On February 27, 2016, the Golden State Warriors were down 2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder after a Klay Thompson layup. With the Thunder inbounding the ball and the shot clock turned off, the Warriors elected to put pressure on the Thunder instead of fouling them, with the logic being that there was still enough time on the clock to hopefully force a turnover.
The Warriors got what they wanted. Kevin Durant — then the face of the Oklahoma City franchise — received the inbounds pass and was immediately trapped.
Durant’s desperate pass out of the corner found its way toward Thompson. A save by Draymond Green prevented the ball from going out of bounds, which eventually led to Andre Iguodala getting fouled and burying 2 clutch free throws to send the game into overtime.
That gave the Warriors an opportunity to make history, courtesy of one of the biggest shots of Stephen Curry’s career. It is a win that is entrenched deeply within the annals of Warriors lore. The Warriors gave it their all in that game, and it was one of the earliest displays of their unlimited well of resiliency, determination, and fortitude.
It almost happened again — 3 years later — in the NBA’s biggest stage.
With the Toronto Raptors leading by 1 and inbounding the ball with 18.5 seconds remaining, the Warriors once again chose not to foul, hoping that the time allotted to them would give them plenty of opportunities to force a turnover, just like they did against the Thunder 3 years ago.
This time, however, there would be no Durant, who was now on their side but suffered a career-changing Achilles rupture that sidelined him for the rest of the series as well as for the entirety of next season.
There would be no Thompson, who suffered an apparent knee injury in the 3rd quarter. He was on his way to having another legendary Game 6 performance, but an unfortunate landing on a dunk attempt put him out of commission for the rest of the game, despite walking back to the court of his own accord and burying 2 free throws before being ruled as unable to return.
It was up to Curry and Green to lead the Warriors to victory. Green intelligently smothered Danny Green without fouling, and thereafter forced a turnover. Draymond did his part on that end of the floor to give the Warriors one more shot at staying alive. They were hobbled — battered, bruised, and physically exhausted — but they wanted nothing more than to fight to live another day, just like they did in Game 5.
It was down to one more possession for the Warriors. Steve Kerr drew up a play that aimed to get Curry the ball for an open catch-and-shoot 3 on the right wing. It was a play most commonly attributed to Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, termed as “Winner.”
The play involves cross-screening between two players under the basket, otherwise known as “flex action.” The inbounder then proceeds to make a cross-court entry pass to the player located on the weak-side low-post area. Meanwhile, a screen is set for a shooter up top, and the low-post player passes the ball to the shooter on the wing, who theoretically gets an open look at the basket for a 3.
The play involves a lot of misdirection. The flex action down low has the aim of getting the low-post passer, usually a big man, a mismatch against a smaller defender. While the attention of the defense is focused toward that particular mismatch, an off-ball screening action up top aims to take advantage of a theoretical lack of help, which frees up the shooter to take and bury an open shot.
All things considered, it was an excellent play drawn up by Kerr to get Curry a look, even if that open look was only for a split-second due to shoddy execution. Being the greatest shooter in the history of the game as well as possessing one of the fastest releases in the league, all Curry needed was to have that small window afforded him. “Winner” provided him with that window, and if it went in, then the Warriors could very well be preparing for an improbable Game 7 in Scotiabank Arena.
It was the best hope they had at once again surmounting the odds that were very much against them.
But not everything ends like a fairy-tale. Not everything can go the way that people want it to go. There can be moments of joy and elation, but there can also be an equal amount of sorrow and disappointment.
Curry got a decent look; he probably would’ve buried that shot 9 out of 10 times. Sometimes, that one improbable instance is the one that ends up coming to fruition. Variance can be a deadly weapon to have at your side, but its nature as a double-edged sword can often be that sharp object on which a team falls upon.
Variance can also rear its ugly head in other ways. It happened with Durant’s unfortunate Achilles injury. It happened with Thompson’s knee injury, which was eventually diagnosed as a torn left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). More disappointing than the goal which the Warriors fell short of is the fact that two of their best players — both who gave their all for the team to have a fighting chance at their third straight championship — will now have one year of their physical primes taken away from them.
Variance does have its way of dishing out bad luck, but never has it been this miserable to the fortunes of one team, especially within the span of 4 days and during a figurative life-or-death situation in the NBA Finals.
However, one fact that wasn’t due to variance is that the Raptors were a much better team all throughout. Yes, the Warriors were indeed short-handed and handicapped. But that didn’t stop the Raptors from stamping their class. They took care of business with aplomb, playing the best defense of their lives against a team who revolutionized the way offense is played in the modern NBA. Their offense — led by Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard — was enough to overcome the Warriors’ brave but depleted offensive efforts.
Yes, variance went in favor of the Raptors, but luck is an often underappreciated ingredient in the championship recipe. The Warriors have had plenty of luck during their 5-year dynastic run. It was only fair to acknowledge that a great team such as the Raptors would benefit from a bit of luck, and there is nothing wrong with that.
For the Warriors, they will have a monumental and daunting task ahead of them this upcoming offseason. They will most assuredly miss the services of Durant and Thompson next season, assuming that the both of them decide to return to the team with brand new 5-year maximum contracts. Hardships will have to be experienced: Durant and Thompson with their long road to complete recovery, and the Warriors with their depleted roster and attempt to bolster it as best they can in order to remain playoff contenders.
In an upcoming season that is wrought with a multitude of uncertainty, there is only one thing that can be said for certain: The Warriors won’t go away. They didn’t go away against the Raptors easily; they managed to land a few parting blows that reminded their opponents and everyone else that they had that same resiliency, that same dogged determination, and that same unrelenting fortitude that they had against the Thunder 3 years ago.
Despite the changing of their status from underdogs to playoff contenders, from contenders to NBA champions, from champions to a historic dynasty — those three characteristics remained the common denominators between each and every iteration of the Warriors. Now, as they enter next season for the first time in years as underdogs once again, those three characteristics will be counted upon even more for them to be able to stick around and continue to make an impact on the league.
They placed all of their hopes on one final play and made their final stand. They may have fallen short of their goal of 16 playoff wins — but rest assured, this will not be the final time that these Warriors will ever be on the biggest stage in all of professional basketball.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.