In this series, our sage referee answers fascinating, vexing, and/or bizarre sports hypotheticals and conundrums. To submit a question to the Sports Authority, email email@example.com.
Eric Goldwein asks: How much time would the Golden State Warriors need to erase a 20-point deficit against a team of five average pickup players (no college/pro experience)?
Like the opening chapters of a well-crafted fantasy novel, the world building of this question is confident and concise. We have no choice but to accept a scenario in which Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson find themselves down 20 points against a team full of schmucks. It’s also a good way to introduce Sports Authority, a column that picks at the threads of sports conundrums and pulls at them until there’s nothing left.
This is not a place for counterfactuals—we’re not here to relitigate the past. What kinds of questions do interest the Sports Authority? How about: How might one mangle an NBA court or NFL field if irregularities were allowed? (I’d give air rights to kickers and allow them to attempt field goals from atop the Jumbotron.) Or: Is a hole-in-one in golf, a 180 in darts, or a 300 in bowling the most accessible sports achievement? (It’s a 180 in darts, obviously.)
The Sports Authority will use statistics in the same way MacGyver treats scrunchies and wire hangers, mangling and abusing them in the service of a greater cause. To dive even further into the rich and vibrant world of Richard Dean Anderson, think of Sports Authority as a Stargate. Entire dimensions lie within these borders, and they contain creatures even crazier than those pharaohlike cat centaurs. To wit, we now encounter a version of Draymond Green who has allowed five rec-leaguers to amass a double-digit lead.
While it may seem like a sci-fi scenario, there is plenty of real-world precedent for big-time comebacks. As our questioner noted, in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Texas A&M forced overtime against Northern Iowa despite being down 12 points with 35 seconds left. If you’d like to see how a pickup team would handle a large lead against a determined opponent, the UNI Panthers offer a convincing simulation.
Basketball fans will note that one player can erase a lead all by him or herself. Recall that Reggie Miller scored eight points in nine seconds against the New York Knicks in the 1995 playoffs.
Sure, humiliating the Knicks is carrying coals to Newcastle, but even the mighty San Antonio Spurs have been on the business end of an embarrassing comeback. It took Tracy McGrady just 35 seconds to score 13 points against Gregg Popovich’s crew in 2004.
But all those examples involve top-tier athletes. Pickup teams don’t have Tim Duncan. They don’t even have John Starks. Here’s a look at the squad for every pickup team in the United States:
1. The guy who can dribble.
2. The guy who thinks he can dribble, but the ball never bounces below nipple height.
3. The big man, who is 6-foot-2.
4. The overconfident shooter who has been regressing to the mean ever since he made his first basket.
5. The dude who’s the reason the health club has to keep a defibrillator on hand.
Let’s imagine a traditional half-court pickup game. In that scenario, our poor saps would have one thing going for them: shots from behind the arc are worth two points, not three. This would provide only a brief stay of execution, though, as the standard rule set also includes the “make-it, take-it” provision, meaning Golden State would never relinquish possession. They’d just keep making it, and they’d just keep taking it.
This is not an exaggeration. The gulf between amateur and professional basketball players is almost certainly the widest of any human endeavor. I’d trust a lay surgeon to remove my appendix before I would bet on a regular jerk besting an NBA player in a game of 21.
Even on misses, it would be nigh impossible for a normal human to grab a rebound against anyone in a Warriors uniform. A 2009 episode of the Spike TV show Pros vs. Joes re-enacted a similar scenario, except it was a recent college basketball player going for rebounds against a 39-year-old Shawn Kemp. The former collegiate athlete could only muster two rebounds against Kemp during the entire 10-minute segment, even though Kemp was in such terrible shape that the assembled Joes seemed legitimately shocked by the sight of him.
Anyhow, a Golden State victory would be almost instantaneous. In a full-strength lineup, 6-foot-3 Steph Curry is the Warriors’ shortest player. For Curry, hitting jumpers over average-size guys would be no different than shooting in an empty gym, something he happens to be rather good at:
The above video was taken at a 2017 Warriors practice. Curry goes 72 for 85 from behind the arc; at the starting point I chose, he makes 10 shots (20 points in pickup ball) in 31 seconds. Our amateurs would blow their lead in the time it takes to watch a Steph Curry Brita ad.
But enough about pickup rules. How would things play out if we implemented the full NBA rulebook?
In the roughly 4.54 billion years since the formation of the Earth, our planet has yet to host a pickup basketball team that doesn’t get winded while playing full court. Sprinting to defend a single Warriors possession would reduce at least one of our amateurs to a heap of gasping flesh. If that player passes out in the key, he will rack up continuous 3-second violations until the Warriors overcome their 20-point deficit. If that were the case, it would take Golden State precisely zero seconds of game time to win.
Assuming the pickup players are able to stay on their feet, they wouldn’t be able to get the ball in play. The Warriors could trot out JaVale McGee to guard inbounds passes. McGee has a wingspan of 7 feet, 6½ inches, so each attempt would result in either a 5-second violation or an errant pass. Once the Warriors get possession, they’ll already be under their own basket, and it will take them less than 2 seconds to score and the comeback will be complete rather quickly.
What if the pickup team somehow manages to cross half-court? This would not cost the Warriors that much time. In 2016, Curry’s set-and-release speed was clocked at .15 seconds. That same year, he drained a game winner against Oklahoma City after advancing the ball from under his own hoop. Only 5 seconds transpired from the time he touched the ball to when it hit the bottom of the net.
Assuming he’s on his game, Curry would be able to make the seven 3-pointers needed to overcome Golden State’s unlikely deficit in 35 seconds.
Steph probably won’t make every single shot he takes, but the Warriors will surely rebound any of his misses. This would most likely result in a JaVale McGee tip dunk. In 2012, McGee scored a game winner off a putback while with the Denver Nuggets, a move that took only 0.6 seconds. Being generous to our pickup players, let’s assume Curry only makes half his 3-point attempts, which is only slightly better than his season average from deep (42 percent). That would buy our five pickup players an extra 2.1 seconds of time, assuming McGee slams home all the rebounds.
The Sports Authority decrees It would take a focused and impassioned Golden State Warriors team between 0 and 37.1 seconds to erase a 20-point deficit against a pickup squad, and that’s with Curry and McGee taking every shot.
Of course, the pickup players could try and double-team Steph. Even if they stopped him in his tracks (they couldn’t, but let’s imagine they could), he could pass to Durant or Thompson.
The former is the reigning Finals MVP, and the latter once scored 60 points against the Indiana Pacers in 29 minutes. (The Pacers are professional basketball players, by the way.) Amazingly, Thompson only held the ball for 90 seconds during that game. Doing some back-of-the-napkin math, this means he needed only 13.3 seconds to score 20 points.
So, the best advice for any pickup squad that finds itself clinging to a 20-point lead against the Golden State Warriors: Don’t double-team Steph Curry. And maybe don’t show up at all.