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OAKLAND — The last time the NBA’s alltime record for wins fell, two decades ago in Wisconsin, Michael Jordan summed up a choppy 86–80 road victory over the Bucks with four words: “Sometimes ugly is beautiful.”
Inside a raucous Oracle Arena on Wednesday, the last night of the 2016 season, Stephen Curry offered Golden State’s counter: Sometimes beautiful is beautiful, too.
Golden State claimed its record-setting 73rd victory of the 2016 season, dissecting a wounded Memphis team 125–104 to break Chicago’s seemingly unbreakable 72–10 regular-season record.
“I thought [72 wins] was like [Joe] DiMaggio’s hit streak, and I was wrong,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who happened to be one of Jordan’s teammates during that record-setting season. “I will say the same thing now that I said 20 years ago. I don’t think this one will ever be broken. Somebody’s got to go 74–8 and I don’t see it. I hope our fans aren’t expecting that next year.”
After the 1996 Bulls’ 70th win, the one that moved them past the 1972 Lakers in the record books, Jordan had lamented his team’s self-imposed “pressure” and its lack of “rhythm.”
If Curry felt the squeeze of history, or the stress of Jordan’s immense and ever-present shadow, he never showed it. As for his rhythm? That was certainly never in doubt, not when he calmly and mercilessly drained six three-pointers in the first quarter alone, on his way to a game-high 46 points and 10 threes on the night. After he was done torching them, Curry claimed one of the basket nets as a memento of the historic evening.
“The game has evolved a lot and we have our certain identity of how we play,” Curry said, when asked to contrast the 2016 Warriors and the 1996 Bulls. “Shooting at a high level, moving the ball, everybody has a role. We have fun doing it. I don’t know specifically any differences, but one similarity is we love winning, we love to compete and we love to push ourselves. That’s what pushed us to the opportunity we had tonight.”
The final touch in a brilliant, consistent, awe-inspiring campaign was one part coronation and one part carnival. Before the game, fire burst from the stanchion, fireworks popped down from the rafters, and a disco ball spun from the ceiling. Those were merely appetizers.
Golden State’s center threw behind-the-back passes, the power forward tossed a perfect lob on two-on-one fast breaks, the small forward manned his floor-spacing spot in the corner, the shooting guard pulled from anywhere at a moment’s notice and the point guard, the spectacular point guard, installed himself yet again as the central force in the game and the life of the party.
The 2015 MVP and surefire 2016 MVP launched from near the logo, lasered crosscourt passes and became the first player in NBA history to sink more than 400 three-pointers in a season (worth noting: he finished with 403 threes, and no one else has hit 300). When Curry hit three three-pointers in less than a minute in the opening quarter, the home crowd, a sea of matching royal blue T-shirts, saluted him with “M-V-P” chants, paying its respects to one last game-deciding barrage in a season of never-ending splash.
With the tone set, Golden State never looked back, scoring 37 in the first quarter, 70 by halftime and more than 100 after three quarters. The Grizzlies were reduced to lambs at the slaughter, and the home crowd amused itself with rounds of The Wave during the fourth quarter.
“[Seventy-three wins means] I’m a part of the best team ever,” said Draymond Green, who clutched the game ball as he grabbed a microphone to thank the fans from center court. “Not many people can say that. Fifteen guys can say that, and that’s amazing.”
Twenty years ago, Bulls center Bill Wennington made it clear that Chicago’s 72–10 regular season “doesn’t mean a thing if we don’t win the ring.” Of course, the Bulls sealed their place among the greatest teams in history with a 15–3 jaunt through the postseason to secure the fourth title of Jordan’s career.
The Warriors now begin their title defense against the Rockets this weekend, looking for the same asterisk-avoiding validation that Wennington mentioned.
“Relief doesn’t happen until you win a championship,” Green said.
“It would suck to not finish the job off,” Curry said. “Hopefully there’s a Larry O’Brien trophy next to us in a couple months.”
In a congratulatory statement Wednesday night, Jordan himself reminded Golden State that it still had work to do.
“The game of basketball is always evolving and records are made to be broken,” Jordan said. “The Warriors have been a lot of fun to watch and I look forward to seeing what they do in the playoffs.”
Before all eyes shift to the upcoming first-round matchup, though, take a minute to process this: The Warriors not only surpassed the Bulls’ hallowed mark, they made win No. 73, the one that should have been the most excruciating, look like a walk in the park.