It was all right there for the taking. The Golden State Warriors had just ridden a 4-1/2-minute burst to win Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena, giving them a commanding 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers heading back to Oakland, and putting the Warriors within arm’s reach of a second straight NBA championship.
Draymond Green couldn’t restrain himself from retaliating when LeBron James stepped over him late in Game 4, which — thanks to the other flagrant foul points he’d previously accrued through a postseason littered with borderline-at-best plays — resulted in his suspension for Game 5 back in the Bay. The Warriors got crushed without him, giving the Cavaliers new life and kickstarting the three-game run for the ages that ended with Cleveland hoisting the first Larry O’Brien Trophy in franchise history.
Green apologized to his teammates for the transgressions that kept him out of action, and told reporters he had a “strong belief that if I play Game 5, we win.” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he didn’t have to apologize for anything, because “without you, we’re not even here.”
After Game 7, though — a game that saw Draymond put on the performance of a lifetime, scoring 32 points with 15 rebounds, nine assists and two steals in 47 minutes, to no avail — Kerr acknowledged the opportunity the team missed with Green watching in street clothes from a suite at O.co Coliseum.
“I was extremely confident coming into tonight, especially having Draymond back from the suspension from [Game] 5 and now 7, Game 7, at home,” Kerr said. “But this is why you can’t mess around. Not that we messed around, but this is why every game counts. Game 5 was really the key. That was the turning point of the whole series.”
And Green knew it.
“If I don’t put myself in that position and I don’t get suspended for Game 5, are we sitting here champions?” Green said after Game 7. “Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. We’ll never know the answer to that question. But the answer that I do know is I won’t put myself in that position again, and that’s all I can really do.”
He knew it.
“I’m not afraid to say that it’s my fault. I think it was,” he said. “But this ain’t the last that you’ll see from us.”
Green entered this season determined to wash the bad taste out of his mouth, speaking plainly at the start about what he hoped would come at the end. From an October chat with NBA.com’s David Aldridge:
Draymond Green saying he wants to destroy the Cavs in the finals from back at the beginning in the season pic.twitter.com/D5VwuwP40V
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) May 26, 2017
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.
Doing that won’t be easy. The Cavaliers have been nearly as dominant as the Dubs through three playoff rounds, rolling up a 12-1 record in rampaging through the East on the strength of the postseason’s most explosive offense — Cleveland’s averaging 120.7 points per 100 possessions, head and shoulders above even Golden State’s lights-out attack — behind the brilliance of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and a fleet of long-distance gunners.
The Cavs have been ruthlessly effective this postseason at spreading out and slicing up opposing defenses. They’ve also had quite a bit of success getting physical with Stephen Curry, on and of the ball, to tire out and bang up the game’s best shooter. Even with Curry in form and Kevin Durant in tow, the Warriors need Green to be at his very best on both ends of the floor — acting as a release-valve playmaker and spot-up shooting threat on offense, acting as a rim deterrent and perennial helper while manning the back line of the Warriors’ NBA-best playoff defense — to put Cleveland on ice.
They need him to be lurking behind every LeBron post-up and face-up, to stone Love on the block, to punish poor closeouts by driving to make plays, to contest everything and concede nothing. They need him to keep Love and Tristan Thompson off the glass, to push the ball on the break to find creases in the Cavs’ transition defense, to get the easy buckets that turn individual scores into big runs.
They need him on an even keel, not on tilt, revved up without running into the red. Heading into Thursday night’s tip, that’s exactly what the Warriors believe they’ve got.
Green’s been sensational in the playoffs, averaging 13.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists and four combined blocks/steals per game through three rounds. He’s made defenses pay when he’s gotten opportunities, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 47.2 percent from 3-point land on 4.4 attempts per game. As ever, he’s taken Golden State’s defense from sturdy to suffocating; the Warriors have allowed nearly five fewer points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor than when he’s been off it this postseason. Perhaps most importantly, he enters the Finals having been (mostly) on his best behavior, accumulating just one technical foul and zero flagrant foul points through 12 playoff games.
“I’ve never seen [Green] in a better place emotionally,” Kerr said Monday, according to Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Still playing with rage, desire and force, but totally under control.”
In other words: he’s playing like a man who feels like he’s got unfinished business, and who knows more intimately than anyone else that the job’s not done until you hit 16 wins.
“[Sweeping through the West] means we got a little more rest, we played a few less games, but it’s not like you get some trophy or something for being undefeated throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs,” Green said. “Like I’ve stated before, it’s about winning the championship, and we’re four games away from that. If that’s 4-0, great. If it’s 4-3, great. It doesn’t matter how you get those four wins, as long as you get them, and that’s our goal.”
Nothing short of that 16th win will be good enough for Green, the player whose defensive versatility, advanced playmaking and irrepressible snarl arguably played just as big a role in the Warriors’ rise to supremacy as Steph’s unerring shooting, and the player who — more than a healthy-once-again Curry or a back-under-the-bright-lights Durant — has the biggest burden to shed in these Finals as Golden State tries to regain its place atop the NBA mountain.
“It was taken,” Green said last week, according to Anthony Slater of the Bay Area News Group. “They took it. We want to go take back the championship. That’s just the nature of a competitor. That’s the mindset of everyone in the organization. Go take back what they took from us. If that’s not your mindset, I guess you screwed yourself.”
Last year, Green screwed himself, and a Warriors team with a legitimate chance to earn a claim as the greatest NBA team of all time paid the ultimate price for his self-inflicted wound. Starting Thursday night, he can repay his debts to both his teammates and to his rival. Now, Draymond Green gets the chance to make things right, and to prove a point: that in a series loaded with all-time offensive talent, it’s his fire, and his ability to direct it, that’s most responsible for determining the outcome on the grandest stage of all.
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