In a sloppy, miss-filled first half, the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors combined to shoot 4-of-30 from long-range, with each team accounting for two triples.
Given how prolific both sides' offenses can be, everyone was sure that the cold spell was not going to last. Come the third quarter, it seemed a given that one team would be able to find their range and go on a big run.
Many thought it would be the home team Warriors.
Instead, it was the visiting Raptors.
After hitting a mere 34.1% from the field in the first half, Toronto opened the third with back-to-back Kawhi Leonard triples, which set the tone for a 37-21 quarter, and a 79-67 lead.
Toronto wound up shooting 52.2% in that quarter, converting 5-of-7 three-pointers, and burying the Warriors under a flurry that should be familiar to the defending champions. After all, "how did he hit that?" three-pointers and suffocating defense (GSW was just 7-of-20 from the field, 3-of-9 on three's) used to be their third quarter modus operandi, and in the face of what they used to terrorize the league with, Golden State had no answer.
"We played pretty well for 26 minutes," said Stephen Curry in the postgame. "And then they took control of the game. It's one of those nights where you play [with] a lot of energy and you start to build momentum and then the wheels fall off a little bit."
Based on the injury report prior to this game, things seemed to be headed for a Warriors win and a 2-2 series tie. Klay Thompson was back in the starting five, while the team got a boost from the unexpected return of Kevon Looney, who was initially ruled out of the remainder of the Finals. Thompson led the Warriors in first-half points with 14, and Looney was not far back with eight on 4-of-5 shooting, while playing stingy defense.
But there were warning signs that unless the Warriors could come out strong in the third, there would be trouble brewing from Toronto.
Curry also had eight points but was a miserable 0-of-5 on three's. Another starter, DeMarcus Cousins, accounted for three of his side's nine turnovers, in addition to two fouls. And most importantly, Golden State, for all that early momentum, was up by just four at the break.
"I thought they just took it to us right from the beginning of the [third] quarter," admitted Warriors coach Steve Kerr. "Kawhi hit two three's immediately and they turned up their defense, and they just got on a run. And we just sort of lost that defensive tenacity that we had in the first half."
Back in Game 2, the Warriors opened the third with an 18-0 run, as the Raptors just missed shot after shot, including ones that seemingly refused to drop into the hoop. This third period run wasn't as explicit, but the visiting side had a 13-5 edge in fast break points, and committed just half the amount of Golden State's six turnovers, converting those errors into nine easy markers.
"I know Kawhi's two big three's to start the half...I thought changed the whole feel of everybody," said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. "I just thought everybody was like, okay, man, we know we are here, let's go, and we just kind of kept going from those two three's."
Toronto's poise simply has to be commended. Despite this being the first time the franchise has gotten this far in the NBA Playoffs, the team has co-opted the robotic, can't-get-him-to-flinch persona of their main gun, Kawhi Leonard. Going back to Finals Game 2, which already seems like months ago, despite Golden State's big run to start the third, the Raptors were still in the game, right up until Andre Iguodala's massive triple, which turned out to be the dagger. And so with the deficit being a mere four points at the half, they were calm, and more importantly confident, that they'd be able to get back on top, which is exactly what they did.
With Thompson and Looney back in the lineup, Golden State really only has one more trump card: a returning Kevin Durant. But as talented as the Slim Reaper is, it's hard to believe that he, coming off a month of no hoops, can single-handedly turn things around.
"We got to win one game," Draymond Green pointed out. "We win one, then we'll build on that. I've been on the wrong side of 3-1 before, so why not make our own history."
The champs have their bravado, and it's well-earned, but in the face of an unblinking opponent that seems to be out-Warriors-ing the Warriors, it may just be a matter of "how much longer."
"We were confident," says Kawhi Leonard of that explosive third quarter. "We wanted to come in and have a good third quarter coming out of the first five minutes, stay aggressive on both ends of the floor, keep our energy up.
"And that's all we did."
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