After the Warriors seared the exhausted Cavaliers in overtime of Game 1, our own Kevin Draper wrote a smart piece about how Draymond Green’s versatility enables Golden State to use him as the center in a terrifyingly fast and rangy small-ball lineup. “When the Warriors play small they’re unstoppable,” read the headline. The problem the last two games have revealed is that when the Cavaliers go big, Draymond Green is just the dumpy li’l dude lost in the shadows of Timofey Mozgov’s armpit.
That’s no small concern for Golden State. Casual observers may not know it from the committed Gerald Wilkins impersonation he’s been doing for all but five of the series’ 154 minutes so far, but Green might well be the Warriors’ most important player (though obviously Steph Curry is their best). Their switching defense relies on him being able to guard five positions without sacrificing rebounding; their offense relies on his shooting and passing to exploit screen-and-roll defenses that over-commit to containing Curry. They can live with him not doing much of the latter—so long as he’s defending and rebounding, they’ll get opportunities to run out in transition and bomb away from deep against a scrambling defense—but he’s not doing the former, either.
Here’s what he’s doing instead:
That’s Green, number 23 in blue, getting leaped over (along with Andrew Bogut) by springy young cock Tristan Thompson, precisely the sort of range-free traditional big man a next-generation stretch four like Draymond is supposed to be punishing the Cavaliers for using. It’s a neat microcosm of what’s been crippling the Warriors all series, apart from the run they put on the dead-on-their-feet Cavs in last Thursday’s overtime. Green just can’t rebound with Thompson at all, so even though LeBron James is shooting an unimpressive-looking 40 percent from the floor in the series, his misses aren’t really hurting the Cavs. (In fact, at least of few of them, including that missed layup above, have functioned as assists.)
Going huge with Thompson and Timofey Mozgov up front and giving LeBron almost uninterrupted ownership of the ball has turned out to be an ingenious strategy for the Cavaliers. Golden State’s reliance on defensive switching is a liability when LeBron just patiently forces the switch he wants, bulls his way into the paint, draws help, and then either finds an open teammate or has his monstrous frontcourt clean the glass when defenders leave them to challenge his shot. It has the Cavs scoring just efficiently enough to keep the Warriors working against their set halfcourt defense—a setup in which Cleveland’s size turns Golden State almost exclusively into a passive, predictable, jump-shooting outfit.
And it works precisely because Draymond Green is on the floor. He can’t meaningfully challenge LeBron at the rim (without a sprinting head start, that is); when he tries, he can’t box out Thompson; when he doesn’t box out Thompson, he can’t beat him to rebounds, because he’s a shrimp who can’t jump; and when he can’t beat Thompson to rebounds, the Warriors can’t get out, run in transition, force cross-matches, and do all the cool shit they do.
Draymond could mitigate the damage a bit if he were exploiting the Cavs on offense, but he’s been a wreck there, too. Here again, Cleveland’s size is a huge problem for him. His jumper, never all that reliable, has gone in the tank and seemingly taken his confidence with it, but he can’t get himself into a rhythm closer to the basket with Timofey Mozgov going human flyswatter all over his weaksauce old-man-game shit.
That’s the most spectacular example, but Mozgov stoned Green around the basket no fewer than four times (three of his four official blocks came against Draymond, and he altered his shot at least one other time by my count) last night. And that’s a bigger number than it might seem, since Green only took six shots inside the arc all game. The effect is snowballing: Green’s shooting form has gone to hell as he’s lost confidence in his shot, and that’s just when he’s been willing to take the looks he’s getting.
By the end of Game 3, he was hopelessly shook. With a little more than two minutes remaining* and the Warriors trailing by four, the Cavs doubled Curry coming around a screen and left Draymond to catch the ball at the top of the key without a single defender within 15 feet of him and nobody even trying to close out ... and instead of taking advantage of the best look he’ll ever have in his life, a shot he’s taken a hundred times this season with defenders right in his mug, he drove right to where Mozgov and Thompson were both waiting for him. Mozgov went straight up, Draymond bounced off him as harmlessly as a falling leaf glancing off the side of a house, and his shot rolled off the rim.
That wasn’t even the worst of it. Green grabbed his own rebound off that ill-conceived miss and passed it to Curry; Curry dribbled around on the wing until he drew two defenders, then darted toward the middle of the floor and flipped a behind-the-back pass out to the open spot on the wing ... where it went out of bounds, because Draymond hadn’t popped to that spot. Who knows why he didn’t; if it’s because he couldn’t stomach the idea of shooting up another brick, I can’t blame him. Even if you’re rooting for the Cavs, it was pretty brutal.
*I desperately wanted to include video of this play, but we couldn’t get it. The NBA has it, if you scroll down to near the bottom of this play-by-play and click the little play button next to the “MISS Green 9’ Jump Shot” with 2:14 remaining in the game. It’s not embeddable. Drat.
You might think the solution would be to move the 6-foot-7 Green to small forward, where his size wouldn’t be an issue and he might be able to use his strength and rebounding to tip the physical edge back to the Warriors. But, see, the thing is, Cleveland’s small forward is pretty good, and poor Draymond can’t guard him on the perimeter at all.
That’s the thing. Green is quick and nimble for a power forward, but decidedly not so for a wing. Nobody can really contain LeBron, of course, but for all Draymond’s defensive prowess against mere mortals, he might as well be Zach Randolph trying to stay in front of LeBron 21 feet from the basket. And in the meantime, running him at three puts another big on the floor who can’t space the floor or switch screens onto LeBron.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr got desperate enough to give David Lee his first action of the series late last night—and it coincided with the Warriors making their strongest push since overtime of Game 1. That speaks to how badly Draymond Green had been hurting them, but mostly it speaks to how vulnerable Cleveland’s six-man rotation is to fresh legs near the end of a night of constant red-line effort. It’s fool’s gold: Lee is a dismal defender and can’t switch onto anybody, least of all LeBron, and he can’t hang back and protect the rim and let Bogut do the switching, either. The only way to get enough value out of him to negate his bad defense is to run the offense through him in the post—but, against Thompson and Mozgov, he’d have to be Hakeem Olajuwon to make that a better choice than keeping the ball in Steph’s hands. He’s not Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s not the answer.
And while going hyper-small worked for a three minute burst at the end of Game 1, that’s not the answer, either. If the Warriors can’t keep the Cavs from building a pillow fort on the rim with Andrew Bogut on the floor, they certainly can’t do it by replacing him with Leandro Barbosa or Shaun Livingston. And they lose much of the offensive benefit of it if Draymond is gonna be out here shooting threes like your grandmother, or turning them down altogether.
Every configuration the Warriors might use to turn the tables depends on Draymond Green—and right now, down 2-1 to a team missing two of its three best players, Golden State’s second-best player is almost too lousy to use in any of them. That’s a pretty cruel fate. He won them the crucial three minutes at the end of Game 1, and might just be losing them the NBA championship.
Top photo via AP