There was an irrelevant first half, and a third quarter, and then whatever that was at the end. All that remained stable was Tony Brothers, who plays a game with himself to see how many dubious foul calls he can register. On nights when he hits a certain number, he grabs a sixer on the way home from the arena and throws a little party in the quiet one a.m. dimness of his kitchen. Our old friend woke up bleary-eyed and full of joy this morning.
The third quarter was the crucial part, and the most legible, because we all have stress dreams. We’ve been hearing for years that coaches emphasize the fury with which the Warriors typically exit the locker room after halftime, but what do they do exactly? It’s possible Nick Nurse just read his squad some Camus and told them to remember the lead fondly, for it was about to be taken from them and never returned. Life is sometimes cruel for no reason, and Kyle Lowry is the smartest basketball player in the world when he’s not occasionally possessed by the spirit of peekapoo that’s slipped its leash.
It was said about Tiger Woods at his peak that Tiger was playing against the golf course and everybody else was playing against their own fear. Guys would, out of sheer nervousness, duff the ball into a bunker or aim for the pin and bereftly watch the ball roll off the green and into the drink. This is anecdotal; I am absolutely not looking up the specifics what happened to Retief Goosen at the 2002 Masters. Tiger won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes. He won the British a month later by eight. It’s possible he was simply way better than the competition. When the Retief Goosens of the world appeared to blow it, perhaps that was actually Tiger coming down from the mountaintop to play a couple rounds with the mortals, proving that his 75 percent was better than everyone else’s very best. (The Warriors finished this one at decidedly less than 75 percent; we’re getting there.)
The less than mysterious aspect of Golden State’s third quarters is that they often loaf through the first half and put themselves in a hole. As Mike Breen noted on the broadcast, Game 2 was the fifth straight contest in which they were losing as they strolled into the locker room. They returned to the floor flying around, like they could be asked to. If the Warriors certainly aren’t better without Kevin Durant, they are more exhausting to play against. The speed with which their hive-mind perceives and reacts is too much for even an excellent defense to track in real time.
On the impossible to prove end of matters, the Raptors crumbled as if they prefer regret to sleep. Lowry twice walked right into Steph Curry, like the basketball was a pie he was delivering to Steph’s front door. Marc Gasol clanked a couple open jumpers and set some illegal screens. A long succession of threes glanced off the iron. Here is a thing spiraling teams do in the modern NBA: they miss a few outside shots and the Calm Down Timeout happens. In the Calm Down Timeout, the coach tells them that they’re getting good looks that just aren’t falling. And so they go out and miss three more swell-on-paper triples. This always carries with it a sort of gloomy plausible deniability. The deficit keeps growing, but there is no doubt smart basketball is being played.
In these moments I invariably hope that somebody splits a double team and dunks the ball so hard the shot clock goes on the fritz. We’ve already dispensed with the nonsense about jumpers and championships, but sometimes you need a hard reset. The Warriors stalled in the fourth quarter because the injury gods frowned and a gassed Steph was playing with dudes who couldn’t be saved by sucking down a one gallon freezer bag full of energy gel. The Raptors didn’t capitalize on this because their third quarter funk had by that point snowballed into a full-blown episode that wasn’t going to subside before they met the Oakland-bound plane on the tarmac. Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, but his one-and-a-half-leggedness stood out for the fact that he couldn’t pull off that maneuver where he drains a series of buckets with less breathing room than it takes to transmit the common cold. That was all that could have saved the Raptors in Game 2. Pascal Siakam can’t do that kind of thing every night.
By the way, the forensics on why the Warriors are so dominant in the third quarter? They review a dozen short video clips and make sure not to hold the players away from the court for too long. The fear factor? “There’s just this… feeling,” J.J. Redick says, providing the most trenchant quote in a 2,000-word article. “Like, at some point Steph’s gonna get hot.” There’s no getting to the bottom of this phenomenon. Attempts to do so are like taking a magnifying glass to a stanza of poetry. It’s not the words; it’s the energy moving through them. Or its absence. The Warriors are going to perform their third quarter act more often than not. If the Raptors don’t respond with panic and dread, at least they give themselves a chance.