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Keith Strudler: Golden State's Quest For 73

There was one huge upset last night in the landscape of elite basketball. It wasn’t the women’s college national championship game, where UConn did as expected in beating Syracuse by 31 for their 11th national title and 75th straight game, all by double digits. The surprise came further west, where the also history chasing Golden State Warriors lost a regular season home game to the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that’s lost exactly twice as many games as they’ve won and are simply playing until their schedule runs out next week.

The Warriors, on the other hand, are playing for immortality, chasing the elusive 73-win season that would rank them as the most successful, if not the best regular season team of all time. They’re currently 69-9 with four games remaining. Which means they need to win all  four to pass the 72 wins of the 95-96 Chicago Bulls, the current standard bearer of NBA excellence. Making this more difficult for the Warriors is that two of their final four are against the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve won an impressive 65 games themselves and may rank among the top 10 records in NBA history, depending on their finish. This back-loaded schedule makes the end of the regular season more exciting than simply a purgatory before the league’s second season, or playoffs, which run longer than most Broadway shows.

The Warriors did themselves no favors by losing a game last night they absolutely were expected to win. Presumptive league MVP Steph Curry missed 18 of 25 shots, and Golden State somehow blew a 17-point second half lead. Not what you’d expect from a team that hasn’t shied away from the potential of setting regular season history, which, as you all know, counts for exactly nothing. We measure our sports accomplishments by titles, not records, meaning process is almost completely separate from result. Sounds a lot like our political process as well, I suppose.

We’ve seen other teams chase regular season perfection, typically with failure. Every NFL season begins with the prospect of bettering the 1972 Miami Dolphins that went 14-0, then went on to win three more games including the Super Bowl. The 2007 New England Patriots actually did post a 16-0 regular season to become perhaps the most accomplished regular season football team in history, yet famously lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. The 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 regular season baseball games, the most in the 162 game era, but didn’t even make the World Series. For what it’s worth, there are no trophies handed out for regular seasons, even record setting ones, which is why Villanova is the only men’s college basketball team celebrating, a product of six wins in March and April, not the 29 that came before.

Golden State, for their part, have embraced the pursuit of 73. Perhaps that’s made easier having won the NBA Championship last season, relieving some of the pressure to pursue that goal at all costs. Like by resting players during the final week of the season, something the Warriors can’t do if they plan to sweep the final four games. Golden State isn’t pretending the first 82 are simply a prelude to the main act.

So are they right? Does the regular season matter, in the NBA and really any sport? Should we care about historical excellence over time, or is all that matters the team that lifts the big trophy at season's end. This isn’t just a question for the Warriors, but at the core of sports management and fandom.

See, as sports fans, we’re asked to spend time and money – really, a lot of money – to watch athletes perform during the regular season. And while perhaps it could simply be viewed as that – a performance -– we’re also led to believe that these games matter. That winning and losing has some inherent value, other than a number in a spread sheet. That’s what keeps me from watching, say, House Hunters International, which is a great show, instead of a regular season game between the Clippers and the Mavericks, which, to be honest, I don’t much anymore. Because like most everyone else, I’ve come to believe that the regular season is simply a tune-up, an extended spring training. It’s not, but it’s hard to believe otherwise, particularly as games, and NBA games in particular, are sold as a product of stars, not one of substance.

Now, if that’s a social condition or a sports one, I don’t know. Perhaps we live in an end-game society, where all that matters is the result. Which to be honest, is supposedly the exact opposite of what sport is supposed to be all about -- a place where process matters and the lessons come in trying, not simply in wining.

Which is why I'm rooting for Golden State to chase 73, even if it doesn't come with a trophy. They may or may not become immortal, but from my perspective, their pursuit will always be.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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