Anatomy of a knockout

How are Warriors killing everybody in the third quarter?


Eleven games into the NBA season the Warriors don’t have Klay Thompson or James Wiseman back, but nevertheless they have the NBA’s best record, at 10-1. That’s the first surprise—and one that is most often credited to superstar offensive player Stephen Curry. Which brings up the second surprise: Without an elite rim protector, the Warriors have the NBA’s best defense. Which brings up the third surprise: The Warriors are winning—disproportionately, strangely, convincingly—with third-quarter defense. 

What’s that about?

By Tuesday night, the Warriors were 8-1, thanks in large part to opening with the NBA’s easiest schedule. The visiting Hawks won the first two quarters by two points each—and would go on to win the fourth quarter too. But the Warriors crushed the Hawks, in a game that ended 127-113. The damage came in a few minutes of the third. As the dazed Hawks players ambled off the court, it’s easy to imagine they were wondering, “What the hell just happened?”  

A few years ago, the Warriors were the world’s best team, known for game-changing third-quarter runs. Our friend Baxter Holmes wrote about it in 2018, when the Warriors were one win away from a Finals sweep of LeBron’s Cavs for their third title in four years. Warriors players told Baxter that Coach Kerr talked at halftime, as did Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and of course, Steph Curry. But nobody had a story of anything magical happening. Yet the Warriors outscored a typical opponent by 16 points over the season’s third quarters, a number Holmes characterizes as “mythical.” 

Curry said “the third-quarter [runs] are just the product of us wearing on teams over the course of 48 minutes." Kerr agreed, saying "teams tend to play really, really hard against us from the beginning, we've been the hunted for the last few years. I think teams are excited to play us, and they come out on fire defensively, and it takes a lot out of them. In the third quarter, teams tend to tire a little bit, and maybe that's why we make a push." 

Almost everything has changed about the Warriors since then. They are in a new city, with a new arena, and a new roster. The only players who remain are Steph, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Andre Iguodala (who plays limited minutes), and Klay Thompson (who hasn’t played yet this year). 

None of the Warriors’ 11 opponents are in the NBA’s top five in either conference, by current record. That’s a huge caveat. And 11 games isn’t really a trend. (Their best wins came against the Clippers and Lakers, currently in the six and seventh seed spots.) Wins against the Hawks and Hornets are nice, but between them they already have 15 losses. 

One huge difference, though, is that the Warriors don’t have KD and Klay, nor the best offense ever anymore. And they simply aren’t crushing opponents with scoring in the third quarter. They score more efficiently in the first quarter, leading the league with 32.5 points, compared to 29.8 in the third quarter, where they are only the third best scoring team.

This season it’s a story about the other end of the floor.

In the first quarter this season, the Warriors allow opponents to score 109 points per 100 possessions. That’s middle-of-the-pack stuff. But somehow or another, they allow only 84.5 points per 100 third-quarter possessions, which is a combination of small-sample-size theater and insanity. Opponents, who have an effective field-goal percentage of 52.5 in the first quarter, make just 44.2 in the third. The Warriors win the third quarter by eight points on average, the biggest margin for any team in any quarter so far this young season. It’s as if the Thorpe Rule, to crush one quarter, is the game plan.

I know there are studies suggesting … many different things … but if you ask me to pick when in the game to fall way behind, I’d say the very first minute, please—so we have 47 minutes to climb out of that hole. It’s why I giggle when I hear announcers suggest that “a fast start” is the key to any win. While it’s true that players' confidence rises with early success, it's also true that over time, as scores tighten, that same belief can slip away. Early leads have never meant less than they do in the 3-point era. 

But crushing people in the third quarter feels like it has more staying power. There just isn’t much time to recover. The Warriors typically start second halves up a point or two, then protect a double digit lead in the final quarter. It’s a great way to win.

But what are they actually doing?

Draymond Green has anchored elite defenses essentially his entire career. Did you know the Warriors had the league’s best defense in 2015? EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES SPORT

Before they became a dynasty, the Warriors had a real defensive identity. In Dunks and Threes advanced metrics, the Warriors’ defense rated third in 2014, first in 2015, sixth in 2016, and second in 2017. They’ve been incredible. They let their foot off the gas a bit in the Durant years, when they knew they could turn it up in the postseason, before the bottom fell out after he left, ranking near the bottom two seasons ago. But wow did they improve over the course of last season, starting terribly but finishing the season with the NBA’s fifth-best defense. That work carried over to the start of this season, as the “Dubs” defense ranks second overall.

Some elite defenses excel in chaos creation, others on rim protection. The Warriors, absent any shot blocking presence inside, rely on the former. They get 18.3 deflections per game (second in the NBA), and 10.5 steals (tied for second overall), while ranking fourth in contesting shots—all those stats mean the team is flying around, with active hands and fast feet, swarming to the ball and to shooters. 

