Draymond Green is no longer anything close to a secret.
Long revered in the Bay Area as much for his overt, unceasing and combative intensity as his actual on-court impact, the 25-year-old suddenly became a marquee name over the course of 2014-2015. Green’s career season culminated with a second-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting and a 67-15 record for his Golden State Warriors, and will pay off financially in six weeks when he inevitably signs a max-level contract extension.
Not bad for a former second-round pick who was projected to come off the bench this season before the Warriors’ incumbent starting power forward went down with an injury in training camp.
Even as he receives a new round of attention and acclaim from a national playoff audience, though, the extent of Green’s all-encompassing effect on Golden State can still be easy to overlook – even if that seems impossible following his awesome performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
Behind typical brilliance from Green and Stephen Curry, Golden State beat the Houston Rockets 110-106 in a wildly entertaining affair that moves Steve Kerr’s team just three wins away from the chance to play for a title. Curry had 34 points, six rebounds and five assists on Tuesday, connecting on six of 11 attempts from long-range. The MVP’s second half duel with runner-up James Harden will make most headlines, and rightfully so. The Beard countered with 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, draining several difficult off-dribble jumpers in the fourth quarter that gave the Rockets a chance to steal a win down the stretch.
But Houston could never fully recover from a second-quarter blitz by the home team that turned its 16-point deficit into a 58-55 advantage at intermission once Curry nailed a wild step-back as the halftime buzzer blared. And guess whose influence most accounted for that absolutely crucial Warriors run?
No, not Shaun Livingston’s. The backup guard scored 10 of his 18 points during Golden State’s 23-6 stretch by shining on the fast break and lurking along the baseline for easy 2s. He was fantastic in Game 1. But Livingston wouldn’t have even had the chance to star if not for the presence of Green.
The blue-and-gold’s Swiss Army Knife narrowly missed a triple-double on Tuesday with 13 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists in a game-high 43 minutes of court time. He banged in the paint, ran the floor in transition, made plays for his teammates, and exhibited the sweeping defensive merit that explains his well-earned reputation as basketball’s most versatile defender.
Yet such impressive counting stats and even those less tangible moments still don’t accurately portray Green’s importance in the Warriors’ Game 1 win.
Kerr’s most effective strategic gambit is one that barely raises eyebrows for those who have followed Golden State throughout 2014-2015. When his team needs a boost on the scoreboard or simply a jolt of energy, the first-year coach goes to a super-small lineup marked by Green’s shift to nominal center.
The results have been remarkable all season long, but especially in the playoffs. No wonder, then, that the Warriors employed that wholly unique formation as Game 1 of the Conference Finals began to precipitously slip away in front of a stunned Oracle Arena crowd.
Curry, Klay Thompson, Livingston, Harrison Barnes and Green put Golden State back in front more quickly than it fell behind by double digits in an obvious manner. This group of fleet-footed swingmen – plus the MVP, of course – made a frenetic pace even faster by pushing at every opportunity and maximizing their defensive activity, easily outpacing the Rockets in the kind of helter-skelter game where they’re most comfortable.
This is what makes the Warriors so, so tough to beat: They can thrive however the action dictates. Why? Green allows them to do it.
Other coaches would love to downsize as frequently as Kerr does. The modern game is perhaps about spacing more than anything else, after all, and playing a 5 who commands respect to the arc and can hurt defenses off the dribble is a sure means to create hordes of it. The problem for most teams is that there’s always an unavoidable consequence of doing so at the other end, where real-life behemoths ensure acting ones seem as comparatively small as their height and weight indicates.
Except for Golden State, of course. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Green extinguishes that concern by playing far bigger than his size on defense. What makes him even more special than most realize, though, is his ability to play smaller than that with the ball in his hands.
Even a hobbled Dwight Howard should have his way on the block with a player the dimensions of Green. He’s simply too strong and long to be bothered by a defender many inches shorter and tens of pounds lighter than he is. Green, however, isn’t most forwards.
Howard goes nowhere despite a whopping six dribbles on this post-up versus Green, before Thompson comes down to swipe an easy steal as the Warriors’ surge gains even more momentum.
The turnover resulted in a fast-break layup by Livingston.
A couple minutes later and immediately after an offensive rebound and tip-in, Green does what sets him apart from so many game-changing defensive players. As the outmatched Jason Terry guards him on the block, he patiently draws a double-team and finds a cutting Barnes at the rim for two. Following another Warriors possession, Green takes Clint Capela off the bounce to goad help from Josh Smith and hit a wide open Barnes behind the arc. Splash.
Those aren’t passes a man capable of checking Howard should be able to make, but Green does so with ease. Not only does he possess the ability to guard big men, naturally, but he can also handle playmaking wings with equal effectiveness.
The defense is indeed what makes Green so rare; it’s the offense that makes him truly one of a kind.
Golden State constantly reaps the benefits of its emotional leader’s influence. His +14.0 on-off net rating during the regular season wasn’t his team’s second-best mark by accident. When his value reaches nearly unparalleled heights, though, is those instances when Kerr plays his final ace in the hole by going extra small.
In just 59 playoff minutes, the Warriors’ primary small-ball lineups have outscored opponents by a mind-boggling 52 points – including 18 over 13 total minutes against the Rockets on Tuesday.
To suggest the performance of those units is about Green’s impact alone is misleading. The ability of Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Livingston to handle multiple defensive assignments is crucial, as are the playmaking exploits of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala and Livingston. Barnes deserves more credit than he gets for refusing to be consistently bullied in the post, too.
But this is also just as true: Golden State’s super-small-ball surely wouldn’t exist at all if not for Green’s singular presence – just like the Warriors might have lost Game 1 without him, and just like their run probably would have ended long ago in that depressing scenario, too.