Draymond Green played the game of his life in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors’ emotional leader, the skeleton key that unlocked the style that dominated the NBA for two straight seasons, scored 32 points on 11-for-15 shooting with 15 rebounds, nine assists and two steals in 47 minutes. Had the Dubs hung on to win their second straight championship, we’d likely remember Draymond’s outing as one of the greatest individual performances in Finals history — up there with Magic’s Game 6, the Flu Game, Clyde’s capper to the Captain’s cameo, “Big Game James”‘ 1988 triple-double, and so many others.
But, as you know, that’s not what happened. The Block happened, and The Shot happened, and The Stop happened. Suddenly, the Cleveland Cavaliers were champions. Suddenly, what had the chance to be the single greatest NBA season ever had instead crashed on the rocks of an ignominious bit of history: the first time an NBA team had taken a 3-1 lead in the Finals and failed to close the deal. (Not sure if you’ve heard about that. It hasn’t gotten much play since the end of last season.)
That’s enough to make anyone who came out on the short end of the stick pretty mad. For a competitor as fiery as Draymond, though? It’s enough to leave him sounding like a supervillain — one with a clear appreciation of the importance of taking world domination one dastardly deed at a time, yes, but one bent on world domination all the same.
Me: [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] used to always wake up every morning and see how the other guy’s team did the night before, because they knew they were going to see each other in The Finals. If you get back, is Cleveland the only team you want to play?
DG: No. I want to win the Western Conference, try to beat everybody in the Western Conference — which is a tough task. There are so many good teams. So that’s got to be our only focus, to win the Western Conference. And then, if Cleveland comes out of the east, I want to destroy Cleveland. No ifs, ands and buts about it. But I also know that there’s steps to get to that point. And if and when we get to that point, I want to annihilate them.
Me: And if you get there?
DG: If we get there…
Me: And they get there?
DG: And they get there, I want to completely destroy them. No ifs, ands or buts about it. That won’t change. I’m not saying we’re going to look forward to that. Like I said, there’s a long road ahead. And it’ll be a tough, tough road to get there. Nonetheless, if we get there, and they get there, I want to destroy them. Really ain’t no other way to put it.
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It’s funny: even though professional athletes tend to be among the world’s more competitive people, it’s not every day you hear phrases like “completely destroy” and “annihilate” deployed about a specific opponent. When you consider both the volcanic source and the object of his ire, though, this feels relatively unremarkable. “Draymond Green Remains Intense and Brash: Film at 11!”
Green’s entire M.O. is getting back to the Finals to right last year’s wrongs, no matter who he and the Warriors have to eliminate to get there. Given what’s passed between Draymond and the Cavs over the past two Junes, it would probably be more surprising if he responded to the opportunity to comment on Cleveland by saying something that didn’t sound like 50 Cent riffing on “The 48 Laws of Power.”
And yet, Green’s ratcheted-up response to the possibility of a rubber match does feel like it contains additional amplitude, an extra edge that points to how charged up he feels these days. After bouncing back from Finals defeat by signing former MVP Kevin Durant, the Warriors entered this season as the odds-on favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy — and the league’s No. 1 target, the golden boys 29 other teams will take pleasure in trying to tarnish. From Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Teams are trying to punk us,” Draymond Green said after Golden State’s 106-100 win Sunday over the Suns. “It’s fine. We’re not going to get punked.”
On a number of occasions Sunday, Phoenix guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight shoved or grabbed Stephen Curry. Midway through the second quarter, Knight bumped Curry while the two-time NBA MVP attempted a three-pointer. While running back on defense, Curry pushed Knight out of bounds and was whistled for a foul. […]
“They’re going to come at us physically,” Kevin Durant said. “We took it tonight. That team was pressuring us to try to get us out of stuff. We kept moving. We had a nice pace.”
