TORONTO — The Golden State Warriors had spent half the game in the bonus, racking up 19 free-throw attempts. Draymond Green, the wits of the operation, was feeding Klay Thompson, but they weren't approaching the Toronto Raptors with the appropriate fear. Despite talking up transition defense in the days after Game 1 of the NBA Finals, they had committed nine turnovers at the half. Kawhi Leonard and Fred VanVleet were rolling, and it looked like the Warriors’ patent arrogance — which won them 73 games during the 2015-16 season but also lost them those Finals — might bite again.
But before hubris can destroy an empire, faith has to create one.
The Warriors knew it all along. How? They knew what they didn't know.
Dunks on the run and 30-footers will rule the highlights, but these NBA Finals — featuring Green, Andre Iguodala, Kyle Lowry, Leonard and Marc Gasol — will be dictated by defensive intelligence: read vs. read. The Warriors took their blows in Game 1, but they approached Game 2 with the belief that their information-processing system would reign supreme, with one of the game's best analyzers in tow.
"Actions that are happening," Warriors defensive guru Ron Adams said prior to the start of the series, "[Green] always seems to act rather than react." It's a tiny piece of insight that cuts to the core of the Dubs' revolutionary defensive ceiling: the ability to thin-slice more accurately than everyone else, to take guesswork out of the equation almost entirely.
"Draymond is very innovative," added Adams. "We've learned a lot from Draymond in terms of how he does things. Each year he gets more thoughtful in what I would call a coach-player role. He's very good at analyzing, he's very good at enunciating what he sees not only on the court but also as we're planning for teams." But he has to see the problem first. What good is the world's best calculator, after all, without numbers to crunch?
The team that has seen nearly everything had rarely, if ever, seen a defense as connected and intelligent as the Raptors'. Green said before winning Game 2, 109-104, that the Raptors’ transition attack was faster in real life than on tape. "It's different once you see it and once you feel it," he said. "So now that we got a feel for it, we know how to adjust." After Game 1, he afforded Pascal Siakam, who led the Raptors with a breakout 32-point performance in the series opener, only enough respect to suggest he'd be more diligent next game.
He was. In the second half of Game 2, when the seams came apart for Toronto, Siakam made just two of his 10 shots.
"I just tried to be more aggressive," Green said after the game. "I wanted to set a tone on him and not let him get in rhythm early. In saying that, I didn't box-and-one him or chase him around the floor, like Richard Sherman. That's a complete team effort. I tried to do my job when I was on him and everybody else stepped in and did their job as well."
In classic Warriors fashion, it's hard to say what ignited the 18-0 run that vaporized the Raptors' lead. They worked in conjunction: Curry was mad yet controlled. Thompson was decisive and accurate, hitting impossible threes or cutting backdoor for easy layups. The zero might be more pertinent than the 18, powered by rapid cognition as faster hands forced five turnovers in less than four minutes.
After the Raptors called a timeout at the 7:35 mark, Curry, Iguodala and Green seamlessly switched multiple actions until the ball landed in Siakam's hands in the low post, with — who else — Green guarding him. Green finally cut off the spin move he struggled with in Game 1, allowing DeMarcus Cousins, who was patrolling in the middle, to deflect Siakam's hook.
On the next play, Green displayed the heady intuition that allows the Warriors to defend on a frequency that stands apart from the rest of the NBA. Lowry secured the basketball in a scramble, and Green planted himself outside the restricted area, forcing Lowry to kick the ball out to Siakam, before faking an attempt to draw a charge, getting in the way of a cutting Leonard's passing lane and retreating back to the 3-point line, where Lowry was spotting up.
It was the Warriors at their best: in pursuit of everything, finding defensive zen in the midst of chaos.
"I enjoy it a lot," said Green, on having the opportunity to guard so many different players. "Guarding Kawhi's different than guarding Pascal, and guarding Pascal is different than guarding Lowry." More importantly, he seems to enjoy it a little more every time.
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