I wrote an article at the beginning of the NBA playoffs if the tournament was going to be disappointing, a letdown as much as an inevitable crowning of the dynastic champion. Obviously, through both some injuries and drop in play from Golden State and some inspired performances from both the Thunder and finally Cavaliers, this was not the case. Golden State went down, and went down hard. After becoming just the third team to overcome a 1-3 series deficit in the Conference Finals, they became the first team (out of 33) to lose when up 3-1 in the Finals.
In that article, I compared the Warriors to the 2007 Patriots, probably the most recent Superteam that entered a playoffs as such a heavy favorite. And in the end, while that article featured a lot of hypotheticals and analyses that turned out to not be true, the comparison did. The Warriors joined the Patriots in infamy, blowing a clear shot to be the best team in the history of their sport. The comparison actually runs really deep.
The Incredible Start
The Warriors and Patriots both entered their season as the favorite. The Warriors were the defending Champions, and the Patriots were 12-4 the previous season and added Randy Moss and Wes Welker (and Dante Stallworth and Adalius Thomas), seemed loaded to break out. And boy did they both do just that.
The Warriors started the season 24-0, and it really seemed for most of that run they would seriously challenge the Lakers 33-game win streak record. They were unleashing a new type of offense, or at least doing so in more volume and with more speed, than anyone had previously. Raining threes, moving the ball and moving players just as much. Their offense was a whirring streak of beauty, equal parts an incredible system and singular talents. They got basically halfway through the season at 37-4, outscoring opponents by 13 points per game.
The Patriots were basically the same. Obviously, they started the season 16-0, but the real peak Patriots started the season 8-0. In those 8 games they played football about as good as it could be played. Their offense was something completely new. Unabashedly passing the ball, both short to Welker, middle to Stallworth and Watson, and deep to Moss, with equal efficiency. They had outscored their 8 opponents a dominant 331-127, both the league's best offense (one that was putting up a ridiculous level of efficiency through that point) and one of their best defenses. No one really came close. Their closest game to that point was a 34-17 win over Cleveland - a team that would finish 10-6 - a game that they lead in 34-10 before a garbage time TD. The Patriots were unparalleled.
Beyond just their respective brilliance, both teams showed some strength and added determination competing under a dark shadow. For the Patriots, obviously it was Spygate, arguably the best in-season motivation a team was ever given as they played out to prove that stealing signals had no part of how good they had been or would be. For the Warriors, it was the leave of absence by coach Steve Kerr through the first 43 games. Neither issue stopped the team at all.
The Brilliant but Mentally Tough finish
Both teams would continue on their way to historic seasons and do so in similar fashion. Both were still historically great in the 2nd halves of their seasons, the Warriors going 36-5, and the Patriots, obviously, repeating the 8-0 mark, but this time outscoring their opponents by 'only' 258-147. Both teams were 'best of all time' good through the first half, and merely historically good in the second, but that added to 'best of all time' good through the regular seasons.
The small drop from best ever to one of the best did open up a few areas that, in retrospect, were warning signs. For the Warriors, it was a slight drop in play, such as more times they needed to overcome slow starts or make 4th-quarter comebacks. Their overall offense became more and more dependent on Steph Curry as the play of the deep bench slowed. Teams changed strategies. It barely made a dent in their overall record, but odd losses to Portland, Los Angeles, and shock defeats to Boston and Minnesota at home definitely showed the team was beatable.
For the Patriots, of course no one actually managed to beat them, but there were signs. Just like the Warriors, they started to get challenged more. Game #9 was a 10-point 4th Quarter Comeback against the Colts. Games #11-12 were back-to-back three point wins against the Eagles and Ravens, two teams starting backup QBs (AJ Feeley and Kyle Boller). Even Game #14 was a soft win, a 20-10 result over the Jets - the team that 'outed' them in Spygate. The Patriots were definitely not playing a different sport anymore.
The Primary Rival that Got Beat
Both teams had one key rival that was there all season long - and they were the perfect rivals. For the Patriots, it was their always perfect rival, Manning and the Colts. Indy entered the season as defending champions, and started the campaign 7-0, outscoring their opponents 224-102. They were the best defense in teh league to that point, an interesting change for a team that made their bones with a brilliant offense. The Colts lost their next two games, and were never really threatening for the #1 seed, but their presence as a dominant 13-3 team themselves set the footballing world in deep anticipation for an eventual AFC Championship Game. Their regular season game was the most hyped (and most watched) regular season game in the past decade, dubbed Super Bowl 41.5. Of course, there never was that AFC Championship Game.
We can draw a direct comparison from the 2007 Colts to the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs. They too were natural rivals, longtime pole-bearers for the NBA. They too, had been known as the top offense in the league, or at least one of, in recent years, but their success this past season was due to the best defense in the league. The Spurs started 33-8 halfway through, and kept right there with the Warriors all season long. Maybe even more so than the Colts vs. Patriots AFC Title Game felt like an inevitability, a Warriors vs. Spurs Western Conference Finals was a lock. And what a series it would be, best offense vs. best defense. New-age Warriors vs. Old-School Spurs. Yet it didn't happen either.
