OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Steve Kerr remembers coming into training camp with the Chicago Bulls before the 1995-96 season and sensing something different about the team.
After getting upset by Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals a few months earlier, Michael Jordan was motivated to redeem himself in his second year back in basketball and the Bulls were built for a championship run. Kerr, a reserve guard, noticed after just a few practices that season would be unlike any other.
”You could feel it right away. That was a special team,” Kerr said.
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The Bulls won an NBA-record 72 games in the regular season and lost only three times in the playoffs on the way to a title. They’re considered one of the greatest teams ever and glorified in highlights each June.
While it’s not nearly as noticeable now, Kerr’s current club is quietly reaching a level only the Jordan-led Bulls have ever touched.
The Golden State Warriors – with a fictitious name on the map, a rookie coach in Kerr and a roster that lacks NBA Finals experience – have a chance to finish with the third-most wins in league history if they can get past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals starting Thursday night.
”It’s been a dream season. Things have fallen into place over and over again,” Kerr said.
The Warriors rolled to a franchise-record 67 victories during the regular season. They have marched through the first three rounds of the playoffs with relative ease and stretched their win total to 79 in all.
Four more wins and the Warriors would trail only the 1995-96 Bulls (87) and the 1996-97 Bulls (84) for the most ever. They’re already the 14th team to win at least 65 regular-season games and reach the NBA Finals. The other 13 all won the title.
Kerr, who played on both of those Chicago clubs, is not ready to acknowledge what could be but admits there are correlations between the Warriors and the all-time great teams – most notably a smothering defense and timely shooting.
Others with rings see similarities, too.
Robert Horry, who won seven titles with the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs during his career, said the best teams he played on had five common strengths – health, defense, unselfishness, shooting and a little luck.
”When I look at Golden State, they have all that,” Horry said. ”With all those shooters, you’d think there’d be some hate. But they know how to share. Everybody understands the pecking order.”
Horry is starring in the upcoming documentary ”Clutch City,” which chronicles the Rockets teams that won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, premiering June 8 on NBA TV. He said those Houston teams, led by center Hakeem Olajuwon, compare well with the Warriors in that both defend, play fast and spread the floor with shooters.
Current Rockets coach Kevin McHale, part of a Boston Celtics dynasty that won three titles in the 1980s, has been impressed by Golden State all season. Never more so than after the Warriors sent Houston home in five games last week to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since Rick Barry led Golden State to the title in 1975.
The common bond between those Celtics and these Warriors, McHale said, is home dominance.
The Warriors went 39-2 during the regular season at rowdy Oracle Arena and are 7-1 at home in the playoffs. Only the 1985-86 Celtics, who went 40-1 in the regular season and won all 10 games at the Boston Garden in the playoffs, had a better home record.
Of course, all that is history now.
”Players don’t think about that,” McHale said. ”Those guys don’t have any idea. Honestly, I think that these guys don’t know Rick Barry. They don’t know that great Golden State team.”
Unlike a Cleveland team that became an instant contender when James returned last summer, the Warriors are a mix of young talent and veteran savvy that took time to simmer.
The team’s core – MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes – were picked by the Warriors in the draft along with backup center Festus Ezeli. Key additions Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David Lee and Leandro Barbosa were acquired through trades or free agency.
They have blended beautifully since Kerr took over after Mark Jackson was fired last year.
The Warriors had the NBA’s best shooting percentage and best defensive shooting percentage. They dished out the most assists, and they outscored opponents by an eye-popping 10.1 points per game before rolling past New Orleans, Memphis and Houston in the tough Western Conference playoffs.
”Usually, something clicks during the season. It happened for us. We felt it pretty early on,” Kerr said. ”We had something special going on, and the guys have really followed through and had this great ride. So here we are in the finals. It’s exciting.”
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP