I’ll always remember Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals for three main reasons: It was the night Kevin Durant returned to action before going down with a heartbreaking and league-altering Achilles injury. It was the night the Warriors battled back from a fourth-quarter onslaught behind three clutch 3-pointers from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. And it was the night that a fan standing near me at Scotiabank Arena turned his back to the court for virtually the entire brilliantly weird and wild second half.
“You’re missing the game, dude,” one of the two media members seated to my right told the drunk Raptors fan, who was likely the only person in the building not facing the court. (We’ll call him Henry.) Kawhi Leonard had just hit a shot midway through the fourth quarter to cut into Golden State’s lead, but Henry didn’t see it. Instead, he said, “It’s bad luck when I watch.”
My first thought was that Henry was a drunken fool occupying a seat that could’ve gone to a true fan. But as Kawhi hit bucket after bucket, I came to forgive his belief that he was making a cosmic difference on the results. Leonard came to the brink of cementing his reputation as a dynasty slayer, raising the decibel level in the building as he rattled off 10 straight Raptors points to turn a two-point deficit into a six-point lead. Kawhi was so great that even Henry turned around to watch. Maybe he shouldn’t have.
With the Raptors up 103-97 and 3:28 remaining, Curry clanked a 3 off the rim as the fans went berserk. The arena was shaking. All of Toronto may have been, and perhaps even all of Canada. Then Raptors head coach Nick Nurse called back-to-back timeouts with 3:05 to go. They were the turning point of the game, giving the Warriors a chance to come up for air.
After those timeouts, the crowd settled down. Henry kept watching. A media member seated to my left commented that Nurse’s decision was wise, affording him the chance to draw up the perfect play call to finish off Golden State. But while the choice made sense in a vacuum, it didn’t account for circumstance. The Warriors were undermanned, exhausted, and reeling; Kawhi, meanwhile, was playing the basketball equivalent of a rock show guitar solo. Ever since KD got hurt early in the second quarter, Golden State had struggled to maintain its lead. It seemed like the dam finally broke. The Warriors were on their last gasp.
Nurse didn’t run any special action. He said after the game that he took the timeouts because the Raptors were going to lose them as the game ticked under the three-minute mark, so he thought he’d give his guys an “extra energy push.” Only it was the Warriors who most needed energy in that moment.
What followed was a Kawhi air ball and then one of the most memorable three-minute stretches of this dynastic Warriors run: a greatest-hits montage featuring throwback offensive plays for Curry and Thompson and a heroic defensive effort by Thompson and Draymond Green to win and send the series back to the Bay. After the buzzer sounded on Golden State’s 106-105 victory, Green was asked how the win stacked up among the many that this team has experienced. “I think it’s got to be the greatest,” he said. “When you’re down six with a couple minutes to go in an elimination for these guys to win a championship, we could have thrown in the towel. We could have folded, but we didn’t. I said it before: I’ve never seen this group fold. And that stands true still.”
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr put it like this, speaking with a hoarse voice after the game: “Our guys are fucking giants.” And they were. Each Golden State player or personnel member I chatted with clearly had bittersweet feelings because of Durant’s devastating injury, but also confidence in this team’s odds heading back to Oracle Arena for Game 6. Now the Warriors have something even bigger than the three-peat to fight for: Durant, whose heart and will to win can no longer be questioned. “We do it for Kevin. We do it for K,” Thompson said. “He wants us to compete at the highest level, and we’ll think of him every time we step on the hardwood.”
The talk all weekend was that the Warriors needed KD to win, and that proved mostly accurate. While the Raptors have outscored Golden State in 14 of the 20 quarters this series (and tied two others), the Warriors were in control when Durant was in the game, winning the first quarter as he tallied 11 points, two rebounds, and a block over 11 minutes. With Durant now out for the remainder of the Finals, the next two games will be a major challenge for a roster that lacks reliable shot creators aside from Curry and reliable scorers aside from Curry and Thompson (who combined to go 12-of-27 from beyond the arc in Game 5). Can DeMarcus Cousins continue to produce offensively? Will Draymond and Andre Igoudala keep hitting their 3s? The Warriors will play Game 6 at home, but that won’t change the fact their roster is as thin as it’s been since before this run started.
