When the Golden State Warriors started the season with 24 straight wins, analysts and ex-players usually remarked that they would only be able to challenge the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72 wins if they really, truly wanted it. The argument had little to do with talent — it rested on the basic point that an 82-game season features various ups and downs and tests a team's resolve on random nights when victories do not come easily. Everyone knew the Warriors had talented players and a system that allowed them to thrive. The question was if they had the focus to win games that would only matter to the history books.
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Anyone who still doubted that capacity should have a change of heart following Wednesday's game against the Utah Jazz at Energy Solutions Arena. The Warriors arrived in Salt Lake City at 3 a.m. following Tuesday's hard-fought victory over the Washington Wizards at Oracle Arena and played like a tired team, missing open shots and looking a step slow all night against the highly motivated Utah Jazz, themselves trying to firm up their hold on the franchise's first playoff berth in four years. Yet Golden State stayed close despite their struggles, tied the game late in the fourth quarter, and controlled overtime to grab a well-earned 103-96 win. The Warriors' 68-7 record is two games ahead of the pace set by the '95-'96 Bulls through 75 games.
It would have been very easy and totally understandable for the Warriors to lose this game. The Jazz controlled tempo to create a grind-it-out style to their liking, limiting the Warriors to just 37 combined points in the second and third quarters. Golden State missed many open looks (particularly Harrison Barnes, who finished 1-of-8 on threes), but that may have been because Utah kept most players out of their preferred rhythms. The interior combo of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors caused problems for a team without much height at its disposable, and Andrew Bogut played only 17 minutes due to foul trouble (though the last one forced Favors out of the game with a knee injury).
Nevertheless, the Warriors stayed close throughout their offensive issues with quality defense and their fair share of breaks, including very poor free-throw shooting for Utah. It also helped that Curry shot 5-of-10 from beyond the arc for 31 points when the rest of the team went just 7-of-25 from deep:
Still, it looked like a reasonably understandable loss most of the way. A team doesn't win 66-plus games in consecutive seasons without crunch-time confidence, and the Warriors arguably won for that reason more than any other on Wednesday. Down 79-71 when Steve Kerr brought Curry back earlier than his usual rotation at the 7:18 mark of the fourth, the Warriors closed strong and held the ball with a chance to tie after Shelvin Mack split free throws to make it 89-86 with just inside of 24 seconds on the clock.
Klay Thompson missed on his first try, but the second was true:
The Jazz gave the ball to Gordon Hayward on the final possession of regulation, but he had to give the ball up to Mack, who was blocked by Draymond Green. Hayward took a desperation attempt off the carom, but he was unsuccessful to send it to overtime.
Golden State quickly looked more prepared to seize the extra five minutes. Hayward scored the first bucket within 30 seconds, but appeared to gain energy and built up a 99-93 advantage on a short Curry shot at the 1:30 mark. That set the stage for the dagger, an emphatic dunk for Green off a pick and roll:
Utah made some baskets late but needed too much to engineer a comeback. The loss drops the Jazz into a virtual three-way tie with the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks for the No. 7 seed at 37-38, although Utah currently holds the tiebreaker ahead of Dallas to fall into the eighth playoff berth.
The Warriors will be happy to have only one more back-to-back this season, because they have typically looked a little exhausted on the second night of late. For that matter, it's arguable that this was the toughest contest left on the schedule with four games coming up at home and the final two games against the San Antonio Spurs likely involving mass rest for the No. 2 seed's key players.
On the other hand, it's becoming increasingly difficult to bet against the Warriors losing any game with a reasonable contingent of active rotation players. They were not close to their best on Wednesday and still found a way to come out ahead in a hostile environment against a fresher team with lots to play for.
The style did not make for many highlights for the Warriors' end-of-season reel. But anyone who watched it will consider this win one of the most impressive of the season.
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