Welcome to Chapter V of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter V, we take a closer look at the 2015-16 NBA regular season, one in which the Warriors reach historic highs and the Cavaliers find new lows in LeBron James’ second season back in Cleveland. A nationally-televised meeting between the two teams on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day serves as a tipping point for both organizations. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter V of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

Obviously, walking in the locker room, it’ll be good memories. Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like champagne. — Steph Curry

Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have very quiet summers after their meeting in the 2015 NBA Finals. The Warriors draft UCLA’s Kevon Looney with the 30th pick in the draft while the Cavaliers sign bench pieces Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson. However, the most intriguing (and for that matter, disturbing) part of Cleveland’s summer has nothing to do with their free agent acquisitions.

On July 14, ESPN’s Marc Stein publishes an article on his company’s website in which he criticizes LeBron James for “emasculating” coach David Blatt in front of the team, reporters, and fans during the Finals. The article passes along another quote from Stein’s colleague, Brian Windhorst, stating that James wants Blatt to stay on as the team’s head coach because he “likes having Blatt to kick around”. It is worth noting that Windhorst has covered James in some capacity since the Cavaliers drafted him first overall out of high school in 2003, so when it comes to what James is thinking at any particular moment, Windhorst is a trusted and reputable source. And the reporting of he and Stein seems to indicate a rift between superstar and head coach.

The Warriors’ main question mark going into the season is the health of their head coach, Steve Kerr. Kerr underwent back surgery over the summer, and while the surgery was successful, it left Kerr with leaking spinal fluid and migraine headaches. Because of this, he decides to take a leave of absence to start the regular season; this leaves Kerr’s top assistant, Luke Walton, in charge of the team. Walton has never coached before, and Kerr’s top assistant from the previous season, Alvin Gentry, is now the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. It is unknown how long Kerr will be away from the team, but Walton’s relative inexperience and Kerr’s leave is, at minimum, a slight issue for the defending champions.

At the start of the regular season, though, both squads are clicking. After a season-opening loss to the Chicago Bulls, the Cavaliers reel off eight wins in a row between October 28 and November 13. The real story in the NBA, though, is quickly becoming the dominance of the Warriors. While the Cavaliers are 8-1 on November 13, the Warriors are 10-0 and showing no signs of slowing down. The most significant of these first ten wins is a come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on November 4, one that saw Golden State trailing by double digits with just under eight minutes to play. Steph Curry hits seven threes in the victory, continuing his torrid three-point shooting pace in the early days of the season.

The Warriors continue their undefeated rampage through the NBA for another month. The closest they come to losing in their first 24 games is an overtime win against the Nets on November 14 and a double-overtime victory over the Celtics on December 11. The Warriors win their first 24 games of the season, the longest winning streak to start a regular season in NBA history. Curry is captivating the league and the world with his play, as he makes 125 threes over the course of the first 24 games. At his current pace, Curry is set to make well over 400 three-pointers in the regular season, which would topple the previous record of 286 set the season before by none other than Curry himself. He becomes the clear front-runner to win his second straight MVP award, and the team is following Curry’s lead in dominating the rest of the league. Their winning streak ends, however, on December 12, with a 108-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

While the streak is over, the Warriors have established themselves as the team to beat in the 2015-16 NBA season. And they have done so with a first-time head coach at the helm, speaking to the organization’s newly-found culture of winning and continued excellence, even in the face of adversity. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, have also been rock solid in the first two months of the season. A December 23 win over the Knicks propels them to 19-7, and their next game is the most highly-anticipated contest of the young NBA season: a Christmas Day tilt in Oakland with the 27-1 Golden State Warriors.

Both teams are almost at full strength heading into the game. The Warriors are missing Harrison Barnes while the Cavaliers are without Richard Jefferson. Sure enough, the nationally-televised matchup lives up to the hype, and both teams play with championship-level intensity. The low-scoring affair sees the Warriors leading by five points at the start of the fourth quarter. The game feels like it’s being played in June instead of December, and the Finals rematch proves as a telling litmus test for both teams. The Warriors hold off the Cavs in the fourth quarter en route to an 89-83 victory. While much of the hype surrounding this matchup revolves around the battle between James and Curry, the two best players in the league, the real hero of this one is Golden State’s Draymond Green; Green scores 22 points and grabs 15 rebounds in the victory. Curry finishes with 19 points while James closes with 25. The Warriors improve to 28-1 and maintain their perfection at Oracle Arena.

