For decades, being down 3-1 in the NBA Finals was a death sentence. Pack it up. Go home. You gave it a good run, boys.
Then the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers happened.
At the time, all 32 teams that went down 3-1 in the Finals went on to lose the series. Every. Single. One.
While the Golden State Warriors became the first team on the wrong side of history, they now find themselves digging out of the same hole against the Toronto Raptors that they put the Cavs in three years ago.
So, how can the Warriors become the second team to erase such a deficit, especially now without Kevin Durant? The formula can be found in their own previous misfortune.
Find a Rallying Point
After LeBron James took offense to Draymond Green calling him a b—h in a Game 4 scuffle that landed both players a technical foul, Klay Thompson was asked about trash-talking rules before Game 5.
Foolishly, and perhaps only because the Warriors were up 3-1 at the time, he chose to poke the bear.
“Obviously people have feelings. People’s feelings get hurt if they’re called a bad word. I guess his feelings just got hurt,” Thompson told reporters.
Naturally, word got back to James.
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LeBron James reacts to Klay Thompson saying his feelings were hurt by Draymond Green’s trash-talk…#NBAFinals https://t.co/3zuvyKwYwU
While Thompson would later deny his words had any effect on James and the Cavs, it certainly provided bulletin-board material for a team searching for a spark. Backup center Marreese Speights tweeting out a baby bottle emoji probably wasn’t the best choice, either.
It doesn’t seem like the Raptors are the trash-talking type, and Kawhi Leonard’s boasting can consist of a single syllable.
Instead, the Warriors need to form their rallying point behind the injury to Durant.
After weeks of will-he-or-won’t-he play, the Warriors finally have an answer, even if it’s not the one they wanted. Seeing their best player try to gut it out and rescue them from such a major deficit when he clearly wasn’t ready is an inspiring moment they can build on moving forward, knowing how much that sacrifice may potentially cost Durant.
Help Draymond Keep His Composure
Green picked up his sixth technical foul of the postseason during Game 5, screaming and flailing down the court after being called for a shooting foul on Kyle Lowry underneath the basket.
If Green gets called for one more tech in Game 6, he’d be suspended for Game 7. For Golden State, that can’t happen.
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Of course, it was Green’s accumulation of techs in the 2016 postseason that got him suspended for Game 5 against the Cavaliers, helping to open the door for them to get back in the series.
The difference? The Warriors still had two more chances to win the Finals with Green in the lineup. If he gets suspended at this point, there will be no second chance.
Sure, winning an NBA championship should be motivation enough, but a little cash doesn’t hurt, either.
After they won Game 5 at Oracle Arena, then-Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue collected $100 from every player, coach and team employee and hid it in the coaches’ office, noting they could only get the $5,000 back if they were to win Game 6 in Cleveland and travel back to Oakland.
“They were like, ‘Where is the money going?'” Lue said. “I was like, ‘It’s going to me, and I’m going to wrap it up and put it in the ceiling in the coaches’ locker room, and we’re going to come back, get our money and get our trophy for Game 7.'”
Lue’s trick worked.
While Steve Kerr didn’t necessarily need to hide cash in Scotiabank Arena, finding a unique and different way to rally his troops like Lue did could only help.
One Star Isn’t Enough
Durant’s injury greatly decreases the Warriors’ chances at a title, but Golden State still has the necessary firepower to win without him.
Stephen Curry, as great as the two-time MVP is, can’t do it alone. Just like James needed Kyrie Irving, Curry and Klay Thompson are going to be forced to carry the offense nearly by themselves.
During Game 5 in order to breathe life back into the series, James and Irving became the first pair of teammates to each score at least 40 points in a Finals game. Curry and Thompson may not quite have to reach that plateau, but getting at least 30 from each seems necessary.
Over their final three-game win streak in 2016, the Cavs saw James average 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 3.0 steals and 3.0 blocks, all while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from deep. Irving responded with 30.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks on 52.3 percent shooting overall and 52.9 percent from three, shooting a perfect 13-of-13 on free throws.
If Thompson re-aggravates his hamstring injury, Curry won’t be enough to beat the Raptors. Golden State needs both of its stars to rise to a superhuman level, much like James and Irving.
Cut Off the Head of the Snake
As the 2016 Finals progressed and the Cavs chipped away at the series lead, their defensive plan was simple: Someone other than Curry, the 2015-16 unanimous MVP, was going to have to beat them.
For the series, Curry averaged a modest 22.6 points and 3.7 assists while shooting just 40.3 percent overall. This was coming off a regular season where he put up 30.1 points and 6.7 assists on 50.4 percent shooting.
During Games 5-7, Cleveland consistently sent extra bodies at Curry, forcing him into tough shots and trapping him in the pick-and-roll. The Cavs would even leave Harrison Barnes and Green wide-open on possessions, all just to try to get the ball out of Curry’s hands.
Ron Schwane/Associated Press
This strategy worked, as Curry shot just 36.7 percent overall and 35.7 percent from three during the Cavs’ three-game winning streak. He averaged almost twice as many turnovers (4.0) as assists (2.3), even fouling out of Game 6 while chucking his mouthpiece into the stands.
For the Warriors, all defensive effort should be amped up around limiting Leonard.
Andre Iguodala should do a fine job to start, but Golden State has to make things as uncomfortable as possible for Leonard, even if it means letting others get the occasional open look. In the first five games, 37.1 percent of Leonard’s shot attempts have come with a defender four or more feet away from him (classified as open or wide-open), per NBA.com. For the Warriors defense, this is far too high a number.
If Marc Gasol goes for 30, so be it. If Kyle Lowry plays like Michael Jordan, that’s a risk the Warriors should be willing to take. Letting Leonard get to his spots and abuse defenders one-on-one en route to 40? That can’t happen.
Coming back from a 3-1 (now 3-2) deficit is possible if Golden State follows a similar blueprint to the one Cleveland provided.
The Athletic’s Sam Amick joins Howard Beck on the Full 48 podcast to discuss the wild NBA Finals and Kevin Durant’s devastating Achilles injury. Greg Swartz covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.Follow him on Twitter. All stats via Basketball Reference or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.