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The curious and rapid decline of the Third-Quarter Warriors

They haven’t blitzed opponents after halftime — unlike past iterations.

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

You can associate several things with the Golden State Warriors throughout their dynastic run. The constant motion and passing. Dynamic small-ball on both ends (pace-and-space on offense, switch everything with like-sized wings on defense). The three-point revolution. The homegrown nature of their core.

But perhaps one of their most celebrated trademarks has been their dominance of opponents in third quarters.

“Third-Quarter Warriors” has been a thing almost every season. The eye-test isn’t the only thing that supports it; the numbers have been quite telling. Throughout Steve Kerr’s tenure as head coach, the Warriors have dominated in terms of third-quarter plus-minus:

  • 2014-15: plus-287 (1st)
  • 2015-16: plus-255 (1st)
  • 2016-17: plus-477 (1st)
  • 2017-18: plus-371 (1st)
  • 2018-19: plus-250 (1st)
  • 2019-20: minus-135 (26th)
  • 2020-21: plus-101 (5th)
  • 2021-22: plus-232 (1st)

(Obligatory caveat during the 2019-20 season that was bereft of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.)

A hallmark of an elite team — and a well-coached one, at that — is their ability to make proper adjustments during halftime and execute them to the highest degree. The Warriors have consistently blitzed opponents out of the gates during the third quarter because of an unholy union of talent, intelligence, and cohesion that is nigh unmatched and unstoppable.

That is, until this season.

After their loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Warriors are being outscored in third quarters this season by a total of 16 points — 19th in third-quarter plus-minus. It’s the first time they have had a negative plus-minus in third quarters since the 2019-20 season (see caveat above).

They score 113.1 points per 100 possessions (16th) while allowing opponents to score 113.5 points per 100 possessions (16th) in the third quarter. Their negative net rating (minus-0.4) places them 24th in the league.

Their offensive struggles have been prevalent throughout this season — late fourth-quarter meltdowns have been the consistent culprit — but the root of those problems stem from lethargic offensive starts during the third quarter. The trademark energy out of the gates is gone; so is the pristine execution of adjustments and the sense of urgency to take control of the game, especially if they went into the half with a deficit.

The opening offensive possession and the subsequent defensive possession out of the half against the Nuggets was no different:

Their opening set involves action to get Nikola Jokić into ball-screen action, but Jamal Murray “ICEs” the screen to force Jordan Poole sideline and deny him usage of Kevon Looney’s screen. From then on, the possession devolves to a clear out for an Andrew Wiggins isolation against Michael Porter Jr.

Porter Jr. isn’t a bad choice to target in isolation, but the Warriors definitely should’ve gotten more than just a pull-up mid-range jumper from Wiggins. Why not drive to the rim, bait contact, and try to draw a foul? Touch the paint and put pressure on the rim? Instead, Porter Jr. gets bailed out.

In return, Jokić responds by drawing a foul on a face cut on the other end, sending him to the line.

The obvious pressure point to attack for the Warriors was Jokić, whose ability to defend in the pick-and-roll has always been a point of contention in league circles. He’s not the terrible defender he’s been painted as by some parties, but there’s no doubting that making him work and defend ball screens — especially with the Nuggets’ base coverage involving him stepping up to the level of screens — puts a ton of pressure on the Nuggets’ backline defense, which is undersized and unable to provide adequate help.

Jokić steps up to the level of the screen on the Curry-Kevon Looney pick-and-roll and is forced to double Curry, leaving Looney free on the roll. With Poole relocating to the weak-side corner, Murray turns into the low man whose responsibility turns into helping on Looney’s roll. Murray does his job as the low man, but Looney is simply too big and too strong for him.

High ball screens for Curry above were more common in the first half. For some reason — fatigue, a loss of focus, or both — they went away from what worked. Credit must also be given to the Nuggets defense for going over screens with verve, recovering, and forcing the Warriors to stumble over their own feet.

Shot selection has also been a problem. You’d rarely be up in arms over Curry choosing to pull up in transition for a three, especially with no one in front of him.

But this particular shot wasn’t probably how Curry should’ve attacked Jokić:

With Jokić the only defender in front of him, wouldn’t it be more prudent for Curry to attack him, get a layup, perhaps draw a foul, and tire Jokić out?

On the other end of the floor, the Warriors had a difficult time defending Jokić in single coverage. Looney — typically a sturdy post defender with flashes of success against the two-time MVP in the past — couldn’t do much against the physicality and touch around the rim.

Whenever the Warriors tried to send help through digs, stunts, and outright doubles from the strong side, Jokić would gash them with precision passing to shooters and cutters:

If the help came from the weak side — in the form of early help at the “nail” (the area approximating the middle of the free-throw line) — the Nuggets would simply stash a shooter to take advantage of the space given him.

Porter Jr. is shooting 41% on threes this season as a 6’10” unicorn. Poole — showing help on Jokić at the nail — simply had no chance of affecting Porter Jr.’s shot:

Once again, turnovers were a problem. The Warriors ended the night with 17, eight of which were in the third quarter alone. Live-ball turnovers were especially frustrating: lazily thrown passes, bobbles, and trying to force passes through windows that either closed fast or simply wasn’t there in the first place.

Turnovers led to wasted possessions. Some led to transition buckets for the Nuggets made possible through poor floor balance while going back:

The decline of the Warriors’ potency in third quarters this season has been mystifying. Granted, in this particular instance, they were missing a couple of key personnel (no Draymond Green due to calf tightness and no Klay Thompson due to it being the second night of a back-to-back).

But this is far from being an isolated case, and 52 games is more than enough of a sample size to conclude that the Warriors are no longer the same team that crushed opponents after halftime. Coupled with their sudden inability to string together wins away from Chase Center — they’re now 7-20 on the road — it’s been a baffling and frustrating season teetering on the brink of collapse.

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