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Why Draymond Green, the NBA's best defender, is at his best when guarding nobody

The central paradox to the NBA’s premier defensive player is what makes him so great.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Before the NBA playoffs began, I listed 31 set plays and player quirks that these 16 teams use that you need to look closely to discover. Call them the Easter Eggs or the cheat sheet of the NBA Playoffs. Click the link to learn more about them. Each night, I’ll round up examples of those 31 set plays and examples of other interesting plays or player quirks that you may have missed.

PREVIOUSLY: April 15-16 | April 17 | April 18 | April 19

By now, you may have seen the clip of Draymond Green guarding all five Blazers players on one third-quarter possession of the Warriors’ Game 3 win on Saturday. If not, here it is, via Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer.

Green began the play on Evan Turner, slid under the hoop to help on Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic, closed out on C.J. McCollum, and got his hand in Damian Lillard’s face on the three-pointer. For his efforts, he received no credit in the traditional box score. Yet without his roaming, no fewer than three Trail Blazers would have received high-quality open shots.

That activity was his modus operandi throughout Golden State’s four-game sweep. He tortured Portland with a devastating display of Easter Egg 25: The ability to put out any defensive fire, wherever it is. He was the enforcer roaming outside the usual defensive chain of command, a Darth Vader to Ron Adams’ Emperor Palpatine. (Though it’s hard to imagine the Warriors’ defensive guru as an evil tyrant.)

This reveales the central paradox about Green: He is at his best when he’s guarding nobody.

Usually, teams want to avoid the great defenders like the plague. But in Green’s case, the best chance at negating his massive impact is to actually make him guard someone.

Not to say that Green is inept at this task. Just ask Blake Griffin or any number of speedy guards that can’t shake him. But it is at least possible to score on him one-on-one, however hard it may seem. Kyrie Irving could in last year’s NBA Finals, and so too could Lillard and McCollum for the first three quarters of Game 1.

Portland emerged with a bold plan early on: Ditch the long windups of their Flow offense and attack with their guards off the dribble, even if it meant going right at Green.

It seems odd to target the potential Defensive Player of the Year, but there’s some sense in the approach. If you had to rank Green’s defensive skills, No. 1 would be his ability to read the other nine guys on the court, No. 2 is his shot-blocking, No. 3 are his hands, and No. 4 is his ability to shut down anyone one-on-one. No. 4 is still a special trait, but it’s not quite as dominant or unique as Nos. 1-3. By forcing Green to actually guard their best offensive player, teams negate strength No. 1 and limit the impact of strength Nos. 2 and 3.

So what changed in the other 13 quarters? After a half to process Portland’s approach, the Warriors remembered that the Blazers play three self-checks on the wings in Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Evan Turner. They grew more daring at leaving those players open to flood help to Lillard and McCollum. Even when the Blazers tried to target Green again, he didn’t need to actually stop those guys as much as funnel them into the other Warrior defenders.

With all those bodies in the way, Lillard and McCollum couldn’t benefit from beating Green off the dribble anyway. Portland went away from the strategy, which freed Green to be his roaming self again. Portland couldn’t craft a lineup without at least one of those three bricklayers, so Green always had a “hiding place” from which to strike. And strike he did, over and over again.

The Blazers’ strategy made sense, but they didn’t have the personnel to carry it out. Teams can’t play wing players who can’t shoot because the Warriors are too good at closing off space away from the ball. It’s how they neutralized Tony Allen with Andrew Bogut in the 2015 Playoffs and it’s how they’ve neutralized countless teams thereafter. Opponents’ only chance is to force Green on their best perimeter player and space out with terrific shooters to prevent anyone else from helping.

Obviously, that strategy has ripple effects elsewhere. Playing more shooters usually means downsizing, which plays right into the Warriors’ game. There’s also the pesky problem of Kevin Durant zipping around as a Draymond lite, putting out fires at the rim and anywhere else when Green himself is beat.

But at least that’s better than letting Draymond dominate four games with absurd block and steal numbers, snarling and trash talking with every stop.

This is an entirely new paradigm in evaluating defenders in the modern age of basketball.

We once thought of great defensive players in one of two categories: shutdown wings and rim-protecting behemoths. This Defensive Player of the Year race features one of each of those: Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio and Rudy Gobert in Utah. Both guys are great at what they do and I take nothing away from them.

Green, however, is something else entirely. You can scheme Leonard and Gobert out of a play, either by using Leonard’s man as a decoy (as CBS Sports’ Matt Moore observed earlier this year) or by forcing Gobert to defend in space. Neither is foolproof or easy, but there’s a roadmap.

Green, however, defies all schemes. The whole point of the Warriors’ approach is that he’s omnipresent — everywhere and nowhere at once. They let Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala handle the tough assignments on the front lines and rely on Green (and, to a lesser extent, Durant) to clean up any leftover mess. It’s hard to negate a defensive force like that because you can’t leave him on an island.

The only hope, ironically, is to actually make Green guard somebody. And as the Blazers discovered, even that doesn’t usually work.

LEFTOVER EASTER EGGS FROM THE WEEKEND

If you see any of the original 31 NBA Playoff Easter Eggs in action, hashtag #NBAEasterEggs or drop me a line in the comments.

No. 1: Oklahoma City’s unique screening

Here’s a rare dose of creativity from the Thunder in Game 4.

The Thunder used Alex Abrines to screen Westbrook’s man, then had Steven Adams hold off his own defender to give Westbrook more room. Westbrook was initially cut off, but because Abrines kept moving, Westbrook was able to toss the ball back to him and get it back to attack an Eric Gordon closeout. That eventually led to a spot-up three.

More of this please, Thunder, while you still can.

No. 16: P.J. Tucker, annoyance

You could have picked out any number of Giannis Antetokounmpo possessions from the Raptors’ Game 4 victory over the Bucks on Saturday, but this one made me smile most.

Usually, Giannis will bowl over Tucker in these situations, but there’s something about Tucker sticking his nose in a place very few other players would that causes Giannis to hold back.

No. 19: The JaVale lob

Shoutout to @UnderwoodSports for noticing this. The Blazers again failed to stop the JaVale McGee backdoor lob play.

It never fails.

No. 30: Russ’ grab and go

This is why you let Russ grab rebounds.

Finally, here’s an example of the Grizzlies using Kawhi Leonard as a decoy

That point I made earlier about teams scheming away from Kawhi Leonard’s shutdown wing defense didn’t come out of thin air. Here’s a perfect example on a crucial possession late in the Grizzlies’ Game 4 victory:

The Grizzlies came out of a timeout knowing that Leonard would guard Mike Conley, who had killed the Spurs to date. Instead of going back to their star as any team would, the Grizzlies had Conley stand still and pull Leonard with him. They noticed Tony Parker guarding Vince Carter on a mismatch, posted him up and watched Carter get by and feed Zach Randolph for an easy layup.

Meanwhile, Leonard was nowhere to be found on the play. Brilliant work by David Fizdale.