The final three minutes Monday were both something to remember and a preview of what could come. The key moments from that final sequence offer a way to discuss potential adjustments for Game 6—and possibly look ahead to a Game 7. They were the NBA Finals at their best, and you’ll likely remember where you were for them. I was in the back row of Section 113 at Scotiabank Arena with Danny Chau, Brian Scalabrine, and Frank Isola, sitting three seats away from Henry, a drunk Raptors fan who wouldn’t watch until it became irresistible to look away. We got a series, folks.
The Curry Pick-and-Roll Is a Golden State Greatest Hit
The Warriors haven’t run a lot of pick-and-roll this series, which has largely been the byproduct of Durant’s absence. They can capitalize on his size and shooting ability by putting Green at center. The Warriors are the Warriors when their lineup features five skilled shooters all on the floor at once, making Curry-Green or Curry-Durant pick-and-rolls especially lethal.
Even without Durant, Kerr had no choice but to use the pick-and-roll late in Game 5. Nurse’s timeouts gave Kerr time to draw up a play for Klay. “Coach Kerr drew up a couple great sets, and me and Steph just got clean looks,” Thompson said afterward. The first pick-and-roll came with a wrinkle.
On the possession above, Draymond slips a screen for Curry. Kyle Lowry, who was defending Draymond, then proceeds to trap Curry. Green would typically roll to the rim, but instead he sneaks toward Thompson, effectively creating a two-on-one situation since Lowry couldn’t recover and Norman Powell wouldn’t leave Quinn Cook standing open in the corner. Green gets Leonard with the screen, and all of sudden Thompson has all the space he needs to drain a triple. A six-point lead is cut to three. “We just wanted to get Steph into a pick-and-roll,” Thompson said, “and if they doubled him, just find the open man, and luckily we found each other.”
Will the Warriors do more of this moving forward? Who knows. I’m past predicting what will happen in these Finals. But Kerr should dial up the pick-and-roll with regularity. Despite having KD for merely 12 minutes this series, the Warriors are scoring 1.1 points per possession on pick-and-rolls run by Curry, according to Synergy Sports. It generates open shots, and Toronto showed at the end of Monday’s game that it was unwilling to help off Cook. Perhaps Cook should play more unless he starts getting picked apart on the defensive end. It could let the Warriors maximize the Curry-Green pick-and-roll, and Golden State may have just discovered that if the Raptors don’t help off Cook, he can optimize the offense’s spacing.
The Warriors Should Stay Committed to Playing Fast
Curry’s 3-pointer during the game’s final sequence was classic Warriors.
In the clip above, Curry does what he often does, giving up the ball and then sprinting through screens. Thompson and Cousins both set screens forcing Fred VanVleet to take a wide route around the perimeter, giving Steph a sliver of space to unleash a ridiculous 3 and tie the game. This is a Warriors staple; they’ve run it time and again to spring Curry loose. What’s notable is how quickly they got into the action, getting the Raptors off balance in their defensive alignment.
Golden State pushed the pace again on the following play.
Here, Curry runs up the floor and the Warriors whip the ball around to force rotations that ultimately leave Thompson open. Iguodala throws a pinpoint touch pass to Green, who immediately fires a strike to Thompson. Leonard had a tough call to make after initially rotating inside to help on Iggy, but the help was there with Marc Gasol nearby. Defending Thompson should have been the priority. Kawhi made a mistake, and the Warriors made him pay with gorgeous ball movement leading to a Klay dagger.
This three-minute stretch made clear that the Warriors should keep playing fast. After all, the Raptors want to go slow.
The Raptors Keep Waiting to Attack. But Why?
The Raptors are scoring at an outrageously efficient pace late in the shot clock in this series. Through five games, Toronto’s offense has played at a crawling tempo in the half court; it’s shot the ball with an average of 4.5 seconds left on the clock following made shots on Warriors’ possessions, according to Inpredictable.com. That ranks as the slowest pace a playoff team has maintained since the 2014-15 Cavaliers. And on shots with seven seconds or fewer remaining during these NBA Finals, the Raptors are posting a 48.1 effective field goal percentage, which is high compared with both the leaguewide playoff average (42.8 percent) and the team’s own regular-season production (44.4 percent). Still, that 48.1 figure pales in comparison with Toronto’s efficiency early in the shot clock—yet over 30 percent of the team’s possessions come with seven or fewer seconds left. This production feels unsustainable.
