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The Warriors Don’t Start Trying Until They’re Down 15

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.

Golden State Warriors 20 32 38.5%
San Antonio Spurs 9 32 22.0
Toronto Raptors 16 59 21.3
Houston Rockets 14 66 17.5
Boston Celtics 13 64 16.9
Oklahoma City Thunder 9 47 16.1
Cleveland Cavaliers 9 61 12.9
Miami Heat 10 69 12.7
Detroit Pistons 12 83 12.6
Washington Wizards 10 71 12.3
Charlotte Hornets 10 73 12.0
Indiana Pacers 10 73 12.0
Atlanta Hawks 9 73 11.0
Los Angeles Clippers 7 57 10.9
Chicago Bulls 9 74 10.8
Portland Trail Blazers 7 67 9.5
Memphis Grizzlies 7 70 9.1
Sacramento Kings 10 101 9.0
Dallas Mavericks 8 85 8.6
Utah Jazz 6 67 8.2
New Orleans Pelicans 7 79 8.1
Milwaukee Bucks 7 85 7.6
Denver Nuggets 7 87 7.4
Phoenix Suns 7 100 6.5
Orlando Magic 6 88 6.4
Philadelphia 76ers 9 134 6.3
Minnesota Timberwolves 6 102 5.6
Los Angeles Lakers 5 123 3.9
New York Knicks 3 108 2.7
Brooklyn Nets 3 114 2.6
How often teams bounce back in games where they were down by at least 15, since start of 2014-15 season

Table includes both regular-season and playoff games over the past three seasons. The league average winning percentage on these games, excluding the Warriors, is 10.2 percent.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

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

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.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Neil Paine assisted with research for this story.


  1. The play sparked a firestorm on social media, with many believing that Pachulia purposely crowded Leonard as the Spurs forward rose up for a jumper, limiting his space to come down cleanly. Pachulia denied any ill intent, while Leonard said he needed to watch a replay but didn’t believe Pachulia meant to hurt him.

  2. The Warriors went on an 18-0 run once Leonard left the game for good.

  3. While the play is drawing scrutiny for good reason, it wasn’t the initial source of Leonard’s injury. Aside from having hurt the ankle during Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against Houston, Leonard also tweaked that same ankle when he stepped on a teammate’s foot earlier in Sunday’s game. After further aggravating the injury on the play with Pachulia, he shot two free throws and then was out for the rest of the game.

  4. This is especially true with Tony Parker out for the playoffs because of an injury. When Leonard was on the court in Sunday’s Game 1, 54 percent of the Spurs’ shots were uncontested. When he was off the floor, that number dropped to just 19 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.

  5. Counting both regular-season and postseason games.

  6. To arrive at this number, I used the win probability formula from Wayne Winston’s book “Mathletics.” Winston uses historical data to estimate the probability that a team will win, given the margin and time remaining in the game. Against an average team with a Simple Rating System (SRS) score of 0.0, the 11.35 SRS Warriors would have a 14 percent chance of winning if they trailed by 15 points at the half, according to Winston’s formula. For an average team to have that same 14 percent halftime win probability, it would need to trail by about 9 points.

  7. The Warriors have forced more turnovers (five) than they’ve allowed baskets (three) when they’ve sent hard double-teams at post players since the playoffs began, according to Synergy Sports.

  8. For context, the Warriors surrendered an overall average of 101.1 points per 100 plays and outscored foes by 12.1 points per 100 plays during the regular season.

  9. On average, Golden State turned the ball over more than 14 percent of the time during the regular season.

  10. The previous high was 89 and was set twice, during the 2013-14 season and again last season. Records go back to the 1996-1997 season, when Stats & Info began receiving play-by-play data to track in-game margins.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.