BOSTON — The Golden State Warriors have pointed out how talented and tough their opponent is throughout the NBA Finals.
But on the eve of Game 6, when the Warriors edged out the Boston Celtics with a win, Draymond Green said the challenges they posed weren’t comparable to battling the Warriors’ more familiar opponent this round: LeBron James.
“It’s not like playing mentally against LeBron James, who I think is probably the smartest guy that’s ever played that game,” Green said. “None of them, he’s probably the smartest guy to set foot on a basketball court. To say it’s comparable is disrespect to LeBron and a lie to you.
Green doesn’t like being taken out of context (who does?) and is not immune to saying it happened even when it didn’t. It’s also worth noting that James is a business partner with Green on several ventures. So, from the NBA’s official transcript, here’s the question Green answered Thursday before the Warriors practice.
They’ve competed in so many high-profile championship series over the years against all-time players like LeBron. Where would you say this series ranks in terms of the mental challenge of having to anticipate what Boston is going to do three steps further and try to attack it three steps further?
Green clearly didn’t have it. The Warriors faced James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in four straight playoffs from 2015 to 2018, winning three times. But in 2015, the Warriors were knocked out 2-1 despite the absence of Cleveland’s second- and third-best players Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In 2016, James orchestrated an historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win.
Of the Celtics being Green’s main concern, he said, “It’s a mental challenge because these guys are super athletic.” He said their youth and talent made him reconsider the Celtics and “that was in that series enormous from a mental point of view and just trying to understand them and be one step ahead of them.”
And then he said playing the Celtics “isn’t as big a chess game as it is against LeBron, who analyzes every move in his computer, like real-time.”
“Like that’s just a skill that not many people have,” Green said. “Not many people can come and sit here and find a random seven-minute four-minute stretch in the second quarter and give you every game like the T and not miss a shot. There aren’t many people who can do that.”
Green, still speaking in his stream of consciousness, made it a point to mention two Celtics he thinks are smart. One is Marcus Smart, who is “extremely smart, it’s like a chess game going against him”. And Boston coach Ime Udoka “is extremely smart. We know his family tree.”
“So the challenge is there, but you can’t match it against LeBron’s,” Green added. “Like I said, he’s probably the smartest guy we’ve ever seen play basketball.”
LeBron, of course, is not in this series. The team he currently plays for, the Lakers, didn’t make the playoffs. So what should be the takeaways from Green’s comments?
Does this rise to the level of bulletin board material for Boston? Green suggested he could outperform the Celtics’ younger and more talented players. He didn’t name names, but that means Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — two players he’s feuded with throughout the series. When you come to an elimination game and you’re on the wrong side like the Celtics, what more motivation than avoiding seeing Golden State pop champagne at TD Garden? Tatum has shown no interest in engaging with Green anyway, even when Green followed him to the bench during a Game 5 timeout. But it’s not a huge leap to conclude Green said neither Tatum nor Brown are rising to LeBron’s level. It’s one thing to say that none of the players are as good as LeBron; Perhaps in the NBA’s 75-year history, there has only been one player who was better. But there’s room for some of the Celtics to get upset if they want to.
Is Green right about outsmarting the Celtics? He really struggled in Games 3 and 4, with Steve Kerr walking away from him for much of the fourth quarter of a game when the Warriors came back and won (Game 4). Green was much better in Game 5, with eight points (he had scored four in the previous two games), eight rebounds and six assists despite fouling. Green clearly disrupted the Celtics flow in Game 2 (another Boston loss) by being a relentless pest. Boston’s players and coaches have more than once admitted losing focus from outside forces like Green or the officials. If that was Green’s plan, it’s working.
Another way to think about LeBron, the Warriors and staying on top: Green obviously wanted to pay tribute to LeBron, whose legacy is cemented in the NBA. But the Warriors forged that dynasty against those Cavaliers teams with LeBron. In an age of unprecedented mobility and empowerment of superstar players (if you don’t like where you are you can leave, contract be damn), the fact that Golden State is in a finals once again, with Green and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson as its core, probably deserves even more praise than it gets.
Those great Warriors teams sort of unraveled when Kevin Durant left the franchise through free agency, trading Andre Iguodala for Cap spot (hey, it eventually brought him back) and acquiring an influx of talent (like Andrew Wiggins). who had never made the playoffs. But Golden State didn’t fire Kerr after losing the most games in the NBA in 2020. Green didn’t get tired of it and traded him. The franchise was rewarded for its patience while Thompson missed more than two seasons with devastating leg injuries. And Curry was the reassuring influence — the undisputed leader, the rock upon which the Warriors’ stability was built — that will likely remain for the rest of his career. LeBron didn’t want that in Cleveland — or at least he didn’t want it enough that he got to the point where he wanted to head to Los Angeles in 2018.
LeBron’s Lakers won a championship when the Warriors were at their worst. If James never left Cleveland, might the Cavs play in the 2019 NBA Finals with Durant and Thompson eventually injuring themselves? Anyway, all of this was a long time ago and we’ve all moved on.
But the warriors are still mostly together after building their reputation and legacy against James.
“As you grow and realize these things, they are not promised, and you try not to take these things for granted and to understand that you’re probably closer to the end than you are to the beginning,” Green said. “It’s just a completely different appreciation that you have for these moments now than then.”
(Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)