The Raptors frequently tiptoe the ball up the court, slowly getting into their actions before launching shots as the clock ticks toward zero. A lot of the time, these shots have gone in. Not late in the game on Monday.
Here’s a look at Toronto’s risky ball-control tendencies. Thompson does an excellent job fighting through the screen to steer Leonard left, and Kawhi’s lack of advanced playmaking prevents him from finding Gasol for an open 3. Instead, Leonard dishes to Lowry, who fails to attack off the catch with Cousins stuck in no man’s land, Leonard screening, and Gasol ready to roll. Lowry waits until 4.3 seconds are left on the shot clock before beginning his drive. Cousins and Iguodala are lurking, so Lowry desperately kicks the ball out to Gasol in the backcourt, resulting in a 24-second violation.
Lowry has been an instinctive playmaker for most of the series, resembling Steve Nash at times with his stop-and-go moves and wraparound passes to rolling bigs. Nurse should trust him to make the smart play at the end of games, and the point guard should trust himself, even if it means leaving time on the clock. That’s what he did on the next few possessions, and the Raptors generated a pair of quality looks and showed how they can exploit Golden State’s pick-and-roll defense (on a Gasol layup that should’ve been an uncalled foul on Cousins, and on a Lowry layup that was goaltended by Cousins). The Raptors have waited around on offense and been successful, but that doesn’t mean they have to wait around as much as they have been.
Golden State’s pick-and-roll defense is as vulnerable as it’s been during this five-year dynasty stretch. Cousins’s feet move as if he’s carrying 20 extra pounds, and the Warriors can’t seem to figure out how they want to defend the play. Sometimes they drop with Cousins or Andrew Bogut; other times they switch poorly, with the on-ball defender going over the screen and giving the roller an open lane to the rim.
The Warriors should address these issues by having their on-ball defender run under the screen if they’re going to emphasize switching more frequently. Even then, though, they run into a problem: After switching, their leaner defenders, particularly Shaun Livingston, can get plastered by Toronto’s bigs. No matter if the defense chooses to switch, drop, or trap, Golden State’s off-ball help defense hasn’t been sharp, as Thompson has done an uncharacteristic amount of ball-watching during this series, and Green has taken several unnecessary risks that have gotten his team into trouble. The Raptors have flummoxed the Warriors when they’ve allotted themselves time to make multiple passes and find an open shooter. Yet on Game 5’s final play, their clock management issues arose once again.
As VanVleet brings the ball down the court, Nurse doesn’t call a timeout. The Raptors drain 6.6 seconds off the clock looking to get the ball into Kawhi’s hands, and then Leonard palms the ball with his massive claws before attacking. But Klay slides laterally to contain him, and Iguodala rotates over to trap. Livingston perfectly closes out on VanVleet, forcing a pass to Lowry. And Green extends to block Lowry’s shot.
If you ever wonder why NBA teams obsess over wingspan, take note of Green’s block. Every centimeter of his 7-foot, 1.25-inch wingspan mattered, just as it did when he blocked LeBron James to protect a one-point lead during overtime in Game 2 of the 2015 NBA Finals. Green’s fingers merely had to graze Lowry’s shot to knock it off course. If his wingspan were just 7 feet, who knows what would’ve happened? This capped off a sensational defensive possession by the Warriors, arguably their best of the series, and it came in the moment when they needed it most.
Just like that, the game was over. The arena fell silent, and the drunken Raptors fan, Henry, stopped watching (though maybe he shouldn’t have been watching in the first place). A series that was already full of dramatic twists and turns experienced another, delivering an iconic sequence that stamped the future of both teams, these Finals, and the league as a whole with a massive question mark.
On Monday night Durant fought to return to the floor and made a huge difference in giving his teammates a chance to complete a 3-1 comeback—in what would be a poetic reversal of the 3-1 comebacks in 2016 that led to Durant joining the Warriors, and the plethora of narratives, jokes, and takes that spun from that. Yet KD limped off the court in agony, simultaneously showcasing his importance to this Warriors run and setting the stage for a finish that was equal parts stunning, heartbreaking, and undeniably compelling. It was something out of a movie, only real. A classic Game 5 is in the books. Now the rest of this story is about to be written.