If football is a game of inches, basketball is one of something smaller. Centimeters? Millimeters? After last night, Warriors fans probably think it’s about something even tinier.
The NBA is a make or miss league, they say. The outcome of a simple shot or two at any given time often draws the razor-thin line between winning and losing. It’s not always obvious when it happens but sometimes it is, and that’s when the sting of loss – from players, coaches and fans of the team on the less fortunate side – hurts the most.
The clock reads 2 minutes and 10 seconds remaining in a crucial game 6. The San Antonio Spurs lead the desperate Warriors by just three now, after four consecutive points by Jarrett Jack.
With Oracle Arena’s crowd deafening but growing louder still, Manu Ginobili retreats, then receives a high ball-screen from Tiago Splitter. Ginobili has the space he needs to get Festus Ezeli on his heels, and crosses the rookie over from right to left, drawing help from Carl Landry, the strong-side corner’s defender. He whips a pass to an open Kawhi Leonard. The precocious sophomore wing shot 39% from here in the regular season, a mark near league average. But it doesn’t matter now. Leonard connects, giving his team some extra breathing room and quieting the masses.
Jack determinately dribbles back up the floor with under two minutes remaining and his team down six points. If there’s a group most likely to erase such a deficit at these stakes against a team like the Spurs, it’s this one, with the record-setting duo of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Hope is hardly lost despite Leonard’s make.
Jack accelerates to the right wing after receiving a staggered double-screen from Ezeli and Landry. The two then continue left, setting the same action for Thompson, who has momentarily lost a ball-watching Ginobili. Thompson settles at the top of the key as Jack’s pass hits him square in the hands and Ginobili struggles to get an effective contest. He shot 39% from here during the regular season, five points better than the average shooter. But it doesn’t matter. Thompson’s shot hits the back rim, the front rim, and finally the backboard before caroming off San Antonio out of bounds. Long. Barely.
It’s still Golden State ball. After video review, the officials confirm the ball was last touched by Leonard. No harm, no foul. The Warriors have another chance to score before the Spurs do.
Curry in-bounds the ball to Thompson, who swings it to Jack at the top of the circle. Thompson clears to the far side of the floor as Ezeli and Landry prepare another double-screen for Jack to go right. They set it, and Curry finishes faking a baseline cut and begins to circle the three-point in a near full sprint. Ezeli and Landry take a few steps his direction to set a final staggered screen, and Curry comes off it with Tony Parker several feet behind him. He’s alone at the top of the key – his weakest spot, but one still above-average with respect to the league – and lets fly. Front rim, back rim, side rim, rebounded by the Spurs. Short. Somehow.
San Antonio still leads by six and it seems impossible. NBA history’s best three-point shooting pair got off two open attempts in one possession from the same spot. They just missed. The Spurs caught a break and the Warriors didn’t.
On the ensuing possession there’s one minute and 25 seconds remaining. Parker catches on the right wing and passes to Tiago Splitter at the elbow extended, then sets a pin-down for Ginobili. Splitter hands the ball to Ginobili as the latter reaches the perimeter and immediately turns to set a flip-screen. But Ginobili’s already passed the ball to Parker, who now stands in the near corner defended by Jack. He shot 47% from here during the regular season on a mere 21 attempts. Parker sizes Jack up, catches him napping and releases. Boom. Spurs by nine and comeback hopes all but officially over.
A game of millimeters, makes, misses, triumph, heartbreak. The Spurs got the bounces in game 6, and the Warriors didn’t. There’s more to losing a game and obviously a series than a string of shots late as the outcome hangs in the balance, but that doesn’t make the circumstantial and almost accidental nature of it all any easier.
That Golden State was in position to make those shots matter in game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals was a surprise. Maybe next season and in future ones, the inch or something less will work out in their favor.
*Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA.com.
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