OAKLAND, Calif. — Back when the Warriors were considering drafting Draymond Green in 2012, GM Bob Myers had a conversation with an old friend, Monte Marcaccini, who played hoops overseas and at Virginia. Myers was trying to justify selecting a young man many regarded as a "tweener," one who lacked an elite NBA skill, usually the death knell for a collegiate player. Marcaccini countered that Green was great at something. “Don’t forget,” he told Myers, “that winning is a skill.” And this was true: Green’s teams tended to win, no matter when or where he played, from pick-up ball to Michigan State. But how do you quantify that? “I still don’t know the answer,” said Myers, who recounted the story outside the Warriors locker room last night, before Game 5. “But why isn’t that the most important thing?”
To date, Green has started 220 games for the Warriors, including the playoffs. Golden State has won 179 of them. That’s 81%. For comparison, this generation’s dominant coach, Gregg Popovich, has won 69% of his games. Thus no doubt it killed Green to watch last night’s 112-97 Cleveland victory from within a tee shot of the action, quarantined in a luxury suite at the A’s game, alongside Marshawn Lynch and, for the first half, Myers (an experience Myers later agreed was “surreal,” adding, “But you learn that there is no normal with this job”).
Before the game, Kerr tried to put on a brave face when discussing the loss of Green, who led the NBA in plus/minus this season. The Warriors learned of his suspension with 15 minutes remaining in practice Sunday so there was no time to install intricate countermeasures. Rather, Kerr was banking on a collective effort. His message to the players: “Everyone be ready.”
Instead, the game played out as a sustained testament to Green’s absence, particularly on defense. LeBron skipped down the court, then drove or passed at will. Tristan Thompson ripped down rebounds and lurked for backdoor lobs. Kyrie Irving looked like he was filming one of his own commercials. As a hoarse Kerr noted afterward: “They shot 53% and scored 112 points. So, yeah, the defense was an issue for us.”
Granted, part—much?—of this this was due to the individual brilliance of Irving and James, the first pair of teammates to each score 40 points in a Finals game. James looked inspired, recalling the athleticism of his twenties with a series of chasedown blocks and drive-and-dunks. He launched his jumper, untenable for most of these playoffs, with confidence, sinking stepbacks and threes. It’s a defense’s worst nightmare: being forced to play up on James’s shot. Passing and driving lanes become chasms, easily exploited by James, whose one-handed laser feeds are a joy to watch.
Meanwhile, the Warriors were enablers. Poor communication on transition defense. Awkward cross-matches. Clunky rotations. Without Green helming the D—“our centerfielder in the back,” as Curry put it—the Warriors lacked toughness and fire. Green may get a bit nutty at times, but his vocal leadership is as important as his physical presence. As Curry admitted afterward, “We tried to adjust on the fly.” One half-expected Green to sneak in at halftime, in vintage Bobby Valentine get-up, and deliver an inspirational sermon.
On offense, the Warriors looked great early and horrific late. By the third quarter, one began to fear for the safety of Kerr’s clipboards. Stalled possessions led to forced shots and midrange post-ups and hurried threes. Without Green, at least on this night, the Warriors looked suspiciously like the team Charles Barkley is always accusing them of being. They took 42 three-pointers, an NBA Finals record, and made only 14. Many of the misses came on open looks. Others were ill-advised, especially in the case of Klay Thompson, who overdrew his allotment of heat checks (afterward, he admitted there were “three or four shots I wish I could get back.”) Meanwhile, Curry wasn’t his usual self. He made sloppy, looping passes. Was careless with the ball. Settled for off-the-dribble contested threes. For the Warriors to win this game, they needed an MVP performance from Steph. They didn’t get it.
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As disappointing as the outcome was for the Warriors—“it sucks that it happened tonight,” said Curry, who hoped to win it in front of the home crowd—it was good for basketball fans. Irving and James put on a remarkable show. The game was close, at least most of the way. And now we can expect Draymond to arrive in full froth for Game 6. He didn’t speak publicly Monday, but no doubt he feels horrible for getting suspended. After all, had Green played, chances are good the Warriors would still be out at some club or steakhouse as of this writing, toasting each other, while, somewhere, Tom Tolbert cracked open another Pliny and, in Maui, Nellie lit a nostalgic stogie.
Instead, Green received a validation of his value, as well as a shot at redemption and an opportunity to win out with his teammates. Back, it goes without saying, on the same floor where the Warriors took the title last season.