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The NBA gave Draymond Green a stay of execution on Monday, deciding that the splitting of Steven Adams' uprights that kickstarted the Oklahoma City Thunder's Game 3 annihilation of the Golden State Warriors didn't merit a one-game suspension. Instead, the All-Star power forward would be allowed to suit up for the fourth game of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday.
Given that new lease on life, Green promised Tuesday to change nothing about his approach, pushing the pedal to the metal exactly as he has throughout his journey from the second round to star status.
“I’m never going to be careful,” he said at Tuesday's shootaround. “I’m just going to be me, and the game will play out how it plays out.”
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But with the notable exception of groin-kicking — of which there was none, although Green did experience leg entanglement with both Enes Kanter and Russell Westbrook — Game 4 played out just about exactly as Game 3 did. The NBA wouldn't remove Green from the game, and the Thunder decided that was fine, because they'd rather do it themselves.
Oklahoma City built a double-digit lead with a big mid-first quarter run, put the hammer down midway through the second, hung 72 points on the Warriors before intermission, and cruised home late, utterly dominating the best regular-season team the NBA has ever seen in a 118-94 victory that brings the Thunder within one win of their first NBA Finals trip since 2012 and leaves Golden State one loss away from elimination. And after missing eight of his nine shots, grabbing just four rebounds in 32 minutes and posting more turnovers (four) than assists (three) in Game 3, Green missed six of seven shots, and turned it over six times against two helpers in 38 minutes.
Green led the NBA in plus-minus this season; the Warriors outscored opponents by 1,070 points with him on the floor during their historic campaign. But the regular season is gone, as dead and buried as Golden State's once-vaunted "Death Lineup," and the Thunder just finished making a dude I just argued was the NBA's best all-around player into just about the biggest net negative possible:
"I bring the energy to this team, and I have not been there," Green told reporters after Game 4. "I think our energy go as my energy go, and I've been awful."
Green's nightmarish evening represented just about the exact worst-case scenario that our Kelly Dwyer laid out in his Game 4 preview:
[After a brutal Game 3, Green] was going to be pressing anyway, in Game 4. Toss in the potential for martyrdom, and Green could either overexert himself (potentially exhausting himself well before halftime even hits), or fold a bit as he attempts to play in a style that hardly suits him. He’s gotten into his own head before — witness that 22 percent 3-point shooting run that marked his first 10 games back from the All-Star break — but evidence of Diminished Draymond is usually hard to find.
The evidence was easy to spot in Game 4. Once again, he tried to force plays through the weaponized defense of Kevin Durant, who said he never expected Green to be suspended and again played like he's been waiting for Draymond his whole life, devouring hoped-for feeds and desperation drives with those impossibly long arms:
"It's a long, athletic team, and the passes you usually make, you can't really make," Green said after the game. "You've got to make it a different way, and I don't think we've adjusted to it well."
When Green did have the opportunity to make a play away from or around Durant's grasp, he just didn't seem to have the precision and touch that made him one of the league's premier point forwards over the past two seasons, putting his pass a stride too far beyond where it needed to be or a split-second out of sync with his teammate's cut:
And when, during one second-quarter possession, Green both got away from Durant and converted on the right pass ... well, there was Durant again, double-jumping like freaking Mario to somehow rob Shaun Livingston of a dunk and Green of a dime:
Even Green's lone bucket of Game 4 came only after two denials by Oklahoma City's suffocating interior defense, a triumph of perseverance more than playmaking:
Wherever Green turned on Tuesday, he seemed crowded and contested, finding no room to breathe free. He wasn't alone on that score — back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry looked like a shell of himself en route to 19 points on 6-for-20 shooting and six turnovers of his own, and multiple Warriors looked downright shook when venturing in amongst the tall timber of Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams — but, perhaps even more than Curry, Green's disconnection seemed to dispirit the Warriors.
For two years running, Draymond's been the source of the sneer and swagger that have propelled Golden State to such great heights. For two games running, the Thunder have taken that from him ... along with everything else.
After taking him out with 3:16 remaining in the first quarter, Warriors coach Steve Kerr pronounced Green "a little shaky" during his between-quarters interview with TNT's David Aldridge, but said he believed the spirited forward would find his way. After watching him flail again for three more quarters, Kerr offered another vote of confidence.
"Just wasn't a good game for him, and he's had a couple in a row," Kerr said. "That's very rare. Normally, when Draymond has a bad game, he bounces back and plays extremely well the next game. So, a couple of bad ones in a row. He's got to bounce back. We all have to bounce back."
Green's teammates also sounded hopeful notes about his capacity to get back on the good foot back at Oracle Arena in Thursday's Game 5.
"I mean, he's gotten us here," said Klay Thompson, whose third-quarter scoring barrage was just about the only bright spot for Golden State on Tuesday. "He was a huge part of our success this year, and we just need him to play like Draymond — like, get that dog from him. And he will. He's a very accountable player.
"Obviously, he's been off the last two nights. That happens. Lucky for us, it's the first to four. Things are looking pretty grim right now, but at the end of the day, we're going home and we know what we've got to do, and Draymond's our vocal leader. He knows what he's got to do, so I expect him to bounce back in a great way, just like everybody else on our team."
Green refused to attribute any of his Game 4 struggles to the "will he get suspended?" drama that dominated Sunday and Monday. ("No, I looked like I looked Sunday, so I don't think the last 48 hours affected me," he offered, by way of gallows humor.) Curry, however, wasn't so sure, and thought that might represent the faint glimmer of the silver lining that Golden State so badly needs right now.
"He's a very mentally strong guy," Curry said. "It was a stressful 48 hours for him, not knowing what the decision was going to be, and dealing with those emotions coming into tonight, and trying to come and help our team win. He talked with some of the guys in the locker room afterward about how he was feeling, and you know, no need to worry about him going into next game, that he's going to figure it out."
We've been here before with Green. Kerr, Curry and the rest of the Warriors said similar things after Game 3 of the 2015 NBA Finals, a loss that put Golden State down 2-1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Green seeming trapped inside his head as he passed up open perimeter shots and failed to finish on frantic drives into the bulk of Timofey Mozgov. Everyone espoused confidence that Green would shake it off, lock back in and be heard from; he averaged 16.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.7 steals over the next three games, shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from 3-point land as the Warriors ripped off three straight wins to take the NBA championship.
Green's capable of that kind of turnaround; it has happened before. But can it happen against a Thunder team this athletic, this aggressive, this long, this poised and this loaded with firepower? Can it happen when Green himself might not know exactly what needs fixing?
"If I knew, I would've been better," he said. "But at the end of the day, I know I've got to be better in Game 5. It's all or nothing. We've put too much work in to go out like this, and I wouldn't be able to live with myself all summer going out like that. I'm not sure what it is, but whatever it is, I've got to do it."
Even if Green does figure it out between now and Thursday, the Warriors' odds of pulling off a comeback are exceedingly long. (About 3.8 percent, if history's any indicator.) If he doesn't, though, their chances are just about nil. The wolves are at the door, the doubters just itching to throw "it don't mean a thing without the ring" dirt on everything the Warriors accomplished this year ... this is the kind of situation to which Green has typically responded with fury and fire. After the Thunder extinguished his flame over the last two games, Draymond heads west in search of enough oxygen to reignite.
"I think it's the first time in my life that I didn't respond to critics, and that's what has kind of been my story," Green said. "And I haven't done that. So I've got to do that."
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