Kawhi Leonard had just exploded for five baskets and his Toronto Raptors were on a 12-2 run. They had taken a 103-97 lead, which made the crowd at Scotiabank Arena explode with deafening excitement late in the fourth quarter of Game 5. The Raps appeared to be some three minutes away from winning the club’s first NBA championship.
That’s precisely when Nick Nurse made a decision many found puzzling. He called a timeout.
If the Raptors had won Monday’s game and hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy, no one would even remember how Nurse used his timeouts. It was supposed to be a quick breather for the Raps to propel them toward the finish line. But instead of having a refreshing effect, the break in action squashed Toronto’s momentum completely and prompted Golden State’s game-winning run.
Leonard was on his hottest roll of the game when Nurse called that timeout. In addition to his scoring, he also nabbed a pair of rebounds and created a running dunk opportunity for Norman Powell.
Nurse called the pair of timeouts with 3 minutes 5 seconds left in the game after Fred VanVleet grabbed a defensive rebound and was on his way down the floor with the ball.
The perplexing call became slightly easier to comprehend after Nurse’s explanation. He had two timeouts at his disposal in that moment that would have expired once the game passed the three-minute mark. Rather than lose them, he chose to use them.
"We had two free ones that you lose under the three-minute mark," Nurse told reporters. "We just came across and decided to give those guys a rest. We had back-to-back ones there that we would have lost at the three-minute mark, and just felt the guys could use the extra energy push."
Instead of giving Toronto an energy boost, the timeouts seemed to ice Toronto’s shooters. Immediately after they returned to the floor, Leonard missed a turnaround fadeaway shot, then Lowry missed a three-point jumper, killing the momentum they had going. There was a Lowry turnover, a missed pull-up shot from Leonard and a failed layup attempt from Marc Gasol.
The Warriors came out of that timeout quite differently, hitting a trio of three-pointers – two from Klay Thompson and one from Steph Curry – to take a 106-103 lead.
A Lowry layup made it 106-105, then the Raps got a chance at redemption with 15.7 seconds remaining, when DeMarcus Cousins was called for an offensive foul and the Raps got the ball back. However, Nurse did not call a timeout then to draw up a play.
“We let them play,” Nurse said. “I was confident we would come down and play and make the right decisions and get a good shot. I have a lot of faith in those guys.”
Leonard dribbled down the floor and, seeing a double team, dished to VanVleet, who swung it to Lowry, who was set up for a corner three despite the fact the Raps only needed two points to win. Gasol was tangling with Draymond Green near the basket and Danny Green was on the right side, beyond the arc, fairly open.
“Really didn’t have nothing drawn up at that point,” Leonard said. “They got a turnover, and I got the ball at the top of the key, as you’ve seen, and the double team and swing, swing, just didn’t get it off quick enough.
As Lowry shot, Golden State’s Green took a long leap toward him and got enough hand on the ball to tilt it way off course.
“Our defence was bending down the stretch, but we didn’t break and the last stop was tremendous. Amazing defence on that last play from all five guys,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “Draymond’s block, he covered so much ground on Kyle’s shot from the corner. So our guys just stayed with it and they stayed poised and just an amazing job finishing the game.”
That was game over, and a huge win for the Warriors.
“I was just trying to play the two-on-one with Kyle and Marc. Draymond did a good job of playing both,” VanVleet said. “Kyle got a look. Not a great look. I think Draymond got a piece of it. Give those guys credit for guarding that well. The game wasn’t won or lost on that last possession. … We didn’t execute enough down the stretch and that stings a little bit, but there’s a lot more basketball left to play.”