That plan of attack is nothing new. With Golden State boasting elite ball-handling, shooting and playmaking in the backcourt, the scouting report on the Warriors has long called for roughing up Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at every opportunity in hopes of preventing the Dubs’ top guns from getting clean releases and sapping some of their energy, aiming to keep them from being able to put their legs into late-game attempts.
The Memphis Grizzlies had some success with that approach in the second round of the 2015 playoffs before the Warriors solved them. An injury-plagued, short-handed Cavs team hung around for six games in the 2015 Finals thanks in part to slowing the game down and making it a wrestling match rather than a track meet.
Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder came within one victory of knocking off Golden State in the 2016 Western Conference finals thanks in part to their superior physicality. With a full complement of stars and role players in the rematch, the Cavs were better able to match length and athleticism with the Warriors, while also knocking the heck out of Curry every time he maneuvered off the ball, getting the two-time-reigning MVP off-track.
Beyond the toll it takes on Curry, Thompson and now Durant, though, the physical approach can have another impact. It can help drag the famously combustible Green over the line between helpful and harmful. Lest we forget:
It was Green’s inability to restrain himself from retaliating when James stepped over him late in Game 4 that resulted in his Game 5 suspension. Green later apologized to his teammates for his transgressions; coach Steve Kerr said he needn’t apologize for anything because “without you, we’re not even here.” But without him, they were barely there in Game 5, which opened the door for the Cavs to stave off elimination, get back in the series and ultimately render Green’s all-time Game 7 a moot point, the answer to a trivia question nobody’s ever going to ask.
There’s plenty of blame to go around when you blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The other Warriors could have shown they could carry the load without Green; as one unnamed team official infamously told ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, “The guys might be frustrated by [Draymond’s] antics, but they had an opportunity to prove themselves without him in Game 5 and they played like a bunch of [cowards].” But Green showed throughout his postseason on the brink that his fire could burn the Warriors just as easily as it could the opposition, and despite the effect it had on the balance of the most important games of Golden State’s season, Draymond has shown little indication since — off the court, or on it — to rein it in.
[The 2016-17 BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
“I’m never going to be careful,” Green said last spring after avoiding suspension for kicking Steven Adams in the groin. “I’m just going to be me, and the game will play out how it plays out.”
“Being me has gotten me this far,” he said this summer during Team USA minicamp as he discussed his offseason off-court issues. “[…] All you can do in life is learn and move on and don’t make the same mistakes twice.”
Green held that line during his chat with Aldridge, reaching back to a lesson he says he learned from his college coach, Michigan State legend Tom Izzo: “the best evaluator is a self-evaluator.”
And so I know the mistakes that I made. And I know the ones that need to be corrected. I know things that I need to work on in my life, things that I can be better at. It don’t really take a story for somebody to say, hey, Draymond needs to do this. Or, he did this, or he did that. Number one, I probably realize I did it before you knew I did it. Number two, I know what I need to work on before anyone tells me I need to work on it. I’m going to be more critical of myself than anyone could ever be. […]
The one thing that I really took away from [Strauss’ story] was really the theme of this whole season, which is we have to block out all the noise. It’s going to be noise around us every day. It’s already been happening, people twisting words and all these things going on. For me to go read a story and want to jump off a bridge isn’t going to happen.
That’s entirely reasonable, as is Green’s insistence that he’s not interested in revisiting Game 7, which he called “kind of spoiled milk to me” despite how well he played. But you have to wonder if he’d do well to revisit Game 5 — how the Warriors fared without him, how evident it was that they needed him in the middle on both ends of the floor — and at least consider whether he took the most useful lessons away from the 2015-2016 season.
It’s a long year, and a hard climb back to the top of the mountain, especially as you’re trying to integrate new pieces and figure out how to get stops. Teeth-gritted lock-ins on punking and prospective annihilation in October might not make any of it any easier, and might make Green’s grip on what makes him and the Warriors so special even more tenuous this time around.
There’s more than enough noise to block out in the Bay already. Whether Green can modulate his volume might wind up being the defining question of the Warriors’ season.
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