Entering Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals, we had hardly any idea what this version of the Golden State Warriors — the one that has taken the league by storm over the past two seasons, that followed an NBA championship with a record 73 wins and now stands one win away from another title — looked like without bellwether forward Draymond Green. As we found out Monday night, when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving absolutely annihilated the Warriors' defense in his absence, and Golden State's attack sputtered in the second half without his aid in facilitating scoring opportunities for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the answer is, "Very little like themselves," and not nearly good enough to eliminate the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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"I have strong belief that if I play Game 5, we win," Green told reporters in Cleveland at practice on Wednesday.
But he wasn't, and they didn't, and now the Warriors have to beat a very good Cavaliers team on their home floor for the second straight game if they want to eliminate said very good Cavaliers team for the second straight year. That's where Golden State's at; it's where Green, their fire and spirit, their heart and soul, has led them. Now, he must lead them further.
After serving his one-game suspension for a late-game groin swipe that put him over the acceptable number of flagrant foul points a player can accrue in a single postseason, Green will return to the lineup for Thursday's Game 6 in Cleveland, one year to the day after the Warriors finished off the Cavs in six games to take the 2015 NBA championship. He will receive a staggering amount of venom and vitriol from the full-throated fans in the stands at Quicken Loans Arena. He will face the challenge of righting the ship after having to watch Golden State capsize without him as he sat at a baseball game.
“Let’s go,” Green yelled as Game 5 wound down, a source told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. “I get a chance to play in another game.”
And now that the Warriors will be without starting center Andrew Bogut, lost for the remainder of the Finals after sustaining multiple bone bruises in his left knee during a Game 5 collision with Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith, Green's role will be bigger than ever. More than any other Warrior, he will be counted on to man the middle of a defense that must disrupt a now-locked-into-rhythm James and Irving to stem Cleveland's rising tide and prevent the Finals from reaching a winner-take-all Game 7.
It's possible that Green won't start at center on Thursday. Spears said Wednesday that he expects Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to tap reserve Festus Ezeli to open the game in Bogut's place, as he did 13 times during the regular season, in hopes that the 26-year-old bruiser can offer some semblance of the paint patrolling and rim protection that Bogut brought to the table.
"Well, Festus hasn't had big minutes in this series," Kerr told reporters in Cleveland on Wednesday. "He was important in the first couple of games. I think he played nine or 10 minutes in each and made an impact. Then his minutes went down in [Games] 3 and 4. But with Bogut out, his minutes will definitely climb, and he gives us a guy who dives hard to the rim on offense and can finish lob dunks and putbacks and that kind of stuff, and really good rim protection. So I feel very confident playing Festus and he'll play an important role in the rest of the series."
Kerr could also, as he did throughout Game 5, test the waters with Anderson Varejao, Marreese Speights and James Michael McAdoo, continuing the search for steady minutes that will allow him to avoid having to go small full-time, which opens the door to Golden State getting annihilated on the offensive glass by Cavaliers game-changer Tristan Thompson.
"You always need bigs, even if the game is small," Kerr said. "We're not going to play small for 48 minutes."
Kerr has held that line throughout this series. He insisted after the Cavaliers won Game 3 by decimating Golden State's big lineups that he did not feel a need to downshift after one bad game in a series the Warriors still led. It is possible he still feels that way; his team has two tries to get one win, and will get the last game at home no matter what happens on Thursday.
The thing is, though, that the Warriors bigs keep getting killed.
As detailed by NBA.com's John Schuhmann and Scott Rafferty of Hardwood Paroxysm, none of Golden State's non-Draymond big men had any success acting as the primary helper of point-of-attack defenders against James or Irving in the pick-and-roll in Game 5. The Cavs scored 1.54 points per possession when setting ball screens for Irving in Game 5, and 1.29 points per possession on the same plays for James, according to SportVU player tracking data — flat-out bonkers numbers when you consider that the NBA's most effective offensive teams in the screen game averaged just under one point per possession in pick-and-roll plays finished by ball-handlers and just under 1.2 points per possession on those finished by roll men, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting.
Wednesday's comments aside, Kerr hasn't seemed to trust Ezeli nearly enough throughout this postseason to believe he's just going to hand him the keys for that job in the most important game of the Warriors season. Speights is a shot-popping folk hero, but he's nobody's defensive answer. The 33-year-old Varejao might have been able to handle the responsibility a half-dozen years and injuries ago; the 23-year-old McAdoo might be able to handle it in a few years after a few thousand reps. Neither can do it now.
No, it's Green who has to stand taller than ever; who must make Cavalier drivers, cutters and ball-handlers think twice or three times about whether they really want to do that; who has to fight tooth and nail to keep Thompson from tilting the game.
It's Draymond who has to channel all that frustration he felt at being forced to sit idle while his teammates floundered into positive energy, and who, as our Kelly Dwyer wrote in his Game 6 preview, has to guard against the urge to press, to run into the red and short-circuit himself, as he did in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals (with some help from Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder). It's Draymond who has to relocate the line — the one he's made a living by pushing up against, and that he stepped over one time too many, costing himself a game and his team a potential home-court closeout — and resume the business of living just this side of it for as many minutes as it takes.
Kerr says he won't go small for 48 minutes, but without Bogut around to soak up the critical few minutes at the beginnings of the first and third quarters that set the tone for the Warriors, he'll need to get awfully damn close. The stark reality of these NBA Finals is that when Draymond Green plays center, the Warriors romp, and when he doesn't, the Cavs have controlled the run of play.
According to publicly available lineup data compiled by NBAwowy.com, Golden State has outscored the Cavaliers by 49 points in 83 minutes where Green's on the floor without any of the Warriors' other "centers" (Bogut, Varejao, Ezeli, Speights or McAdoo) — that's not merely the "Death Lineup," mind you, but any group where Draymond's at the five — blowing Cleveland's doors off by an average of 30.8 points per 100 possessions over four games. With Green off the floor, though, no other iteration of the Dubs has been able to handle the Cavs, who have outscored Golden State by 22 points in 88 Draymond-less Finals minutes, according to NBA.com's stat tool, including a 15-point margin in the Game 5 loss that sent the series back to the Q.
Kerr's yearlong commitment to keeping his whole rotation involved, invested and engaged has been admirable; it's unlikely the Warriors would have been able to set a new NBA record for regular-season wins without getting meaningful contributions from up and down the roster at one time or another. If there's ever a time to double-down on what makes you special, though, it would seem to be when you're one win away from a championship, one loss away from reducing a seven-game series to an anything-can-happen one-game playoff, and one 48-minute effort away from eternity.
"Everybody's helped with Draymond being on the floor," Kerr said. "So that will be nice to have him back."
Just how nice, though, could depend on where Kerr puts him, and how long he's willing to keep him there.
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