It’s not over, but it almost was.
It was certainly that kind of Saturday night in Memphis, where the toughest heavyweights have shown up to get punched in the mouth for what’s essentially been an entire era of basketball. Make no mistake, the Warriors got punched, and 73 wins nearly slipped away. It might still on Sunday in San Antonio. But, safe to say, we were thisclose to Steve Kerr dialing up Gregg Popovich and Anderson Varejao jumping center versus Boban Marjanovic in a hastily scheduled detente.
Anyway, that dream is still alive after a 100–99 win over the Grizzlies, so let’s run back the chaos. The chaos! This was a game where Jordan Farmar fourth-quarter threes went in, Klay Thompson fourth-quarter threes went off side-backboard, the Grizzlies’ best guard was a D-League All-Star named Xavier Munford and Lance Stephenson’s potential go-ahead winner went off ... side-backboard. There is, after all, order in chaos, too.
There was little joy in Splash-ville for most of the time, though. The Warriors outscored the Grizzlies 20–9 in the back half of the fourth, but it never felt that simple. After lead changes and ties and head-shaking all around, the drama built and the odds actually felt heavy. Stephen Curry missed two potential game-sealing threes and shot 7-of-22 while Thompson spaced in and out and shot 2-of-10 from deep.
It took Draymond Green yanking the Warriors up by the seat of their pants in the fourth quarter and some key shots from role players to keep their chase for history alive. Green draws few headlines for his scoring, but got it done late with a pair of driving, contact layups and the eventual game-winning putback of a missed Curry float-in. There was also the appropriately-gritty defense on loosely-spiritual forefather Zach Randolph, who spent the fourth quarter bowling around the right block like Rudy Gay never left.
This year’s Grizzlies are a historic case study in the art of winging it. From Randolph tippy-toeing out on defense to corral Curry late in the game, to Matt Barnes (once a Warrior) chucking his way to the game’s most points (24) and rebounds (15), to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in suits on the sidelines, playoff-bound Memphis has exhausted its own clichés. There was nary even a Grindfather to be found with Tony Allen also nursing a sore left hamstring. Dave Joerger, who should get some Coach of the Year votes, putting the ball and the fate of 73 wins squarely in the hands of Stephenson was the perfect ending regardless of whether he got blocked, grabbed the rebound and heaved up a wayward prayer (all of those things happened, plus he very well may have been fouled by Steph Curry at the very end).
Don’t act like it wasn’t fun to watch the 39-year-old Vince Carter—who recalls playing one-on-one against a pint-sized Curry while teammates with his father in Toronto—score 15 hard-earned points. These Grizzlies are the first playoff team to ever have 24-plus players log action over the course of a season, setting an all-time record with 28 different guys stepping onto the court since October. They are on a dangerous mission, one that resumes in Wednesday’s finale in Oakland, and really, have nothing to lose. It is good for basketball that they exist in this capacity, and after Saturday, a tiny bit ominous for the Warriors.
But forget all that—the fans in Memphis cheered for Golden State, who, lest we forget, beat a healthier Grizzlies team by 50 points in the Bay this past November. The record chase has been a thing, and it’s only becoming more of a thing until one way or another, it ends. Bluntly, this will not be some catastrophic failure if the Warriors don’t get it. But realistically, it could be another 20 years until a team reignites this conversation. Any internal deliberation about going all in for the record should subside whether Kerr decides to rest guys in San Antonio or not.
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Fittingly, we’re due for Warriors vs. Spurs Round IV in less than 24 hours. After missing one another in last year’s postseason, the league’s two best teams have yet to deliver a real classic; the Warriors looking dominant on Thursday while the Spurs may-or-may not have played coy. Seven games may still unfold, but, but it’s also possible Sunday marks peak historical significance: one team shooting for all-time dominance with the other having a chance to be the first team ever to go undefeated at home. Something will happen. And as Saturday’s game stood to remind, sometimes that’s all you can guarantee.