The nation is enthralled with the Golden State Warriors 20 years after it was awed by the Chicago Bulls.
The Warriors’ leader is slender, baby-faced Steph Curry, Peter Pan with a basketball. The Bulls’ star was gravity-defying, tongue-wagging Michael Jordan, Superman with a basketball.
Both athlete-artists changed the game through their innovative styles. Curry launches three-pointers from previously-unimagined orbits, turning a bonus shot into a moon shot. Should 50 feet be a four-pointer? Jordan launched dunks from impossible takeoff points and redefined the parameters of air time.
The Curry-Jordan comparisons make the Warriors’ final regular-season game Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies a hugely symbolic reflection on how the NBA has morphed with the times and the talents of its players.
The 72-9 Warriors will attempt to break the 1995-96 Bulls’ record for best regular-season record, which is 72-10.
While many playoff-bound starters are conserving energy, the Warriors want the record, especially after defeating San Antonio 92-86 on Sunday to end the Spurs’ 48-regular-season-game home winning streak and end Golden State’s 33-game losing streak in San Antonio.
In 1995-96, Jordan was two years removed from his baseball sabbatical and a year removed from losing to the Orlando Magic in the playoffs. He played like a man possessed to keep the Bulls on near-perfect pace. The Bulls of Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, Luc Longley, Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr brushed off Miami, the Knicks and the Magic en route to beating Seattle 4-2 in the NBA Finals. It was Jordan’s fourth title and the start of the second three-peat.
Jordan won his eighth scoring title, Rodman won his fifth rebounding title and Kerr led the NBA in three-point shooting. Jordan, Pippen and Rodman made the all-defensive team, the only time three players from the same team had done it. Kukoc was sixth man of the year, Phil Jackson was coach of the year, Jordan was league MVP.
Kerr said at the start of this season that the Bulls’ record could not be broken, comparing it to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak record. But he is coaching a Warriors team that, while wildly different in its look on the court, has many of the same qualities: Chemistry, versatility and a transcendent superstar who can take control of games.
The Warriors, with their manic movement, have realigned the geography of the floor, and average a league-leading 114.8 points per game. They are ranked No. 1 in three-point and overall shooting accuracy. The 6-3 Curry is even better this year, his scoring average up six points to 29.8. He’s made 388 threes – 102 more than he made all last season. Klay Thompson makes circus shots, too. Draymond Green – with stat lines like 24 points 11 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 blocks, 5 steals – provides no-nonsense muscle. Andre Iguodala modeled his game after Pippen’s.
The Warriors make you smile.
The Bulls of Air Jordan, suffocating defender Pippen and rebounding fiend Rodman made your jaw drop.
“It just feels like a right-place-right-time type thing to be part of two teams that have performed like this and won at this level for the entire season,” Kerr said after the Warriors reached 72.
As is typically the case with teams from different eras, it’s no use declaring which team is better unless it’s for the sake of rousing debate. Jordan’s Bulls played in a much fiercer physical league – and won six titles. The Warriors know that 73 wins will be a bitter footnote if they don’t win their second title. Ask the 2007 New England Patriots.
Curry, 28, recalled going to watch his father, the sharpshooting Dell Curry, play for the Charlotte Hornets against the Bulls.
“I remember as a kid, being in the back, in the tunnel, waiting to hopefully cross paths with Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Coach Kerr,” he said. “That was something that was a special time as a kid.”
Watching the Warriors make you feel like a kid again. They seem to be having so much fun.
“Watching us is like watching a video game,” Warriors executive Jerry West said.
Curry’s out there running like he’s playing tag, catching the ball miles from the basket, bouncing with the lightness of a dancer off his feet, flicking his wrists in the blink of an eye. Then the ball slices through the net like a machete through butter. So clean, so deadly.
Like Jordan, who made junior varsity but not varsity as a high school sophomore, Curry was underestimated early on. He was not recruited by major college coaches who thought he was too skinny. He wound up taking Davidson to the Elite Eight and being drafted in the first round. The Curry storybook continues: He’s married to Ayesha, whom he met at church at age 14, and they have two adorable daughters.
Curry takes nothing for granted. He takes 2,000 shots per week, 100 before games. He’s shooting better than 60 percent on shots from 28-plus feet.
He and his Warriors have got the golden touch. They’re making fans smile – and shake their heads.