Programming note: Watch the re-air of the Warriors' 120-90 win over the Spurs from 2016 tonight at 8 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.
“You need luck in the West. Look at Golden State. They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs.” – Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers to ESPN's Zach Lowe in October 2015
Yes, that 2015 offseason was as notable for the Warriors winning the franchise’s first championship in 40 years as it was for outside attempts to delegitimize the achievement.
They were lucky. Lucky they were healthy for The Finals and the Cleveland Cavaliers were not. Lucky that they found a smooth route to The Finals, walking through three injury-weakened squads – the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets – to emerge from the Western Conference.
And, as Doc said, really lucky they didn’t have to confront the defending champion Spurs.
These rocks from below pelted the Warriors all summer. They entered training camp in September 2015 determined to show doubters what they themselves believed.
The Warriors reduced the outside volume by opening with 24 consecutive wins, the best start in NBA history. By the time Golden State went to 36-2, on Jan. 11, only the faintest whispers persisted, largely because they still had not beaten the Spurs.
When the teams finally met two weeks later, on Jan. 25, at Oracle Arena, the Warriors were 40-4 and the Spurs were two games back, 38-6, the best 44-game start of their tremendous run under coach Gregg Popovich.
[RUNNIN' PLAYS PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]
Often prone to understatement, Pop didn’t downplay the hype.
“It's the two teams with the best record. Playing it up would seem to be logical to me," Popovich said before tipoff. "We feel different going against a team that's the best team in the league. I get butterflies in my gut and excited about the game and all that sort of thing. I don't feel like that every night."
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who missed the first 43 games while coping with post-operative effects of two back surgeries, had returned only three days earlier.
“We played them at home right before the All-Star break and they were maybe a game or two behind us,” Kerr recalled last month in a conversation with NBC Sports Bay Area.
The Spurs were two games behind the Warriors, coach, but their mystique probably made it feel closer. Kerr had watched the team go 39-4 under interim head coach Luke Walton. And now, in his second game back, he was getting San Antonio, who’d won two of three against the Warriors the previous season.
Kerr didn’t know what to expect. He did not anticipate what he saw. The Warriors proceeded to a 120-90 victory, zipped lips throughout the league.
"It was the most anticipated regular-season game that I had been a part of,” Kerr said. “And we played at such a high level, with so much force. That was one of my favorite games.
“I’d have to say it was my favorite. I can’t think of a regular-season game I felt better about.”
The Warriors never trailed. They built a 10-point lead early in the second quarter, led by 15 at the half and dominated the third quarter. Their defense was tight, holding the Spurs to 41.9 percent and forcing 25 turnovers. Golden State’s offense was fabulous overall but spectacular from 3-point distance, shooting 42.3 percent (11-of-26) from deep.
“Our communication that night, especially defensively, was incredible,” Kerr said last month, citing Draymond Green as the catalyst for energy and effectiveness on that end.
No member of the Warriors played more than 28 minutes, and Stephen Curry scored 37 points in that time. Kerr knows how much focus Popovich places on limiting 3-balls from Klay Thompson and Curry. San Antonio tried four different defenders on Curry, including forwards Johnathon Simmons and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard.
It didn’t matter.
"It was like men and boys out there tonight," said Popovich, one of Kerr’s coaching mentors.
"I love Pop. That's my guy,” Kerr said that night. “But I don't feel that bad right now."
No, he loved it. Kerr has coached 475 regular-season games, and this is No. 1 on his list. He cherished that night and still does, four years later.
Kerr’s team loved it, too. The Warriors walked out of Oracle knowing any remaining skeptics, including Rivers, who later said his comment was misunderstood, had no comeback.
“We know this is just another regular-season game, but there was some hype around it,” Curry said later that night. “Every time we have an opportunity to prove who we are and take another step in the journey, we're ready for it. It wasn't always that way."