Golden State is at least slightly better than Cleveland at this point in the season, but the two teams have another matchup on January 18, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. That game, like the other one, is nationally televised and gives both teams a chance to establish (or, in the Warriors’ case, re-establish) themselves; this time, though, it’s played in Cleveland. Before the game, Curry says that he hopes the road locker room still smells of champagne; the Warriors closed out the 2015 NBA Finals in Cleveland and celebrated accordingly. Coming into this game, the Warriors find themselves at 37-4 and still undefeated at home; the possibility of them breaking the NBA’s regular season wins record of 72, set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, is becoming more and more serious with each Golden State victory. The Cavaliers are 28-10 and sit atop the Eastern Conference as they approach the halfway point of their season.

This game, just like the first one, is very highly-anticipated. Unlike the first matchup, though, it fails to deliver on the hype. A J.R. Smith basket makes the score 15-11 in favor of Golden State halfway through the first quarter. It would mark the closest the Cavaliers would get to the lead after the opening two minutes, as the Warriors pull away and coast to a 132-98 victory. Over the course of 48 minutes, the Cleveland Cavaliers fail to appear, as they fall behind by as many as 30 points before the game even reaches halftime. Curry finishes the night with 35 points and seven threes in all of 28 minutes, and Andre Iguodala, the defending Finals MVP, chips in another 20 points off the bench. The Warriors are leaps and bounds ahead of the Cavaliers, and thanks to their performance in Cleveland, just about everyone is aware of that. While the Warriors may be the best team in NBA history, the Cavaliers are in disarray.

After back-to-back victories seemingly right the ship for the Cavaliers, the organization does the unthinkable and terminates Blatt’s contract just four days after the team’s disastrous Monday night performance against the Warriors. In an even more fascinating move, the team immediately promotes the league’s highest-paid assistant, Tyronn Lue, to head coach on a permanent basis. Blatt leaves the team at 30-11 and on pace for an even 60 wins; however, it’s not enough for him to keep his job. Lue is regarded as a more assertive force on the bench for the Cavaliers; one of Blatt’s main problems was his allowing James to essentially coach the team during huddles and timeouts. Lue is put in place in part to regain control of the team from LeBron, but the move is still a massive risk, especially right in the middle of the regular season.

Ironically, on the same day Blatt is fired, Kerr returns to the sidelines for the Warriors. Walton reverts to his role as Kerr’s top assistant, having gone 39-4 in his stewardship of the NBA’s best team. Kerr’s comeback provides an emotional lift for the Warriors, and in his first game coaching the team in the 2015-16 season, Golden State defeats the Indiana Pacers 122-110. Two symbols of the Warriors’ farcical domination over the NBA come in the first half; Curry drills a 70-foot shot after the first quarter buzzer that does not count but still electrifies the Oracle Arena crowd. At the end of the second quarter, Curry fires a 48-foot shot that beats the buzzer and goes in off the glass. It is Curry’s 200th three-pointer of the season, and with his circus shot, he becomes the first player in NBA history to hit 200 threes in four straight seasons.

The Warriors’ domination over the NBA is slowly turning to demolition, and it seems the real point of the regular season is to find out whether or not the team can break the Bulls’ wins record.

Meanwhile, in northeast Ohio, the Cavaliers adapt to Lue’s insistence on increased pace and floor spacing. Cleveland earns two five-game winning streaks in the span of just under a month but loses three out of four after the All-Star break. The team, though, is responding to Lue; during a huddle at one point in the regular season, Lue tells James to “shut the f— up”, and it’s clear that the coach is controlling the huddle, even if his players use him as a towel rack during media timeouts.

The main story in the league, though, is still Golden State’s dominance. The Warriors are 52-5, with all five losses coming on the road, heading into a nationally-televised matchup in Oklahoma City against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder. Golden State needs to win 21 of its last 25 games be the greatest regular-season team of all time, and games like this one could go a long way towards deciding their fate.

The Thunder lead the game by 11 points at halftime, and early in the third quarter, Curry turns his ankle driving to the basket. (He would later return to the game.) The Thunder, though, look to be the better team on this night, and they lead 96-85 with 4:51 to play. And then, the Steph Curry show commences.

