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


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SAN FRANCISCO — Draymond Green found himself embroiled in a brouhaha last week, when the straight-talking forward predicted during a TNT interview that his Golden State Warriors would face the Boston Celtics, not the Miami Heat, in the NBA Finals.

Though Green’s assertion was reasonable, it nevertheless rankled the Heat, which responded by beating 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” pick, and P.J. Tucker thanked Green for the added motivation.

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

“One thing I hate is leaders who, when everything is good, it’s all them,” Green, 32, said at practice Saturday. “They’re doing it all. They’re making everything happen. And when stuff hits the fan, it’s everybody else’s fault. As I’ve said before, we call those front-runners, and we don’t do that. We take it on the chin. That’s what I’ve always been taught my entire life. Ultimately, if I play well, we win. And if I don’t, we still can. But if I do, we win. So that falls on me.”

Indeed, Green’s best performances this postseason have come at timely moments. With an opportunity to close out the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round, Green posted 14 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in a Game 6 victory. And in a Game 5 victory over the Dallas Mavericks to clinch the Western Conference finals, Green had 17 points and nine assists to help slam the door.

For evidence of Green’s bellwether status, look no further than his three-point shooting, which has often been reluctant and not especially effective in recent years. When Green has made at least one three-pointer this season, Golden State has posted a 13-1 record during the regular season and a 6-0 mark in the playoffs. If Green is confident enough to pull the trigger rather than defer to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and in enough of a rhythm to connect, Golden State can look unbeatable.

That wasn’t the case in Game 1, when Green shot 2 for 12 from the field and missed all four of his three-point attempts. Wayward shooting was only one concern; Green fouled out, committed three turnovers and was overwhelmed at times by Boston’s front line of Al Horford and Robert Williams. During the Celtics’ decisive fourth-quarter flurry, Green had a careless turnover and an offensive foul that negated a Curry layup, and Horford found himself wide open for three-pointers on multiple occasions.

Celtics stun Warriors in NBA Finals opener with fourth-quarter flurry

“You could just feel the momentum shifting dramatically and the avalanche started,” Curry said Saturday, adding that Golden State faced a “come-to-Jesus moment” after dropping Game 1 at Chase Center.

Horford and Williams represent this postseason’s toughest challenge for Green, who played a central role defending Denver Nuggets MVP center Nikola Jokic in the first round, went toe-to-toe with the Grizzlies’ physical front line in the second round and won the battle against the Mavericks’ perimeter-oriented big men in the West finals.

Horford is a savvy veteran who can shoot, pass and defend at the rim and in space. Williams, much like Memphis’s Jaren Jackson Jr., is a shot-contesting athlete who plays above the rim. Over the years, Green has been at his most effective when facing slow-footed centers who can’t stay with him on the perimeter or non-scoring threats who allow him to roam and provide disruptive help defense. Boston’s big men are versatile enough to stick with him and capable enough offensively to keep him honest.

What’s more, the Celtics deployed Marcus Smart, a 6-foot-3 guard who was named defensive player of the year in April, to defend Green for stretches of Game 1. That maneuver allowed Boston’s big men to remain closer to the basket and put Smart in a position to switch onto Golden State’s guards when Green tried to set up handoffs for jump shots, one of his pet moves on offense.

Celtics Coach Ime Udoka said Saturday that strategy was intended to encourage Green to look for his own offense, which typically isn’t his preference. This season, Green posted a team-high 7.0 assists per game but was Golden State’s seventh-leading scorer, averaging just 7.5 points.

“We don’t feel [Smart defending Green is] a cross-match, by any means, or a mismatch,” Udoka said. “We put Marcus on bigs throughout the season to switch onto their guards at times. That’s something in our back pocket that we feel comfortable doing. In general, [we try to] help off [Green] when it’s appropriate and try to make him be more of a scorer. It’s a tough one: You help off, but he’s going right into a dribble handoff action or a pin-down action, and you have to be able to help and get back.”

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While Golden State could turn to Thompson and backup guard Jordan Poole for more scoring in Game 2, Green probably will be central to its hopes for defensive improvement. The seven-time all-defensive team selection highlighted the Warriors’ lack of defensive “force” in Game 1, saying the Celtics’ shooters performed so well in the fourth quarter because the Warriors let them get comfortable by conceding too many easy looks earlier in the game.

As has been the case throughout their title years, the Warriors will be counting on Green to set a fiercer or more physical tone on defense in Game 2. Golden State is 4-0 after a loss in this postseason.

“There’s no other scenario where I see it playing out any different than [Green] coming out with great energy and focus,” Curry said. “Just making his impact felt on the court. I know he takes all that stuff personally, in terms of his standard and what he knows he can do out there on the floor. When he doesn’t meet that, he’s usually pretty honest and accountable to himself, first and foremost, and to the team.

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


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