The Golden State Warriors, after blitzing through the regular season and most of the playoffs, find themselves in a tied series with the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals. Their latest loss, Tuesday’s Game 4, featured an epic fourth-quarter collapse, which is uncharacteristic of the reigning NBA champions. But their third-quarter outburst — Golden State outscored Houston 34-17 in that frame — is exactly what they’ve been doing to opponents for years, and it could be the difference between the Warriors defending their crown or going home earlier than expected.
The Warriors outscored opponents by 18.5 net points per 100 possessions in the third quarter during the 2017-18 regular season, more than double the Denver Nuggets (plus-7.8), who ranked second. In this year’s playoffs, the Warriors have been blowing out opponents by even more in the third quarter. They held a plus-31.5 net rating advantage in the third period over the San Antonio Spurs in the first round without Stephen Curry suiting up, a plus-22.6 edge against the New Orleans Pelicans and plus-36 through four games against the Rockets.
Last season, the Warriors outscored opponents by 22.8 points during the regular season in the third quarter. And even without Kevin Durant, who signed as a free agent in the summer of 2016, Coach Steve Kerr saw his team outscore opponents by a league-leading 12.6 net points per 100 possessions in 2015-16. As you can see, this has always been the way Golden State operates with Kerr calling the shots, Durant just took it to a whole new level.
He’s also a big reason the Warriors dominate after halftime.
Kerr’s not-so-secret-weapon, the “Hamptons 5″ lineup featuring Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, has been starting games recently but is used the most in the third quarter (6.9 minutes per game, or 43 percent of their total usage). And when they are on the court this new and improved small-ball lineup of death outscore opponents by 29.3 net points per 100 possessions in that frame.
It all starts with getting the ball to the two best players on the team, Curry and Durant. Those two use 30 and 29 percent of the team’s possessions, respectively, in the third, focusing primarily on pick-and-roll plays or possessions in isolation, mixing in cuts to the basket and spot-up shots when warranted.
For example, in Game 1 Durant scored six points on five possessions in isolation, hitting three jumpers from midrange over Houston defenders.
Curry used 10 possessions in the third quarter during Tuesday night’s loss. Two of those were iso plays, two were jump shots off screens, three were jumpers off the dribble in high pick-and-roll sets, two were spot-up shots — both from behind the three-point line — and one was in transition, resulting in 17 points, or a gaudy 1.7 points per possession. Good luck to any defender trying to contain that diversity in scoring.
Perhaps the most demoralizing facet of this third-quarter eruption stems from the fact that by that time its highly possible Golden State is already enjoying a lead. It has an average scoring margin of plus-two heading into the third quarter during this playoff run with four games seeing an advantage of 11 or more points. The only games the Warriors have lost in the playoffs are those which saw them trail by six or more points at the half.
For Houston to show Game 4 wasn’t a fluke, it is going to have to shut the Warriors down in the second half and not rely on a fourth-quarter collapse to get the job done.