It’s impossible to watch Draymond Green this postseason, 23 pounds lighter and frantically patrolling every inch of the floor, and not feel like you’ve been rope-a-doped.
It was not all that long ago that Green looked capable of blowing up the dynasty he helped create. The goodwill from three championships seemed to be running on empty, and the focus seemed to be on what Green couldn’t do (shoot the ball) instead of what he could. Averaging 7.4 points a game with a 44/29/69 shooting line over the regular season invited criticism, and dialing up the button-pressing to 100 on Kevin Durant screamed for more.
Of course, Green doesn’t just test his limits with coaches, teammates, or the officials (the game doesn’t really start until Draymond’s first technical). Some friendly fire can be difficult to manage, even for one of the most well-regarded coaching staffs in recent history, but playing on the edge is also what makes Green a nightmare for opponents.
Almost all of the great ones push the line, and as a result, they also cheat their asses off. John Stockton, the all-time steals leader, was relentlessly dirty, poking and prodding ball handlers into submission. Getting through a Kevin Garnett screen was like running through a turnstile of sharp elbows and knobby knees. Dennis Rodman would wrap up an opponent’s arm and punch himself with it to garner an offensive foul. Green is cut from the same cloth. If there’s holding on every play in football, there’s a micro-infraction the refs could ding Green for on nearly every possession. He’ll pick off Klay Thompson’s man with a last-second movement on a screen away from the ball, or he’ll keep his forearm planted on anyone brave enough to test him off the dribble. Beating him is almost worse: Ask James Harden, who has taken two slashes to the eye as a result. In Saturday’s Game 3 loss in Houston, Green had another great performance—19 points (on 6-for-10 shooting), 11 rebounds, and 10 assists; but in the final seconds after taking what appeared to be a game-changing charge and not receiving the call, he let out his frustration by blindsiding Austin Rivers with a ball screen 50 feet away from the hoop. If Harden bends the game to his advantage, Green pokes and pokes at it—Are we there yet?—until it suffers a breakdown.
Draymond laid out Austin Rivers with a pick pic.twitter.com/eYTMX5IMdO— gifdsports (@gifdsports) May 5, 2019
But it’s hard to antagonize at an elite level over the course of 82 games, especially coming off a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance and with the Warriors trying to slowly acclimate DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State’s first center skilled enough to require a heavy dosage of touches. Green’s usage plummeted to a career-low 13.1 percent this season and he got, by his own admission, out of shape. Green flipped the switch to the off position, rested up, and took his punches.
The switch is back on. In the first round of the playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers dared Green to beat them and he did, and not on the terms of engagement Doc Rivers envisioned. With Cousins out of the picture by Game 2 and the young Clippers overreacting to every screen for Curry, Green nestled back into his sweet spot as the most devastating off-ball screen slipper and short-roll passer the league has ever seen. Green’s resurgence also stunned the Rockets early in Game 1, as Green scored or assisted on 19 of Golden State’s 28 first-quarter points. Through the first three games, Green has comfortably been the third-best player in a series littered with future Hall of Fame types, contesting shots with verticality at the rim and harassing all comers on the perimeter. He’s all but rendered Clint Capela irrelevant, to the point where Mike D’Antoni opted to ride Rivers down the stretch of Game 3.
The Warriors are virtually unstoppable when Green is this good. There are few players in the league who would be better at taking advantage of defenses that send more than one defender at Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson. Green commands the middle of the floor and turns anyone in the baseline dunker spot into an unstoppable force. In this postseason, which features athletic marvels like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, 35-year-old Andre Iguodala leads all players in dunks with 22—12 of which have come from Green dishes. As deadly as those deep Curry 3s and Durant dagger pull-ups are, Green’s passing has always been a barometer for Golden State’s success: Until the Game 3 overtime loss, the Warriors had never lost a game in which Green recorded a triple-double and had never lost a postseason game in which Green reached double-digit assists.
Green’s importance to this current iteration of the Warriors can’t be overstated: There are exactly zero players in the league who defend, rebound, and distribute at the level he does without spending the currency of shot attempts. The 29-year-old is as irreplaceable as he is insufferable, which makes Golden State’s decision on Green, who can hit unrestricted free agency in 2020 but is extension-eligible this summer, way more interesting than it should be. Winning is the greatest deodorant, and Green’s dominance this postseason has shown that he can be worth the emotional and actual capital it takes to keep him, so long as he doesn’t permanently burn any bridges.
Despite his dominant play, the cycle with Green still feels familiar. He’ll shoot it poorly for long stretches, kill it in big games and get some of his shine back, and then do something wild enough to throw it all away. But it’s all worth it. Like Kobe had stans and LeBron witnesses, Draymond seems destined to always have his dopes.