If there’s anything that defines the second round matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, it’s math.
The Rockets have built their entire franchise on a numbers, especially the manipulation of them to get an advantage. They hunt the highest value shots in volume. Every possession starts with the goal of generating a three, a shot at the rim, or earning a trip to the free throw line. Mid-range jumpers aren’t barred, but they’re mostly discouraged from non-Chris Paul members of the team. Their ethos has been controversial, but mostly effective.
It’s safe to say the Warriors aren’t on that wave. While the Rockets take their math to the extreme to manufacture their advantages, the Warriors use the threat of their all-time shooters to create a numbers game — 4-on-3s, or 3-on-2s, or 2-on-1s. By that same token, they use their collective IQ to erase those advantages from their opponents.
It’s easy to get lost in the flame-throwing of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson. They are, very conservatively, three of the 12-greatest shooters the NBA has ever seen. They score the majority of the points, and predictably get the majority of the praise. But if there’s anyone that embodies their “seek the advantage, take away the advantage” style, it’s Draymond Green. Aside from being the emotional leader of the team, he has long been the Warriors’ mastermind on both ends of the floor.
For a team that features three high level scorers, the extent to which the offense runs through Green is awfully interesting. Giving Green that responsibility works on a couple of levels — not only is he consistently their best decision maker, he’s also the guy that defenses are more likely to sag off. Putting the ball in Green’s hands forces defenses to pay attention, thereby giving the other weapons on the floor a tiny bit more space to work.
This shines through when the Warriors go into their post split action. Running Curry or Thompson through a barrage of screens — or having them set screens for others — puts incredible strain on opponents. Switching is really the only answer, and it has to be done perfectly. One slip up means giving up a cut to the hoop or a wide open three. Green has the vision and touch to pick defenses apart whenever a breakdown occurs. Here’s a quick example.
Green chills on the right block while the action happens on the weak side of the floor. Andre Iguodala screens Eric Gordon, who actually does a nice job of fighting over the screen to stay attached to Thompson. It then looks like Curry is going to set a screen for Thompson. P.J. Tucker leaps out in anticipation to switch, but Curry lifts to the top of the key while Iguodala screens for him. The read is pretty simple from there.
If it isn’t a post split, it could be as simple as a dribble handoff. Teams may not fear Green as a scoring threat, but he knows how to use that slight against them.
Here, the Rockets snuff out the initial action between Curry and Thompson. Thompson then receives a pitch from Green to kick off a side pick-and-roll, and switching from that angle is pretty tough. The easiest way to beat a switch is to slip before it comes. Green, aware of the space he’s taking up on the floor, knows this and gets out of dodge. Thompson finds him, which leads to a 2-on-1 situation at the basket and an easy lob to Iguodala.
When Green doesn’t have the ball, opponents are more likely to help off of him. It’s a way to cramp the floor and force the Warriors to play 4-on-5. Green, in response, sees that as an opportunity to play the numbers game.
The Rockets have some unfavorable cross-matches following a miss. With Gordon on Durant, the Warriors feed the two-time NBA Finals MVP in the post. Tucker decides to leave Green to help Gordon. Instead of standing idly by, Green motions for Thompson to relocate. Green sets a flare screen for Thompson, taking Austin Rivers out of the play and generating an open triple in the process.
You cannot talk about how the Warriors have managed to use Green’s unique skillset and ability to read a situation and make the right decision during this run without mentioning his pick-and-roll with Curry. They’ve been giving teams fits for years because there’s no good answer for how to approach it. Playing traditional “Drop” coverage is essentially gifting Curry a pull-up three. Switching the action puts your big man on an island against Curry, which unless you’re Kevin Love in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the biggest possession of your life, is extremely not ideal. Forcing the ball out of Curry’s hands has been the most common go-to, but Green has proven that you can’t let him play the numbers game, either.
It’s the basketball version of Tic-Tac-Toe. Curry hits Green, Green hits the man in the dunker spot, and points go on the board. Those plays feel extra demoralizing because it flies in the face of the “make others beat you” strategy. If doing the “smart” thing — getting the ball out of Curry’s hands — leads to uncontested dunks, what can you really do?
Green’s fingerprints have been all over this series. He’s kept the offense in order, taking advantage of miscues and creating them off the ball. He’s been just as devastating on the defensive end. The Harden-Clint Capela lob has been virtually erased from this series because the window just hasn’t been there. That, combined with Capela’s inability to score in the post, has rendered the Rockets’ most effective big man practically useless.
Curry may be the engine of the team. Durant may be the Warriors’ matchup-proof cheat code. Thompson may be the most unfair designated hitter in basketball. But the Warriors wouldn’t have a stranglehold on this series, and on the league in general, without Green.