Game 5 woes show just how badly the Warriors need Draymond Green

Ball Don't Lie

OAKLAND, Calif. — Draymond Green's suspension for Game 5 of the NBA Finals raised questions regarding not just how the Golden State Warriors could close out the Cleveland Cavaliers without him, but what the record-setting team would even look like without its most versatile player and vocal leader. The answer in Monday night's 112-97 loss was nearly as loud as the Oracle Arena crowd — still dangerous, but obviously more limited and well below the level they have set as one of the best teams in NBA history.

The impact of Green's absence should not come as a great surprise. There are good reasons why the possibility of his suspension and Sunday's announcement of the same dominated the run-up to Game 5. Green is the league's most multi-talented player not named LeBron James, an elite defender who is arguably just as valuable as a facilitator who frees up Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to go on reputation-making scoring runs. The Warriors were both defensively vulnerable and lacking offensively in ways they usually are not, and the absence of the player who largely animates their system had a lot to do with it.

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The disembodied head of Draymond Green watches the Warriors' Game 5 struggles. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
The disembodied head of Draymond Green watches the Warriors' Game 5 struggles. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, Golden State did not use Green's suspension as any sort of excuse after the game.

"We obviously knew we were without Draymond, so there's no point in harping on that," said head coach Steve Kerr. "We had to play better, and we didn't."

The rest of the Warriors stuck to the same message, claiming that any potential title-clincher that slips away is a lost opportunity. While any competitor worth a damn should believe exactly that after a tough loss, it was telling that the Warriors' take on what went wrong in Game 5 covered many of the things that Green does so well.

Those issues started at the defensive end, where Kyrie Irving and LeBron James put forth genuinely historic performances to lead the Cavaliers to victory. That level of excellence depends on many factors out of the defense's control, but Green's ability to guard every position after switches has played no small part in keeping the Cavs' two stars inefficient prior to Game 5.

"I've said it all along that he is the best guy in the NBA as far as reading when to help, triple switches and kicking guys out of mismatches, knowing when to go, when not to go," Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said. "He's an underrated shot blocker, and he can guard one through five, so that definitely help hurt their defense."

Green's defensive intelligence is not just valuable in isolation — it meshes with and amplifies the strengths of excellent defenders such as Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson to create an even stronger five-man unit. Familiarity can make those multiplier effects even more forceful, an especially notable advantage considering that Green had previously missed just one other game this season and a total of four since he took David Lee's place in the starting lineup to open the 2014-15 campaign.

"He's our centerfielder in the back when he's able to see the whole floor," Curry said. "Tonight it was obviously different rotations and we tried to adjust on the fly with the different matchups, but we just didn't execute as well."

To be fair, LeBron and Kyrie hit very tough shots throughout the night and don't make a habit of scoring 41 points each against defenses far worse than what the Warriors trotted out on Monday, so it's not as if Green's absence tells the whole story. James and Irving won this game on their own, and their superiority was the most salient fact of the night.

But Green's time spent in a luxury suite at the Oakland Athletics game next door certainly didn't help. A one-man change in personnel can make a major difference against two fantastically talented shot creators and makers even with plenty of capable defenders on the floor. With Green out, designated LeBron stopper Andre Iguodala spent considerable time on Kevin Love instead to keep the slighter Shaun Livingston out of the paint. LeBron scored on everybody who guarded him, but Livingston is clearly one of the more preferable matchups the Warriors can throw his way.

Those defensive frailties figure to serve as the Warriors' chief focus ahead of Thursday's Game 6 in Cleveland. Yet the team's offensive issues were noticeable, as well, particularly in the second half after the Cavaliers firmed up some of their own early breakdowns. Although Thompson offered his best sustained stretch of the series with a 26-point first half, the Warriors lacked the offensive crispness and ball movement that provide the platform for the Splash Brothers' best nights. Golden State's 36.4 percent shooting from the field ranks as the team's second-worst showing of the season, besting only a January stinker at the Detroit Pistons that felt like a severe outlier even as it happened. More subjectively, something felt off all night.

It's possible the Warriors' struggles were a matter of luck. Various stat-tracking services put them at 16 of 43 on uncontested shots and 4 of 19 on wide-open 3-pointers numbers that would typically arise from defensive game plans that aimed to make bad shooters fire away.

However, all open shots are not created equal. A good look often depends on offensive and individual rhythm more than it relies on open space, and the Warriors looked to have rushed shots and to have tried to make plays too quickly in the second half. Green can play a part in those same issues, but it did appear that Curry and Thompson carried an especially large burden on the offensive end. For that matter, Green excels at pushing the ball off his own rebounds, which speed up the attack and allow the Warriors to thrive in the chaos of transition. No players stepped up to shoulder his load, and the entire team suffered.

If it wasn't already clear from this record-breaking season and the Warriors' fine performance without Curry earlier in the playoffs, Green is the connective tissue that holds together so many of the Warriors' parts. He's the fulcrum that allows them to transition between offense and defense so seamlessly, to play lineups that play big and small simultaneously thanks to his ability to do everything that could feasibly be asked of a basketball player. It's readily apparent that the Death Lineup does not exist without him, but so many other five-man groups depend on him, as well. If the Warriors looked a little unsure of what to depend on in this game, it was probably because Green serves as the most important piece of so many of this innovative coaching staff's best experiments.

"We're just mixing and matching and trying to find anything that would work," Kerr said. "But it just wasn't our night and we didn't get anything going. We couldn't find any combinations."

The good news for the Warriors is that Green is not hurt and will be back from suspension for Game 6. The likely absence of Andrew Bogut with a left knee injury will limit Kerr's options at a time when teams absolutely want everyone available, but he saw fewer than six minutes in the first half even without Green around to spend time at center. After nearly two full NBA Finals and several notable regular-season results, it is certain that the Warriors' best lineups vs. the Cavaliers put Draymond in the middle. He presents challenges that Cleveland has not yet solved. The Warriors didn't want to go back to Cleveland, but they are still just one win from their goal.

"Like Coach [Kerr] said after the game, take stock," Thompson said. "We're still in a great position. And obviously it stings real bad, but we'll come back stronger."

He meant that the team will play better after a disappointing performance, but the return of Draymond Green will surely act as a meaningful reinforcement. Game 5 exhibited just how much he does for the Warriors. Game 6 could solidify Green's status as one of the sport's few indispensable players.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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