Sports is for experts. The casual fan can’t see or appreciate the nuances of the contemporary game, when every aspect of competition has been operationalized and measured and optimized through proprietary analysis. The casual fan, watching the fourth quarter Game Five of the NBA Finals on Monday, thought that what was going on was very straightforward: the Toronto Raptors were about to take the NBA championship away from the Golden State Warriors.
The non-expert, looking for ways to describe things, tends to borrow descriptions from boxing, the most straightforward of competitive events. In boxing terms, as the game headed toward the three-minute mark, the Warriors, already trailing in the series 3 games to 1, were in trouble. The Warriors were hurt. Toronto had the Warriors against the ropes, and the Warriors hands were down, and they couldn’t defend themselves.
Specifically: with less than six minutes to play, the Raptors had gone on a 12-2 run to take over the game, turning a 95-91 deficit into a 103-97 lead. Kawhi Leonard had scored 10 points, all on his own, in less than two minutes. The Warriors, depleted by injuries, were visibly exhausted and disorganized. Trailing by 6, Steph Curry hoisted a would-be-heroic three-point attempt, and missed, and Toronto got the rebound. One more bucket against the fading Warriors—who’d allowed Toronto to score on five consecutive possessions—and the Raptors could stretch the lead to 8, or even 9. In the next 20 seconds, they could effectively finish off the champs.
Instead, they called timeout. Then they called another timeout. The Warriors, given the chance to rest and reset themselves, made a defensive stop, then hit a three-pointer, then hit another three-pointer, then hit another three-pointer, because they are the Warriors. Their 103-97 deficit became a 106-103 lead, which became a 106-105 win, which kept Golden State alive in the series.
Surely Toronto had a good reason for stopping itself in the middle of what looked like the game-winning run? The casual, non-expert fan could wake up the next morning and read the explanation, from Raptors coach Nick Nurse. He had called the back-to-back timeouts because if he hadn’t used those two timeouts before the three-minute mark, they would have expired unused:
“We had two free ones that you lose under the three-minute mark. We’d just came across and just decided to give those guys a rest. And we had back-to-back ones there that we would have lost under the three-minute mark and just thought we could use the extra energy push.”
What makes someone a sports expert, in 2019, is the willingness and ability to reduce everything about a game to a question of asset utilization. With the NBA title on the line, with champagne waiting in the locker room, Nick Nurse realized he was in danger of violating the established timeout-usage protocols. Golden State being helpless, desperate, out on their feet—that was subjective and anecdotal. The timeout rule was unquestionably real. The ordinary fan might say that Toronto wasted a chance to win a championship, but nobody could say the Raptors wasted any timeouts.