The Golden State Warriors had three tries, and they couldn't do it. A week ago, they looked poised to put the Cleveland Cavaliers away and win their second straight NBA title. Only 10 teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in the playoffs, and that number was nine before Stephen Curry and company did it to the Oklahoma City Thunder last month. It had never been done in the Finals.
Golden State and Cleveland were tied with less than two minutes to go in Sunday's Game 7 before LeBron James made one of the biggest blocks in NBA history on Andre Iguodala and Kyrie Irving hit a 3-pointer in Stephen Curry's face. After Curry missed a desperate 3 over Kevin Love and James made the biggest free throw of his life, the Warriors walked off the court a few points short of their ultimate goal. That left the world to wonder what the greatest regular season ever means without a championship.
Some will try to invalidate everything that led up to this. Some will say that Golden State shouldn't have even tried to win 73 games, pointing to fatigue and injuries. Many will say that, without winning the title, the accomplishment has an asterisk, is tainted or doesn't matter at all.
I reject all of this. To accept it would be to throw out everything the Warriors did from late October to June and to forget something so special that it seemed impossible until it wasn't. For more than six months, they were the most dominant and captivating team I've ever seen. Three consecutive losses to Cleveland do not erase that.
Of course, this runs counter to what the players have been saying. At All-Star weekend in February, Klay Thompson told ESPN Radio, "73 wins doesn't mean a thing without the ring." That quote channeled Ron Harper, who made T-shirts for the Chicago Bulls saying "72-10 don't mean a thing without the ring" during the 1995-96 season.
This sentiment has been repeated in Golden State since the record was in reach -- Thompson said it again after Game 6 -- and it makes sense. The Warriors were supposed to do all they possibly could to stay in the moment, focused on the incredibly difficult task of winning back-to-back titles. It would not help them to dwell on the fact that they completed a task even more unlikely and impressive.
If you're a player, part of your job after April is believing that the regular season doesn't matter. If you're not competing, though, you do not have to subscribe to this point of view. As long as we're judging the outcomes of sporting events, let's do so with more depth than a Will Ferrell character saying, "If you're not first, you're last."
Late in the regular season, when Golden State was approaching history, coach Steve Kerr told reporters, "People break records, championships last forever." There's a champion every year, though, and no team even came close to matching the Bulls' mark until this season. The Warriors' new record could last something like forever.
"All that stuff is still there," Draymond Green said Sunday. "We did all those things. I think it's been a great season for us. Obviously everybody will say, 'Oh, man, they won 73 but they didn't win a championship.' We didn't. But I think this team accomplished a lot of great things individually and as a team, and those things can never be taken away. We set up and we had a goal at the beginning of the year to repeat, and that goal we failed, but I don't look at this entire season as a failure because there's been too many great things that happened to this team and to this group of guys, to this coaching staff, to this organization."
Thompson seemed almost in shock after the loss. He said it was hard to process and he had to watch the tape, but he might not do that for a long time. A reporter asked if he'll ever be able to look back at the season and feel good about it, and Thompson walked his earlier comments back a bit.
"Obviously, it feels like a failure right now," Thompson said. "It stings more than anything I've gone through in my career. What we accomplished -- I don't know if that will ever be done again. We'll learn from this. This is not the last time. We'll be back. I promise you that."
This is not to say that 73 trumps a title. Hardly. It's just that you don't have to pit one against the other. Golden State was the best show in sports this year, and the unanimous MVP was a skinny shooter who went to Davidson. The Warriors earned their way into the record books and become the most beloved and terrifying team since those Bulls. Then they ran into the Cavaliers, who employ a player who might go down as the best to ever play the game. Cleveland outplayed them. It happens.
When Golden State won its 73rd game, Green declared that he was a part of "the best team ever." Few will give the Warriors that distinction now, but that doesn't make their regular-season record any less astonishing. If there is anything to take away from this loss, it is not that they succumbed to the pressure or fundamentally failed. It is that no story, not even the most extraordinary of them, is guaranteed a perfect ending.