- It's up for debate whether the Warriors are the best team ever, but there's no denying Golden State's 2017 performance ranks among the best postseasons in sports history.
Basketball fans can argue whether the 2017 Golden State Warriors deserve recognition as the NBA’s best team ever. What is indisputable, however, is that the Warriors completed one of the most dominant postseason runs in the history of the four major professional sports.
The Warriors won a record 15 straight playoff games and nearly completed the postseason undefeated, losing only Game 4 of the NBA Finals. They clinched their second championship in three years Monday night with a 129-120 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5. They are only the second team since the NBA expanded to 16-team playoff format to lose only one game and the first to finish the postseason 16-1.
Often a dominant regular season team faces playoff difficulties. The 1965 Boston Celtics set an NBA record with 62 victories but barely held off the Philadelphia 76ers in a thrilling seven-game Eastern Conference finals (“Havlicek stole the ball!”). The unbeaten 1972 Miami Dolphins won their three postseason games by a combined 17 points. The 108-win New York Mets of 1986 survived an exhausting 16-inning Game 6 to eliminate the Houston Astros in the NLCS and then performed a Lazarus-like resurrection in Game 6 of the World Series before beating the Boston Red Sox in seven games.
And none of the record holders for wins in a regular season (the 1906 Chicago Cubs and 2011 Settle Mariners in baseball, 1996 Detroit Red Wings in hockey, 2007 New England Patriots in football and 2016 Warriors in basketball) brought home the championship hardware.
Here are the most dominant postseason runs in the four major sports. Baseball teams required at least two rounds of playoffs, while football, basketball and hockey needed at least three.
None of the Bulls’ six NBA title teams of the 1990s breezed through the playoffs as easily as the dynasty’s first champion. Led by the scoring of Michael Jordan (31.1 points per game) and the rebounding and defense of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, the ’91 Bulls lost two games by a total of four points and swept the two-time defending champion Detroit Pistons in the East finals. The veteran Los Angeles Lakers were slightly more competitive in the NBA Finals. They won Game 1 on Sam Perkins’s three-pointer in the final seconds before the Bulls took over the series as Jordan, Pippen, Grant and guard John Paxton all averaged in double figures. Nine of the Bulls’ wins were by 10 points or more.
In the decade before and in the decade after the 2005 season, the Sox created little buzz in the American League, failing to reach the ALCS even once. But in that magical October of 2005 (called “Soxtober” by the Chicago Tribune), the South Siders were nearly unbeatable. They swept the defending champion Red Sox in the divisional series. After dropping Game One of the ALCS to the Los Angeles Angels, 3-2, they won four straight behind complete games from Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras for their first AL pennant in 46 years. The White Sox then swept the Houston Astros for their first World Series championship since 1917 as MVP Jermaine Dye drove in the Series-winning run in Game Four.
At the end of a 65-win regular season, Moses Malone, the Sixers’ MVP center, was asked for a playoff prediction. The always succinct Malone answered, “Fo, fo, fo,” meaning three straight four-game sweeps (The NBA did not institute a four-round playoff format until 1984). The 76ers nearly fulfilled Big Mo’s prediction, only losing 100-94 to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game Four of the East finals when they held a 3-0 lead in games. In the NBA Finals, Philly swept the Los Angeles Lakers, their conquerors in the Finals of 1980 and ’82. Malone was superb throughout the playoffs, averaging 26 points and 18 rebounds per game to lead the Sixers, including 24 points and 23 rebounds in the Game 4 clincher vs. L.A. Hall of Famer Julius Erving and the backcourt of Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks also averaged in double figures.
Yes, it was only three rounds (compared to the current four-round format) but Les Canadiens ignited the first of four straight Stanley Cup triumphs with perhaps the most dominating performance in NHL playoff history. Only a Game 4 loss to the New York Islanders in the semifinals, when Montreal held a 3-0 lead in games, marred the Canadiens’ playoff run. Montreal capped their memorable postseason with a four-game sweep of the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final. Guy Lafleur led the offense with 17 playoffs points (seven goals, 10 assists), followed by Steve Shutt and Peter Mahovlich. Goalie Ken Dryden contributed a 1.92 goals against average. (Montreal also went 12-1 in the 1968 playoffs but it faced the first-year expansion St. Louis Blues in the finals. Between 1968-70, the NHL placed all six expansion franchises in one conference and allowed the conference’s playoff winner to advance to the Stanley Cup Final).
The Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s was never more potent than in the ’99 playoffs. New York breezed through three rounds with only one defeat, courtesy of a seven-inning two-hit, 12-strikeout performance by Red Sox Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez in Game 3 of the ALCS. Otherwise, the Yanks had little trouble, sweeping the Texas Rangers in the divisional round before beating the Red Sox in five games. Most impressively, New York swept the 103-win Atlanta Braves in the World Series for their third championship in four years, ending all arguments over who was baseball’s dominant team in the 1990s. Nine different Yankees drove in runs (led by five RBIs from Tino Martinez) as New York batted .270 against the vaunted Braves pitching staff. Closer Mariano Rivera saved three of the four Series wins.
Since the start of baseball’s multi-round playoffs in 1969, only one team has come through unscathed: the ’76 Reds, a team that stands apart for many reasons. They led the National League in every major offensive category en route to a 102-win season. Joe Morgan won his second straight National League MVP after leading the NL in OPS, while Pete Rose was tops in hits, runs and doubles. And where the ’75 Reds required a challenging seven games to top Boston in the World Series, the ’76 team had no such problems. Cincinnati swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS and toyed with the Yankees in the Fall Classic. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench was never better, batting .444 with three home runs and seven RBIs over the seven games and earning World Series MVP honors.
The Bears held postseason opponents to total of 10 points. For Chicago sports fans, the Bulls’ dynasty inspired awe while the World Series championships of the 2005 White Sox and 2016 Cubs ended decades of disappointment for their long-suffering rooters. But no single championship has resonated so deeply—and for so long—as the Bears’ 46-10 battering of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. The rout completed an 18-1 season and a jaw-dropping average game margin of 30-3 through the playoffs that started with back-to-back shutouts of the New York Giants (21-0) and L.A. Rams (24-0). The 10 points remains an NFL record for fewest playoff points allowed during the Super Bowl era. It was Chicago’s first major sports championship since the 1963 Bears and secured the legendary status of Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Jim McMahon and coach Mike Ditka. The Bears appeared to have the makings of a dynasty but would not reach the Super Bowl again for more than two decades.
Longtime 49ers rooters can argue whether the 18-1 Niners of 1984 or the 17-2 team of 1989 was San Francisco’s finest. There is no question, however, that the 49ers of ’89 were one of the most destructive forces (outscored opponents 126-26) in NFL playoff history. San Francisco routed the Minnesota Vikings, L.A. Rams and Denver Broncos by an average score of 42-9, culminating with a record 55 points vs. Denver in Super Bowl XXIV. Led by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana (11 TD passes, no interceptions), the Niners gained more than 400 yards in each of the three playoff games. The defense forced 12 turnovers and limited the Rams and Broncos to 130 yards or fewer. During the playoffs, Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice caught 19 passes for 317 yards and five TDs.
During the regular season, the ’01 Lakers won fewer games (56) than the championship L.A. teams of 2000 and ’02. Come the playoffs, however, the Lakers were a machine. They swept the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs before swatting aside the Philadelphia 76ers in five games for their second straight NBA crown. If not for Allen Iverson’s 48-point game explosion in Philly’s Game 1 overtime victory, the Lakers would have become the NBA’s only team to complete an undefeated postseason involving three or more rounds. Shaquille O’Neal averaged more than 30 points and 15 rebounds throughout the playoffs while Kobe Bryant added 29.4 points and 6.1 assists as the Lakers won nine games by double figures.
Here’s why the Warriors’ 2017 postseason ranks ahead of the 2001 Lakers: Golden State won a North American playoff record 15 straight games before losing Game 4 of the NBA Finals when it already held a 3-0 lead in games over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs needed an NBA Finals record 24 three-pointers to secure the win. The Warriors averaged nearly 120 points during the playoffs. Most important, the ’01 Lakers faced what amounted to a one-man 76ers team in Iverson who shot less than 41% for the Finals. No other Sixer averaged 17 points per game. Golden State had to overcome the defending NBA champion Cavaliers who shot nearly 46 percent as a team and featured the one-two offensive punch LeBron James (33.6 points per game) and Kyrie Irving (29.4) with James averaging a triple double. The quality of Finals competition gives the 2017 Golden State Warriors the edge over the ’01 Lakers.