The Playoff Warning Signs
Both teams ended their regular seasons squarely in 'best team of all-time' status. The Patriots were seen as something of a lock for that title, the first 16-0 team, and far more impressive in their 16 wins than the 1972 Dolphins were in their 14. The Warriors had detractors pushing for some of the other teams, but their record was fairly impeachable. Both also entered the playoffs as clear favorites, and even more than their relative lack of tough contests, those that gave them trouble weren't really the top teams. The Patriots played scores of good teams, and other than Super Bowl 41.5 and their Week 17 win over the Giants, none of those games were close. The Warriors, apart from one loss to the Spurs, were undefeated against the other Top-4 seeds.
Fast-forward to their respective Championship Rounds, the arguments that maybe these weren't the best teams of all time were a lot stronger. For the Warriors, it was their inability to shake off the Blazers (partially due to Curry's absence in Games 1-2) in five competitive games. The Blazers really were not even in their class so in the end they posed no real threat. For the Patriots, it was taking a full half to shake off the Jacksonville Jaguars, who drew them at 14-14 through the first 30 minutes.
For each, the scarier moment was their respective Conference Final. The Patriots didn't have to play the Colts, but struggled to put away a gimpy, injured, but extremely talented, Chargers team. The score read 21-12, but the fact that THIS Patriots team beat THAT Chargers team by only 9 spoke volumes, as did Randy Moss's 1 catch and Tom Brady's three interceptions. They did lead for nearly all the game, and closed it out in brilliant fashion on a drive that ran off the last nine minutes, but it was not pretty.
The Warriors win was pretty in the end, but it took seven games where at no point other than Game 2 did they actually look like the better team. Maybe they were relieved that it wasn't the Spurs against them, but the Warriors sleep-walked through the end of Game 1 and allowed OKC to steal it. They then got ran off the court in Games 3-4 in embarrassing fashion. They won the last three with an unnervingly close win in Game 5, stealing the 6th game in OKC, and then overcoming a half-time deficit in Game 7.
Both teams escaped to the last round alive, but the playoffs showed some failings, and injury concerns (hard to remember, but Brady was in a walking boot early in the two-week break), but they were there. But the mystique of the "Greatest Team of All Time" had somewhat worn off. It was hard to make the case for either, as playoff performance should matter. The Greatest Team of All Time shouldn't be down 1-3 in any series, or shouldn't struggle to put away two 11-5 teams.
The Final Collapse
The similarities somewhat break down in the last stage. The similarity is they both lost close - the Warriors losing a tremendously well played Game 7 at home, and the Patriots losing a similarly well-played Super Bowl to the Giants. Both teams lost in low-scoring, defensive affairs that, for most of the game, featured the underrated parts of their teams (defense). They both lost making crucial mistakes by key players, like Steph Curry throwing a behind-the-back pass out of bounds, or not being able to take Kevin Love 1-v-1, or Asante Samuel dropping a pick, or Rodney Harrison not able to knock that ball off of David Tyree's helmet.
That said, the Warriors choke shouldn't be underestimated. Theirs was a true choke, losing despite taking a 2-0 lead (the most dominant first two games in NBA Finals history), despite taking a 3-1 lead, and despite having two of the last three at home. They were blown out twice in Cleveland (making it 4 times they lost by 15+ in the last two rounds). They had a top player suspended for a potential close-out game. The Patriots, to be fair, lost because they played a team uniquely built to beat them when they played well. They were lost against the Giants pass rush and an off-Brady didn't help. They actually were lucky to be leading at halftime, and when they had a chance to take the lead late they did - only to see it slip away.
Both teams entered their seasons with high hopes and ran through them, overcame a few challenges, only to see a season long dream fall apart at the very end.
The Ultimate Loser
In the end, which loss was worse is an interesting question. There are arguments to be made on both sides. The Patriots were probably 'better', as they were so incredibly good during the regular season. They hadn't actually 'lost' a game heading into that Super Bowl, and they weren't playing a team that had the best player in the series / game like the Warriors were.
Of course, the Patriots only had to play one game game. The Warriors had to play four; they had to play three in a row after taking a 3-1 lead. They had to lose Game 7 at home, when home teams were 15-2 in the history of the Finals in Game 7. It is harder to lose a series than a single game, and we have seen brilliant NFL teams lose the Super Bowl before but no team this good lost an NBA Finals (other than when losing to another great team).
In the end, I think the actual loss of the Finals is worse for the Warriors. They choked away the Finals in a manner that had literally never been done before - dropping three straight including the finale at home. They were so overconfident through the first two games, to see it all come crashing down was hard to watch.
However, in the context of the whole season, I can't see anything topping the Patriots loss. Both had a chance to make history and a claim for 'Best Team of All Time', but the Patriots had a chance to set a mark of 19-0 that would be impossible to beat unless the league went to a longer schedule. They were also so incredibly good in the start of the season, it seemed more unfathomable through midseason.
In the end, the two most attractive, enticing, brilliant and menacing regular season teams of my lifetime shared similar heights, similar (relative) lows, similar playoff scares and similar playoff triumphs, only to see their seasons end in similar infamy.