Commentary

Golden State's myopia could cost them title

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry and Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James reacting during the first half on Jan 18, 2016.
Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry and Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James reacting during the first half on Jan 18, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Forget that regular-season record. Rest Stephen Curry. And the Golden State Warriors will put themselves in the best position to get that second straight NBA title.

For, if they bow to popular demand to chase that 72-10 win-loss mark immortalised by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, they could suffer the double whammy of ending this season unable to break that record - and then failing to retain the Larry O'Brien trophy.

It's a classic dilemma that is slowly enveloping the Warriors as they kick off the second half of the 82-game season - a season which they had so thoroughly owned since it began in October.

From a record 23-0 start, which effectively got the attention of every basketball fan, they have since gone on to a 37-4 mark at the halfway point. Now they have to go 36-5 the rest of the season to break the Bulls' mark, set in the 1995-96 season.

That means sustaining their all-encompassing brilliance and intensity for another three months, and hoping no one - especially Curry, who is troubled by a niggling shin injury - gets hurt badly and misses key games.

Here's the brutal reality: If they manage to break the regular-season mark, but have nothing left in the tank for the play-offs and fail in their title defence, the record will be nothing but a footnote to the eventual winners of this season.

And here's the brutal reality: If they manage to break the regular-season mark, but have nothing left in the tank for the play-offs and fail in their title defence, the record will be nothing but a footnote to the eventual winners of this season.

When will the Warriors know that it is time to abandon the record chase and save their energy for the physically demanding play-offs?

Their head coach Steve Kerr should have a better idea than most, for he was in the Bulls team who set the glorious mark in 1995-96, a team with three Hall of Famers - Jordan, his sidekick Scottie Pippen and rebounding wizard Dennis Rodman.

While the Bulls did not start off 23-0, they actually reached the halfway mark at 38-3 - better than the Warriors. They had a 13-game winning streak in December, then another 18-game run in January. They suffered three losses in February, but steadied themselves enough to become the first team to win more than 70 regular-season games.

All those feats were achieved with a highly motivated Jordan. In his first full season back from his first retirement - a two-year hiatus in which he tried out baseball - the NBA legend was eager to prove that he was still the best player in the league.

And he was. The "dirty secret" of the Bulls' definitive season was that the other 28 teams were far from the level of excellence shown by the Bulls then.

They should have swept a so-so Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Finals, but took the foot off the gas for two games before winning 4-2 against good, but not great, players like Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf.

If only the Warriors could have it this easy. Unfortunately, they have a far, far tougher play-off route once they end the marathon regular season.

Already, a bunch of title hopefuls await them in the Western Conference alone - the quietly brilliant San Antonio Spurs, the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder and even the inconsistent Los Angeles Clippers are capable of causing trouble.

And it could very well be a rematch of last year's Finals, should LeBron James' Cavaliers roll through a weak Eastern Conference as expected. No doubt, the "King" will want to avenge last year's loss.

It all means that the Warriors would be unwise to pursue a 73-9 regular-season record that, in essence, does nothing but give them home-court advantage throughout the play-offs.

More crucially, sustaining the bid to win the majority of their regular-season games places a huge strain on the health of their players. Curry is already walking wounded and key role players such as Andrew Bogut and Shaun Livingston are not well known for their durability.

For a team built on the ethos of versatility, long-term injuries will hurt the balance of the Warriors' squad far more than others'.

Curry is playing out of his mind right now, an unerring long-range shooter who is just as good going to the basket. Yet, will his rollicking, high-tempo style sustain another deep play-off run after this regular season?

It is a delicate conundrum, even though Curry is saying the right things by insisting his team will know when it's time to rest.

He said: "If the record's attainable, we'll try to get it, but having a healthy squad in June is what we want. We won't even talk about it or address it until down the line."

Smart words, but, until the Warriors force him to take a few games off to rest his aching limbs, there will be doubts on whether the Warriors are ignoring the hype about breaching a seemingly-unbreakable record.

It is a long, gruelling trek to success in the NBA Finals in June. The Warriors must be prepared to sacrifice a statistical record for the ultimate prize.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Golden State's myopia could cost them title'. Print Edition | Subscribe