About 200 feet east of Oracle Arena Monday night, Draymond Green watched Game 5 from a suite inside the Oakland Athletics’ stadium. What he saw was his team bring a championship effort in a closeout game, only to fall short on their home floor (where, by the way, the Warriors had only lost seven times in the past two years- including the playoffs).
The fervid power forward, for the first time in the postseason, was completely powerless when his team needed him the most. And to make matters worse, defensive specialist Andrew Bogut was forced to leave the game with a knee injury early in the third quarter.
The result? LeBron James and Kyrie Irving exploded for 82 combined points, and the Cavaliers kept their heads above water for at least one more game. They took Game 5 by outscoring Golden State 48–30 in the paint and 28 to 9 on fastbreak points, but it was the missing Green and Bogut that caused the machine that is Golden State to sputter and stop in the second half.
On the surface, the Warriors looked roughly the same without their two most important big men. Klay Thompson had a sublime game finishing with 37 points, and Steph Curry stayed a notch below nirvana but still produced 25 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Andre Iguodala continued to be an absolute menace on defense, and Shaun Livingston delivered a solid 21 minutes off the bench.
But for the first time in the NBA Finals, Cleveland finally had the upper hand with match-ups. Steve Kerr and the Warriors were hard pressed to find the right lineups to replace the impact of Green and Bogut, but they simply didn’t have the personnel. And they tried nearly everything. James McAdoo saw eight minutes, Anderson Varejao had nine, Festus Ezeli played ten, and Mo Speights finished with eleven. But without Bogut or Green, the Warriors struggled immensely to protect the paint. James and Irving were finally able to find air space near the rim, something that Green and Bogut had done a spectacular job eliminating the first four games. The passing lanes were wider, and the Warriors’ switches on defense were profoundly less fluid.
The holes left by Green and Bogut on defense are obvious. It makes sense: remove your two best rim protectors, and the other team will have an easier time finishing drives and layups. Take away your most versatile defender, and you’re more exposed to mismatches. But Green’s absence made life significantly harder for Golden State on offense, too. Cleveland’s defensive scheme on the Warriors has been to swarm immediately on the high pick-and-roll, vigilantly attacking the little breathing room the Warriors’ backcourt needs to get a shot off. On those perimeter screens, the Cleveland big man (usually Love or Thompson) hedges the ball handler, presses just long enough for the primary defender (Smith, Irving or Shumpert) to recover, then they sprint back to cover the rolling or popping screen-setter.
In Games 1–4, the Warriors easily countered that strategy mostly thanks to Draymond Green’s diverse playmaking ability. When Green catches the ball after setting a screen for Curry or Thompson (the core of the Warriors offense), he has three choices to punish the defense: shoot the three, drive to the bucket, or find the man left open from the rotating defender. In that same vein, the Cavs have been forced to choose between Curry/Thompson and a wide-open Green, and that’s where they’ve been burned. But in Game 5, the Warriors had to replace Green with Harrison Barnes, Varejao, Speights or Ezeli, none of whom are half as dangerous in that position as Green. It didn’t help that Barnes went inexplicably frigid, finishing with only five points on 2/14 shooting. The Warriors role players, especially Barnes, were forced into arguably the most important playmaking role in the Warriors motion offense, and their performance in Game 5 is proof of Green’s value.
(As a sidebar, Barnes’ horrific night might have been a fluke in some regard, considering he went 2/7 on uncontested shots per NBA.com, but make no mistake: he was asked to play a very different game on Monday because of Green being out, and I think it threw him off his rhythm.)
Some consider Draymond Green to be the heart of the Warriors, because he consistently brings the energy and passion that lifts his teammates on offense and punctuates a terrorizing defense with his length and ferocity. But to me, he’s the glue. He’s the one that fills whatever gap the opponent attempts to create. The Warriors ask Green to do it all: pass, shoot, drive on offense, and guard anyone, anywhere on the court on defense. It’s his versatility that makes him such a big headache for opponents, but it’s also what allows Curry, Klay, Barnes and Iguodala to be their most efficient selves. Green’s all-purpose game is their sixth man, quietly plugging holes and securing cracks, allowing the Warriors to pile on top of the foundation that Green holds on his shoulders.
The two teams return to Cleveland on Thursday for Game 6. If Bogut is forced to miss the contest, the Warriors will have to start the Death Lineup. And while the Cavs won’t have the luxury of playing against a Green-less Warriors, missing the Aussie center might leave a crack in the window just big enough for Cleveland to slip through to force a Game 7.
What do you think? Can the Warriors mirror their efforts from last season and close out the Finals in Cleveland, or will LeBron and Kyrie continue their historic play for the right to return to Oakland one last time? Download Sporting Vote, the #1 social app for sports news and opinions, and join the conversation. appstore.com/sportingvote