The NBA Western Conference finals between Golden State and San Antonio took a hairpin turn with just under eight minutes to go in the third quarter of Game 1. The Spurs were dominating the heavily favored Warriors on Sunday until MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard came down on center Zaza Pachulia’s foot, hurting his ankle and ending his night.1 The injury immediately swung the momentum of the game2 and potentially changed the complexion of the series, given that Leonard may very well have to sit out Tuesday’s Game 2.
But lost in the what-if scenarios being spun off from the controversial play3 is the question of whether the Warriors, who were 23 points down when Leonard left the game, might have come back to win anyway.
The suggestion, on its face, may seem a tad extreme. After all, the Warriors went on an 18-0 run immediately after Leonard went back to the locker room to have his ankle checked out, and it became clear that the Spurs had no one who could stop Kevin Durant and no one who could effectively create shots for other teammates.4 But in some ways, a Warriors comeback — even under normal conditions, with Leonard at full strength — wouldn’t have been all that surprising.
Golden State has routinely erased big deficits over the past three seasons, winning an NBA-best 20 games5 that they once trailed by 15 points or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. That puts their winning percentage in those games at 39 percent, nearly four times higher than the league average over that span.
|TEAM||GO ON TO WIN||GO ON TO LOSE||WIN PERCENTAGE|
|Golden State Warriors||20||32||38.5%|
|San Antonio Spurs||9||32||22.0|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||9||47||16.1|
|Los Angeles Clippers||7||57||10.9|
|Portland Trail Blazers||7||67||9.5|
|New Orleans Pelicans||7||79||8.1|
|Los Angeles Lakers||5||123||3.9|
|New York Knicks||3||108||2.7|
While the Warriors have demonstrated an absurd comeback ability in the last few years, this season they’ve been downright miraculous. Including Sunday’s victory, Golden State has now won seven of the 15 contests where they’ve trailed by 15 points or more. That includes a game in late March against the Spurs — when Leonard was healthy — in which the Warriors came back from an early 22-point deficit to beat San Antonio, 110-98, despite being on the road. And just last month, the Dubs erased a 17-point gap against the Portland Trail Blazers to win Game 3 of their first-round series.
To put this into context, consider this: A 15-point halftime lead against a powerhouse like the Warriors is equivalent to just a nine-point lead against an average NBA club.6
There seem to be a few reasons that the team is able to dig itself out of deep holes. Arguably the most important is its stingy defense, which is particularly effective when Golden State springs traps or double-teams to force turnovers7 with its smaller, quicker Death Lineup, which uses Durant at power forward and Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner Draymond Green as the team’s rim protector.
Looking at the Warriors’ regular-season splits, the club played its best defense by far — limiting opponents to 95.7 points per 100 plays, while outscoring them by a team-high 19.5 points8 — when it was behind by 20 points or more, per NBA.com.
The Warriors also show an improved level of focus on offense in these comeback efforts. They posted an 11.5 percent turnover rate when behind by 20 or more, which was easily the team’s lowest mark of any situation.9
The other thing driving the Dubs’ comeback machine is easier to spot: their outside shooting. Because three is worth more than two, a 3-point-dependent team like Golden State is built to quickly claw its way back into the game. Across the league, we’re seeing higher-than-usual winning percentages in games like these as teams become more reliant on 3-point attempts. This season, teams who were down 15 points or more came back to win the game 100 times, for a winning percentage of more than 11 percent, which is the highest either of those numbers has been in the 20 years for which we can calculate them.10
It was just a few weeks ago, in the first round, that we saw Cleveland race back from 26 down to beat the Pacers, which in turn was shortly after the Cavs themselves had blown a 26-point edge against the Hawks during the last few days of the regular season.
Even as these sorts of games become more common, though, one thing is clear: No lead is safe against these Warriors.
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Neil Paine assisted with research for this story.