Basketball

John McGrath: Regular-season king Warriors have plenty of company in postseason flops

Golden State’s Stephen Curry listens to a question Monday, the day after the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Warriors to win the NBA Finals.
Golden State’s Stephen Curry listens to a question Monday, the day after the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Warriors to win the NBA Finals. The Associated Press

Their collapse will be recalled as long as basketballs are bounced, but the Golden State Warriors can take some solace from the momentous season that ended Sunday night with a thud.

By failing to hold serve on their home court with a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals, the Warriors became linked to the 1906 Chicago Cubs, the 1996 Detroit Red Wings, the 2001 Seattle Mariners and the 2007 New England Patriots. Each team either set or tied the regular-season record for most games won in its sport, and each was beaten when the pressure intensified and the plot got thick.

A coincidence or a curse?

That the Warriors were victims of a curse is difficult for me to make because, for one, I don’t believe in paranormal nonsense or silly superstitions, although I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t see a black cat on the next Friday the 13th.

For another, if some curse were responsible for the Warriors’ sudden and startling fall from grace, it’s a new curse. Like, two days new, until the basketball team that reinvented instant offense went scoreless for the final 4 minutes, 39 seconds of its Game 7 showdown against the Cavaliers.

Before Golden State’s transformation from historic powerhouse — the Warriors finished 73-9, surpassing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ regular-season mark of 72-10 — those Bulls were proof that winning a record amount of games is not an impediment to a league championship. They beat a team from Seattle that year, 4-2, in the NBA Finals.

Twenty years, according to an ESPN report verified by FOX, is longer than two days.

This brings me to the coincidence part of the discussion, which poses a few questions suggesting something more tangible than mere coincidence was at play: Did the Warriors devote too much energy to breaking the regular-season record for victories?

I’m not sure what happened to the 1906 Cubs, other than they were, ahem, the Cubs. They finished 116-36 — 60-15 on the road — but couldn’t take care of business against the White Sox in the first and last World Series held in Chicago.

But I know all about the 2001 Mariners, who also won 116 games. They were home at Safeco Field, with a chance to set a regular-season record for victories, on the final day of the schedule. Seattle lost to Texas, 4-3 — the Rangers put together a tie-breaking rally with two out and nobody on in the top of the ninth — a defeat that foreshadowed the more profound disappointment awaiting the Mariners in the playoffs.

They got past Cleveland in the first round, but what was supposed to be a casual three-game sweep turned into a slugging match that taxed both the starting-pitching rotation and the bullpen. There was little left in the tank for the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, representing New York City’s resilience in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The Detroit Red Wings won an NHL record 62 games during the 1995-96 season, but they also stumbled through the playoffs. Weary and worn after St. Louis took them to Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals, Colorado beat the Red Wings in six in the conference finals.

The 2007 Patriots appeared destined to supplant the 1972 Dolphins as the NFL’s model of perfection after going 16-0 during the regular season — Miami, with two fewer games on the schedule, had gone 14-0 — and New England rolled into its Super Bowl matchup against the New York Giants at 18-0.

With 2:42 remaining and history at stake, New England’s defense was challenged to protect a 14-10 lead. Ball at the Giants 17-yard line, make a third-down stop forcing a fourth-down Hail Mary. No sweat, right?

Then New York quarterback Eli Manning went to work, executing the 12-play, 83-yard drive remembered for David Tyree’s acrobatic catch of a pass he secured against his helmet.

If the pass is incomplete — and 999 of 1000 such passes are incomplete — the 2007 Patriots own the distinction as the greatest team in NFL history. Today, they’re but a footnote. With less than three minutes separating them from a legacy they presumed was theirs for the taking, the Patriots couldn’t seal the deal.

The Warriors can relate. Before the kind of crowd that essentially assures the home team a victory in a seven-game playoff, they sputtered and stalled and looked bewildered.

Another one bites the dust.

“It wasn’t easy what we accomplished,” league MVP Stephen Curry said afterward, referring to the Warriors’ march to the 73-victory milestone. “And it’s not an easy pill to swallow what we didn’t accomplish.”

Uneasy pill-swallowing has been a major pro-sports tradition for the past 110 years. Take the 1906 Cubs, who finished the regular season with a .763 winning percentage, best in baseball history.

They finished the World Series as the second-best team in Chicago.

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