Curry scores eight points in the span of two minutes to help bring the Warriors within three. A Durant three, though, with 15 seconds to play puts Oklahoma City up four. A quick Klay Thompson layup is followed by a Durant turnover. Iguodala attempts a jump shot to tie the game a force overtime; while the shot misses, Iguodala is fouled by Durant with 0.6 seconds left. Iguodala, who goes on to shoot just 61% from the free throw line for the season, makes both free throws, and a Durant miss at the other end necessitates an extra five minutes.

In the overtime, the Thunder find themselves with a late lead once again. And once again, the Warriors come back, as a Thompson and-one layup and free throw tie the game at 118 with 30 seconds left. A Westbrook miss gives the ball back to Golden State with just seconds to play. Instead of taking a timeout, the Warriors play out the final few seconds of the game with Curry dribbling up the floor. Curry pulls up from 32 feet and drills a game-winning three; his shot beats the Thunder, breaks NBA Twitter, and spawns a double “BANG!” call from longtime broadcaster Mike Breen. The Warriors win the game to improbably go to 53-5 and maintain pace with the 95-96 Bulls. This game turns out to be the best in the NBA regular season and is the seminal moment in the Warriors’ quest for 73 wins. Curry finishes the night with 46 points and 12 made threes, tying the single-game NBA record. Also in this game, Curry breaks his own NBA record with his 287th three-pointer of the season, one he hit halfway through the overtime period. He is still on pace to hit over 400 threes for the year.

The Warriors do not suffer a letdown after the thriller in Oklahoma City, as they win nine of their next ten games. Their only loss in this span is a Sunday afternoon loss to the hapless Lakers in Los Angeles. Their next loss comes on the road at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, the team many believe Golden State will have to go through to win the Western Conference. Unbelievably, the Spurs are also perfect at home for the season and move to 59-10 after the victory. The Warriors fall to 62-7 with the loss; for as historic as their performance has been to this point in the season, they are just three games ahead of San Antonio for the top seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. While everyone has been enthralled with their run at history, they will need to fend off the Spurs to hold on to home-court advantage.

The Warriors win their next six games before a home matchup with the Celtics on April 1. The Celtics lead for the entire fourth quarter and hang on to win 109-106 to deliver the Warriors their first home loss of the season. The next Tuesday, April 5, Golden State surrenders their second home loss of the year to the 26-52 Minnesota Timberwolves. The quest for 73 is clearly wearing on them, and the home loss is their ninth of the year. At 69-9, Golden State must win their final four games, two games each against the Spurs and Grizzlies to break the Bulls’ long-standing record.

In the first of the two San Antonio tilts, Golden State defends their home floor with a 112-101 victory. This win clinches them home-court advantage through the entire NBA Playoffs and brings them to within three wins of the record. On Saturday, April 9, the Warriors play in Memphis and are pushed to the limit. A Draymond Green basket with a minute left puts Golden State up 100-99, and the Warriors hang on in the final minute to beat Memphis and keep their hopes of reaching the milestone alive.

Their next game against the Spurs is in San Antonio on April 10; a Warriors win would tie them with Chicago for the wins record. The Warriors lead for most of the second half and stave off a late charge from San Antonio to win the game by a score of 92-86. The loss is San Antonio’s first regular season home defeat; the Spurs had won their first 39 home contests. The Warriors end their streak and earn a chance to break the record on their home floor against the Memphis Grizzlies on April 13, a full three days after their win in San Antonio.

Even though the Grizzlies pushed the Warriors four days prior to the final game of the season, Golden State’s last test in their quest for history turns out to be anticlimactic. A shorthanded Memphis squad is no match for the Warriors’ high-flying offense, and Golden State hangs 70 points in 24 minutes to take a 20-point lead into the half. The Warriors never look back and coast to a 125-104 victory, their 73rd of a historic 2015-16 season. The Warriors become the winningest regular-season team in NBA history; even more impressively, they never lose back-to-back games over the course of five and a half months of basketball. Curry makes 10 threes to finish the year with a whopping 402 three-pointers and over five made threes per game. He is going to win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award when the winner is announced in May.

The Cavaliers finish their season with significantly less fanfare; Lue goes 27-14 as head coach and the Cavaliers finish at 57-25 to secure the top seed in a traditionally weak Eastern Conference. Their main challengers in the East are the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat; these two teams will meet in the second round of the playoffs if they win their first-round series against the Pacers and Hornets, respectively.

The Cavaliers look like the best team in the East while the Warriors appear to be the best team in the NBA. Will the two teams meet for a second straight year in the NBA Finals? Or will challengers ascend to the throne and knock off one or both teams in the Playoffs

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