Tell me I’m ahead of myself. Tell me it’s disrespectful, that it’s reactionary, that it’s making the same mistake as last year, when the Cleveland Cavaliers were in this same spot going back to Cleveland down 0-2.
But in the interest of being intellectually honest, in the interest of being 100 percent real in this situation, I will ask you this question.
If the Golden State Warriors sweep Cleveland, which they are halfway to doing, and therefore sweep the entire playoffs, improving on the “fo’-fo’-fo'” playoff goal Philadelphia’s Moses Malone intoned in 1983 but didn’t complete (with an extra “fo'” due to the current playoff format), would they be the best team of all time?
It was easy to dismiss that out of hand coming into the playoffs. After all, Golden State won 73 games last year in the regular season, and 67 this year? That’s fewer, so the question should be moot. Don’t you have to match that, or at least match the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-win mark for the most regular season wins for a champion?
Except, wait a second.
Since when do we care about the regular season? Since when do we actually act like it matters? Because whenever a team has a great regular season, the same response is always trotted out — “Show us in the playoffs.”
Well, the Warriors rested and tinkered and experimented and goofed around in the regular season and still managed to win 67 games.
Combining the regular season and the playoffs, the 1996 Bulls won 87 games with a best-of-five series in the first round and lost 13 games total, three in the playoffs when it matters most. The Warriors, should they win the next two games, will go 83-15 in the playoffs and regular season. One more playoff win, three fewer playoff loses, two fewer losses total. Is that enough to keep them out of the conversation?
If the playoffs are what matter most, no team has been this dominant. Jordan’s Bulls defeated Patrick Ewing and Gary Payton, great players, to be sure. The Warriors have rendered the individual greatness of LeBron James irrelevant.
Critics will point to how Kevin Durant joined this team, the fluke nature of the cap spike, the cosmic confluence of circumstances that led to the formation of this natural disaster personified in 15 basketball players. But greatness has never had qualifications before. We don’t discount the greatness of the early Celtics teams in a talented starved era. We don’t throw away Jordan’s Bulls despite the ugly, hyper-physical style everyone played then.
The Warriors broke no rules (other than player tampering, perhaps), did nothing but bring together a team with what some thought might be too much talent, and not only made it work, but made it sing, made it reach orchestral heights. Their opponents were weak? Kawhi Leonard was injured?
The Warriors don’t get to decide who they play. They play who’s in front of them. And they’ve beaten them, fourteen consecutive times.
Maybe LeBron James will find the will as he so often seems to in Game 3. Maybe Kyirie Irving will make a few shots off his isolation game, maybe the Cavs will find a way to get some stops, the role players will shoot better, and the Cavaliers will break the streak and end this conversation on Wednesday.
Because, to be clear, that’s what it would take for the Warriors to be considered the greatest, to have any sort of claim to that. Lose one game, and the ’96 Bulls have the high ground, almost indisputably. Lose two games and they fall even further. Then all those asterisks hit with more impact.
But if they don’t lose in Cleveland? If, in sweeping the entire playoffs, they tear though the tough, fifth-seeded Jazz, the 61-win San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers who went 12-1 in the East led by LeBron James in what may have been his finest playoff season yet?
You have to put them in the conversation. You have to give them that respect, no matter how much Kevin Durant’s decision irks you. These Warriors are too much, at all times, for anyone so far. They play flawless on both ends. They dance with what is an unattainable goal, basketball perfection. And with two more wins they will etch their names not only as champions, but as maybe the greatest champions of all time, even if it will undeniably be a debate worthy of having.
No pressure. Game 3 is Wednesday in Cleveland.