Draymond Green steps up as Warriors seek to even NBA Finals with Celtics

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SAN FRANCISCO — Draymond Green was embroiled in an uproar last week when the straight forward predicted during a TNT interview that his Golden State Warriors would face the Boston Celtics rather than the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

While Green’s claim was reasonable, it still angered the Heat, who responded with a win over the Celtics in Boston to force a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Miami forward Udonis Haslem accused Green of “[breaking] the Code” with his “disrespectful” choice, and PJ Tucker thanked Green for the extra motivation.

With a triumphant performance to close out the series, the Celtics spared Green a direct showdown with the Heat and their hurt feelings, but that hardly meant he was let off the hook. On the contrary, after Boston’s 120-108 win in Game 1 on Thursday, Green’s game rather than his words were the subject of deserved scrutiny. For Golden State to level the series in Sunday’s Game 2, the key adjustment is obvious: Green, a three-time champion known for improving his game in the playoffs, must play more effectively at both ends.

“One thing I hate is leaders who, when all is well, are just them,” said the 32-year-old Green in practice on Saturday. “They do everything. You make everything possible. And if something hits the fan, everyone else is to blame. As I said before, we call these front runners and we don’t. We’ll take it by the chin. That’s what I’ve been taught my whole life. If I play well, we win in the end. And if I don’t do it, we still can. But if I do, we win. So that falls on me.”

Indeed, Green’s best performances have come at just the right time this postseason. With an opportunity to end the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round, Green had 14 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in a Game 6 win. And in a Game 5 win over the Dallas Mavericks to win the Western Conference Finals win, Green had 17 points and nine assists to slam the door.

A testament to Green’s flagship status is his three-point shooting, which has often been low key and not particularly effective in recent years. While Green hit at least a three-pointer this season, Golden State posted a 13-1 record in the regular season and a 6-0 record in the playoffs. If Green is confident enough to pull the trigger instead of bowing down to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and with enough rhythm to connect, Golden State can look unbeatable.

That wasn’t the case in Game 1 when Green 2 shot from the field for 12 and missed all four of his three-point attempts. Willful shooting was just a concern; Green fouled, committed three turnovers, and was temporarily overwhelmed by Boston’s frontline of Al Horford and Robert Williams. During the Celtics’ pivotal fourth-quarter excitement, Green had a careless turnover and an offensive foul that nullified a Curry layup, and Horford was wide open for three-pointers on multiple occasions.

Celtics stun Warriors with fourth quarter excitement in opening game of NBA Finals

“You could just feel the momentum shift dramatically and the avalanche started,” Curry said Saturday, adding that Golden State was facing a “come to Jesus moment” after falling in Game 1 at the Chase Center had left.

Horford and Williams present this postseason’s toughest challenge for Green, who played a central role in defending Denver Nuggets MVP center Nikola Jokic in the first round, faced the Grizzlies’ physical frontline in the second round, and won the fight perimeter-oriented big men of the Mavericks in the West Finals.

Horford is an accomplished veteran who can shoot, pass, and defend on the rim and in space. Williams, much like Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr., is a competitive athlete who plays over the edge. Over the years, Green has been most effective when fighting slow-footed centers who can’t stay on the edge with him, or non-scoring threats that allow him to move and provide disruptive defensive assistance. Boston’s big men are versatile enough to stay by his side and offensive enough to keep him honest.

Additionally, the Celtics used Marcus Smart, a 6-foot-3 guard who was named Defensive Player of the Year in April, to defend green for Game 1 stretches. This maneuver allowed Boston’s big men to stay closer to the basket and putt smart, able to switch to Golden State guards when Green tried to set up jump shot handoffs, one of his pet moves on offense.

Celtics coach Ime Udoka said Saturday the strategy should encourage Green to look for his own offense, which isn’t usually his preference. That season, Green averaged a team-high 7.0 assists per game but was Golden State’s seventh-best scorer, averaging just 7.5 points.

“We don’t feel [Smart defending Green is] definitely a cross match or a mismatch,” said Udoka. “We’ve put Marcus on Bigs throughout the season to switch to their guards at times. That’s something in our back pocket that we’re comfortable with. in general, [we try to] remedy [Green] when appropriate and try to make him a top scorer. It’s a tough one: you’re helping him, but he goes straight into a dribbling handoff action or a pin-down action, and you have to be able to help and come back.

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While Golden State could turn to Thompson and stand-in Jordan Poole for more points in Game 2, Green will likely be the focus of their defensive improvement hopes. The seven-time all-defensive team selection highlighted the Warriors’ lack of defensive “power” in Game 1 and said the Celtics’ shooters performed so well in the fourth quarter because the Warriors allowed them to be comfortable by using them earlier too many simple looks conceded the game.

As in all of their title years, the Warriors will be counting on Green to adopt a tougher or more physical tone on defense in Game 2. Golden State is 4-0 after one loss this postseason.

“There is no other scenario that I see playing out differently than [Green] coming out with great energy and focus,” Curry said. “Just making his influence felt on the pitch. I know he takes all of these things personally in terms of his standard and what he knows he can do out there on the floor. When he doesn’t live up to that, he’s usually fairly honest and primarily accountable to himself and the team.

“You don’t win championships and you’re not the team we are if you don’t have that in your DNA at some point. We have to go out and prove it, including Draymond.”

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