It’s a team strategy that enables the Warriors to get the most out of fast guys like Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, and Juan Toscano-Anderson, to name just a few of their speedsters. Until Wiseman returns, getting to the ball while it is closer to the ground makes the most sense—the Warriors are only 17th in blocked shots per game

In a deep dive to solve the mystery of the Warriors’ third-quarter defense, I see boxing strategy. 

“The sweet science,” as it is called, finds two people probing and punching, deflecting and dodging, artfully searching. Most of a boxing match determines nothing. Instead, it’s a search for one good punch to make the other fighter groggy, stunned, panicked, or rushed. One punch to create a moment when the fight is not equal, when there is no stasis. One punch to create an opening for a hell of a lot more punches that won’t be well defended. Boxing fans know close fights can end in seconds.

So it is with basketball. When a team like the Warriors can hit you with those Curry bombs, or some defensive chaos that results in more deflections, steals, closeouts, and just suffocating defense, it only takes a few minutes for the game to change the whole thing. 

That’s what happened to the Hawks. Cam Reddish hit a well-contested 28-foot stepback 3, and the Hawks trailed 89-85 with 1:58 left in the quarter. Then:

  • Curry wriggled his way into an 18-foot jumper and gets fouled. Warriors lead 92-85, 1:47 left.

  • The Hawks had a terrible possession that ended in another contested 3, which missed. 

  • Curry bombed in a 3 without giving up the ball. 95-85, 1:13 left in the third quarter. 

  • The Hawks seemed dazed, and forgot they had a point guard. Solomon Hill brought the ball up before slipping a soft pass to Kevin Huerter. Huerter used staggered ball screens which the Warriors semi-blitzed, with Curry chasing a completely out-of-sorts Huerter to his dribbling hand before Curry stole it. Huerter fouled him immediately and Curry made both free throws. 97-85, 57 seconds left.

  • Huerter, the de-facto point guard in the game with Trae Young sitting and Delon Wright not commanding control, dominated the possession where, again, nothing was happening, before taking a contested 12-footer over 6-10 Nemanja Bjelica, who rebounded the miss and dished to Curry for a mini-break. 

  • Iguodala set a screen on Huerter, who was guarding Curry, and Huerter fouled Curry by accidentally tripping him. 99-85, 37 seconds left.

  • The Warriors contained a Wright penetration, but he found Reddish cutting. Reddish took an unathletic shot that Toscano-Anderson easily blocked. The Warriors held for the last shot, spreading the floor with everyone behind 3 as Curry dribbled near the timeline. As the clock wound down, the Hawks rushed Curry, who was expecting it, and delivered a pass to Toscano-Anderson on the left wing, who let the shot fly. 102-85 after three quarters.

Game over. Fight over. Knockout.

In two minutes, the Warriors turned a game they were 75 percent likely to win, according to ESPN’s gamecast, into one they would win 98.4 percent of the time. Two minutes! 

This is how the Warriors win. The knockout doesn’t always land in the third. Wednesday night saw the Warriors cruising past Minnesota entering the third quarter when suddenly it seemed the entire Timberwolves team got hot. They smacked the Warriors for 30 third-quarter points and made it a competitive game again. And so that time the Warriors put together their game-defining 10-0 run over two minutes early in the fourth (followed by a 13-3 shortly after that). But typically, teams don’t do much to make the Warriors look bad in the third. Instead it’s been two to five minutes of swarming Warriors defense and lots of shot making and free throws that stagger opponents. 

  • Trailing 70-76 with 2:36 left in the third at OKC, the Warriors closed with an 11-0 run and took a lead they ever gave up.

  • The Warriors closed the third quarter against Charlotte on a 14-4 run, turning a four point game into what became a 22 point rout.

  • Down nine with 1:24 to play in the third against the Lakers, the Warriors scored the final seven points of the quarter to be down just two entering the fourth, a quarter they won by nine.

  • Locked in a battle with the awful Rockets, up only by three, 83-80, the Warriors finished the quarter on a 20-3 surge, only allowing three free throws in the final five minutes of the quarter.

I don’t believe the Warriors have a strategy to kill teams in third quarters. But gearing up more defensive intensity and effort is a mindset for players who can sense a lack of confidence or a bad rotation on the court for the opponent. NBA coaches and players like the phrase “sharks around blood.” I’m sure boxers do, too. Those veteran Warriors know how to turn a momentary weakness into a blowout.

A lot will change as the season progresses for Curry, Green, and their team, starting tonight against the vastly improved Bulls. The schedule won’t be easy anymore. They will need Klay and Wiseman at full speed to keep this up. Wiseman, in particular, has a lot on his massive shoulders. Klay seemingly never lets anything bother him, he knows what it means if he can’t end up being at least close to what he was when he last played. But the beauty of this Warriors team is that common thread to their very recent and glorious past. Kerr provides leadership, Curry provides miracles, Green provides fire, and the Cuisinart provides clean looks. Now they have one more thread connecting them to those glory years—a quarter when they stand up and knock opponents out.

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