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To those familiar with basketball history, the Golden State Warriors’ last-second desperation in Game 6 on Thursday probably spurred a wave of recognition.
With less than 10 seconds left in the game, the Warriors, trailing by a point, had an opportunity to — once again — improbably extend the finals against the Toronto Raptors. Danny Green, the Raptors guard, had just turned the ball over by throwing it away.
Klay Thompson, who had left in the third quarter with a knee injury, was not an option for a depleted Golden State team playing its final game at Oracle Arena. But still, the Warriors had made just enough baskets and just enough defensive stops to have a chance to win. They also still had Stephen Curry, a two-time most valuable player who has hit dramatic shots his whole career.
The last play, as it seemed to have been drawn up by Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, involved a risky cross-court lob from Andre Iguodala, who was inbounding the ball from the left side, to Draymond Green, who was battling the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam for position on the opposite block. The pass was long, and Green somehow wrangled it on the right side near the 3-point line. As the cross-court pass was in the air, Curry, who had started the play near the inbounder, used a back screen at the top of the 3-point to get free for an open look.
The 3-pointer bounced off the back of the rim.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. There were still five seconds left. The ball bounced loose. DeMarcus Cousins looked as if he had a shot at the offensive rebound, but he couldn’t get his hands on it — so the ball rolled, and kept rolling, all the way to half-court, where no one could get control. The clock ticked down to one second. Multiple Golden State players dived on the ball and claimed possession. Iguodala, and others, called for a timeout.
Except the Warriors didn’t have any left.
Kerr smiled and put his arm around Curry. It doesn’t happen often, but this is one situation where the punishment is clear: Calling a timeout when you have none is a technical foul. The game was sealed. Canada was about to claim its first N.B.A. championship, while the Golden State dynasty was, fittingly, finally out of time.
The play was reminiscent of one of the most infamous moments in college basketball history: Chris Webber’s calling for a timeout near the end of the 1993 N.C.A.A. championship game. Trapped by North Carolina players in the final seconds of the final, Webber — one of the stars of Michigan’s so-called Fab Five lineup that year — signaled for a timeout to relieve the pressure.
The Wolverines then, like the Warriors now, didn’t have any.
“Honestly, Golden State deserves a ton of respect for using their final night ever at Oracle Arena to deliver a touching tribute to Warriors legend Chris Webber,” one Twitter user said.
The violation is considered an “excessive timeout,” and a technical foul. But in a strange quirk, the team still gets the timeout. The downside is that the opposing team is awarded a free throw and also gets possession, according to the N.B.A. rule book.
“Following the timeout and free throw attempt, the ball will be awarded to the team which shot the free throw and play shall resume with a throw-in nearest the spot where play was interrupted,” according to the N.B.A.
A team could fake an injury to get the timeout instead. Maybe. But with the ball rolling across the court and the seconds ticking down, not to mention Golden State’s injury streak this postseason, the Warriors may not have wanted to tempt the basketball gods.
Here’s what the rule book says about that:
“If a team has no timeouts remaining and a player is injured and cannot be removed from the playing court during a stoppage of play, no excessive timeout will be charged and play will resume when playing conditions are safe.”
Now, if the Warriors were playing in the 1970s, they might have been able to get away with it. Recall Game 5 of the 1976 N.B.A. finals between the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns, known as one of the greatest games in N.B.A. history. In the second overtime, Paul Westphal called a timeout for Phoenix with one second left. But the Suns were out of them.
John Havlicek had just made what appeared to be a game-winning jumper for the Celtics. At that time, Westphal’s timeout request was a technical foul — a free throw for the other team — but the offending team still got to keep the ball. So after the free throw, the Suns had the ball, trailing by 2 points, and Gar Heard hit a buzzer-beating jumper to send the game to a third overtime. (There was no 3-point line back then.)
The Celtics eventually won, 128-126.
Golden State’s situation wasn’t quite that, but it was not analogous to Webber’s error, either. For one thing, if the timeout wasn’t called, the Warriors would have lost the game right then. The ball was at half-court and there was almost no way to get a shot off in the remaining second. Taking the technical, hoping for free-throw misses and a turnover was the Warriors’ last, best hope.
It didn’t work. Kawhi Leonard made the technical free throw, and then hit two more after he was fouled on the inbound play.
At that point, down by 4 with a fraction of a second left, the Warriors were out of something more important: time.