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The Warriors Have a Late-Game Weirdness Problem

Why has the NBA’s best offense been so ineffective in the waning moments of key Western Conference finals games?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Golden State Warriors are probably the greatest offensive juggernaut that basketball has ever known: Their past three seasons all rate among the top 31 offensive seasons of all time, with last year’s team clocking in at no. 2. This makes sense, as Steph Curry is the greatest shooter to ever live, Kevin Durant is the best pure scorer in the game, and Klay Thompson isn’t far behind Curry as far as great shooters are concerned.

And yet, in the waning moments of close games, the Warriors often seem flummoxed by how to run offense, a trait that has now cost them two consecutive games against the Rockets in the Western Conference finals. Tuesday night’s Game 4 ended with Golden State turning in a 12-point quarter, tied for the third-worst it’s played since its current run of excellence began in 2014. That allowed Houston to roar back and win a 95–92 game that once seemed unwinnable. And during Thursday night’s Game 5, the Warriors were held scoreless in the final minute of play; that facilitated Houston’s 98–94 victory despite a late injury to Chris Paul.

This was an issue for the Warriors throughout the regular season: The Dubs were 10-of-39 on shots taken in the final minute of games in which the margin was within five points. That’s 25.6 percent — second worst in the NBA, ahead of only the Hornets. On shots to take the lead or tie the game in the final two minutes, Durant, Curry, and Thompson were a combined 9-of-29 in 2017–18. That’s 31 percent! Stunningly, Curry is 0-of-6 on potential go-ahead shots in the final 24 seconds of playoff games.

When the game is on the line, the greatest offense in basketball history looks like a group cobbled together to play a pickup game — and a dysfunctional group at that. With the defending champs facing a 3–2 series deficit entering Saturday’s Game 6, it’s worth examining three of these breakdowns and asking: Why are the late-game Warriors so weird?

The Klay Play

Trailing 94–92 with the ball in the final seconds of Game 4, the Warriors opted to do what they do best. Instead of calling a timeout, Golden State brought the ball upcourt and tried to run its usual offense. Thompson lost Trevor Ariza in transition, and Durant fed him the ball to attempt a corner 3.

But instead of shooting over Ariza, Thompson pump-faked, and soon found that he was trapped. Golden State’s offense didn’t continue flowing after Thompson got the ball — the rest of the team froze, giving him no outlet to pass. Thompson drove to the heavily defended middle of the floor, where Durant’s and Curry’s defenders were waiting and ready to contest his shot. He hoisted up an ugly fadeaway that missed the rim.

Steve Kerr said after the game that he had wanted his team to call a timeout once Thompson became trapped in the corner, and felt that Draymond Green was trying to get the officials’ attention to do so. Regardless, confusion reigned.

Quinn Cook’s Moment of Infamy

Chaos continued to reign at the end of Game 5. After the referees called a rare inadvertent whistle — the officials decided to admit that one of them had mistakenly stopped play when no violation had taken place, which is embarrassing, but significantly better than assessing a travel on James Harden when he hadn’t traveled — Chris Paul drove at Cook and landed awkwardly. He crumpled to the floor, unable to continue playing, which allowed Golden State to go at the Rockets four-on-five. Cook got the most open look a player will ever get in the final minute of a key playoff game, and shot it.

He clanked it off the front rim.

Should Cook have passed to Curry, who was also was open as Harden lost track of him amid the four-on-five confusion? Should he have driven toward the basket, given the sea of space in front of him? These thoughts seemed to pass through Cook’s head, even though he is a professional basketball player thanks largely to his shooting ability.

Cook was totally justified shooting, because he’s a shooter. He shot 44.2 percent from 3 with the Warriors this season. He shot 43.7 percent from deep in the G League before that, where the rims are the same height and the arc is the same distance from the hoop. After spending two and a half years primarily in the G League, Cook finally got regular rotation minutes after Curry injured his knee in March, and he impressed. The former Duke standout earned a starting role then, then averaged 15.6 points per game with incredible shooting splits: 50.5 percent from the floor, 46.9 percent from 3, 86.4 percent from the free throw line. He was born to make this shot.

But he didn’t, which left people questioning why Cook — a G Leaguer on a team full of All-Stars — was on the floor. His presence turned the Hamptons Five into the Ronkonkoma Five. As Cook bobbled and got set to shoot, it seemed like even he was wondering: Hey, why is Quinn Cook shooting a potential game-winner for the Warriors in the Western Conference finals?

The Dray Play

The Warriors didn’t pay for Cook’s missed shot in Game 5, getting the ball again trailing 96–94 with less than 10 seconds left. But the Warriors experienced yet another bizarre timeout situation. After Green rebounded a Houston miss, he dished the ball to Durant instead of immediately calling a timeout. If Green had called timeout, the Warriors would have inbounded the ball from the frontcourt. But because Green tried to advance it, they had to inbound from deep in the backcourt, forcing Kerr to draw up an awkward three-quarters-length-of-the-court play.

Green knew that with little time left, he had to keep moving upcourt while receiving a pass after the inbound. Only he juggled it, and instead of getting a game-winning shot, the Warriors got a comical pratfall.

I don’t believe the problem here is “unclutchness.” Let’s not forget that KD calmly jogged up court and swished a game-winner in Game 3 of last year’s NBA Finals, or that Curry once set the all-time record for made 3s in a game by swishing a 32-footer to beat the Thunder in February 2016.

But something seems broken about the way the Warriors have been operating lately. Against the Rockets, they’re nearly tripling the amount of isolation possessions they use, a move away from the cohesive style they’ve embraced in recent years. And in the final seconds of games, that weirdness has intersected with the Warriors’ longstanding end-game weirdness.

Golden State’s greatest offensive moments — including those Durant and Curry daggers — seem to come when nobody on the floor is thinking too much about what is happening. The Warriors simply bring the ball upcourt and react: They do the same things they always do, and more often than not the ball ends up in the hands of a supremely talented scorer. But in these critical moments against the Rockets, they’re clearly overthinking.

You can see it in all three of these plays: Thompson’s rethinking of his open look in Game 4 while the rest of the team turned stagnant as he set to shot; a shook Cook mishandling the ball as he lined up the biggest shot of his life in Game 5; Green failing to execute on an awkward play that the team had never run before; and the constant confusion among Golden State’s players about whether calling a timeout is necessary.

The Warriors are seeking the most efficient course of action, and that may be keeping them from acting like an ultraefficient juggernaut.