clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Warriors Adapt With—and Without—Draymond

It wasn’t exactly a vintage performance from Green in Game 4, but it was a winning one. Golden State got just enough out of its defensive anchor to square the Finals, and maybe learned something along the way when it briefly benched him in the fourth.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Warriors opened the fourth quarter of Game 4 on Friday the same way they opened Game 3’s final frame: scattered, scrambling, and seemingly intent on squandering Stephen Curry’s finest work. After once again turning a halftime deficit into a third-quarter advantage thanks to the benevolent brilliance of the two-time MVP, Golden State once again succumbed to its age-old predilection toward kicking the ball all over the gym.

Four turnovers in the first four and a half minutes of the fourth short-circuited the Warriors offense and all but gifted the Celtics a five-point edge; if Golden State wanted to keep Boston from building a lead big enough to seize a 3-1 advantage in the 2022 NBA Finals, something had to change. So, Steve Kerr changed something. Something pretty big.

Through eight years, 131 playoff games, six NBA Finals trips, and three championships, the three pillars of the Golden State dynasty—Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green—had always faced whatever the league had to throw at them together. They’ve been inseparable in leaving an indelible mark on the franchise and the league writ large, the Bay’s holy trinity; every mountain they’ve climbed, every challenger they’ve vanquished, they’ve done it standing shoulder to shoulder, and typically with Green putting a battery in their backs.

“We rely on Draymond bringing that energy and fire, throughout the course of the season, and year after year,” Curry said Friday.

When the Warriors came out of a timeout with 7:32 left in Game 4, though—in desperate need of a win to avoid being pushed to the brink of elimination—Kerr held Green and his fire back. He kept Draymond on the bench, opting instead to flank Steph and Klay with Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, and Kevon Looney—a lineup that Kerr hoped would give Golden State a better chance of puncturing Boston’s coverage.

Benching a future Hall of Famer who’s one of the most decorated and beloved players in franchise history, even for just a few possessions, isn’t an easy decision, no matter how many shots he’s missed—six of seven in Game 4 and 20 of 26 in the Finals, if you’re counting. But by the time Kerr pulled the plug, Draymond had been reduced to largely just trying to create contact, flinging runners at the rim, and hoping for the best:

And as bad as some of his attempts have been, the shots he has passed up might be even worse, resulting in possession-long games of Hot Potato like this:

Then there’s how flagrantly the opposing defense has ignored him in favor of showing more defensive help on Golden State’s other playmakers:

The lost-a-step, not-even-looking-at-the-rim offensive game Green has showcased for most of these Finals—and, really, most of the playoffs, and most of the last few seasons—is one that, evidently, not even a mother could love:

Kerr insisted after the game that shifting in that spot from Draymond back to Looney—who’d been excellent on the glass and in offering some resistance at the rim—had been Golden State’s plan all along. Even so, it wasn’t a plan that Green was particularly enthused to execute.

“I’m definitely never thrilled coming out of the game with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter in a must-win game,” Green told reporters. “I’m not going to sit here and act like I was thrilled. I’m a competitor. But, at the end of the day, if that’s what Coach decides, then you roll with it.”

As Green rolled with it, Golden State started rolling, too, ripping off an 11-3 run in just under four minutes to regain the lead heading into the home stretch. Green watched, and likely fumed some, but didn’t go astray; in his post-game podcast, he credited teammates like Juan Toscano-Anderson, Chris Chiozza, and Gary Payton II for talking him through his frustrations at the early checkout and for keeping him focused and prepared to contribute when he got another chance.

With just under four minutes left, Kerr went back to Green to help neutralize whatever Ime Udoka had just drawn up in the huddle. After Draymond rebounded a missed Jayson Tatum 3, Kerr called timeout to swap Green out and Poole in—an offense-defense platoon he’d return to a couple of times down the stretch, in recognition of the paucity of consistently reliable two-way options Golden State has at its disposal at this stage.

“I think it’s an understanding of how things can change in a series,” Curry told reporters after the game. And, maybe beyond that, how they can change over time.

Green used to be one of those reliable two-way options: a genius passer and legitimate complementary threat who averaged more than 10 points per game for four straight seasons, who once shot 39 percent from 3-point range for a season, and who once scored 32 points in Game 7 of the Finals. As the years have worn on, though, Draymond’s looked less and less frequently for his own shot and has looked less and less comfortable when he does take it—especially against front lines built like Boston’s.

“Look, this is a tough series for him to score because of Boston’s size and athleticism, but he’s still impacting the game at a huge level,” Kerr said after the game. “And he knows we’re just going to do whatever it takes to win. We’ve got a lot of guys who can contribute. A lot of guys did that tonight, and you know, we got it done.”

Even amid the shooting struggles, Green was living up to his promise to play with far more force than he showed in his listless Game 3. He played disruptive defense, snaring four steals and working with Thompson to limit juice merchant Jaylen Brown to just nine points on 4-for-11 shooting after halftime. He created space for his fellow Warriors with stiff screens and dribble handoff action, attacked the glass, and moved the ball with pace and purpose. The 1-for-7 shooting line was unsightly, but the rest of it (including nine rebounds and eight assists) bore at least a passing resemblance to … you know … Draymond Green.

“You know his energy is going to be 100 percent, and he’s still going to be on the floor on the defensive side, locking up, making plays,” Wiggins told reporters after the game. “And he’s still coaching guys on the floor. He’s still the anchor.”

And with less than two minutes to go in a one-score game, Green shook off a brutal few days in Boston to hit the gas and make some critical plays: a pass setting up a Curry 3 that gave Golden State a six-point lead; a hard baseline drive-and-kick to stay ahead of Boston’s rotation and get Klay a good look at a 3; a backbreaking offensive rebound and reset; and the good ol’ reliable Steph-Draymond pick-and-roll, which let him roll into open space, wreak havoc, and feed Looney for a layup that pushed the lead to five.

“I mean, when they’re throwing two guys at Steph, someone has to make the play. I’ve made a living off that,” Green told reporters after Golden State’s 107-97 win to even the series. “In a time like that, where they are throwing two guys at him and they are saying, ‘We are not going to let him beat us right now,’ somebody else has to make the play. I was able to get a drop-off to Loon on two-on-one, and he had a great finish.”

And Green’s finish didn’t wind up looking half-bad, either, smoked layups and bricked pull-ups notwithstanding.

“Draymond might not have had his best game but made huge plays there at the end, huge rebounds, huge stops,” Thompson told reporters. “Doesn’t matter how you shoot the ball, what your numbers say. The only thing that really matters right now is getting that win.”

Green struck a similar note in his presser and on his podcast, saying that he’s going to keep shooting the shots he’s been missing because he trusts his ability to make them, but also that he trusts Kerr and his staff to find the right mix to get this Warriors core its fourth championship—even if the former Defensive Player of the Year sometimes finds himself outside of it.

“We’re two games away,” Green said on his podcast. “Whatever I have to do to help this team win, that’s always what I’m going to do.”