Let's meet the Finalists
Tom Ziller ranked all 30 players in the Finals and between you and me I think he’s giving Jordan McRae short shrift here.
OAKLAND -- Here’s a mildly bold statement: Draymond Green was the best player on the floor in Game 1 of the Finals. While Green didn’t offer the gaudy shooting numbers of reserve hero Shaun Livingston and he didn’t draw the primetime defensive assignment against LeBron James like Andre Iguodala, Green had the largest impact on the outcome. His numbers were strong: 16 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, but they too went largely unnoticed.
What Green did in Game 1 is what Green does. Much has been made of his playmaking role -- he’s a kind of Anthony Mason point forward for the modern age -- but it’s on defense where he made his name and it’s on defense where he showed up huge in the opener. That was particularly true in the smallball death lineup where his work was stellar.
"Usually in the small lineup I’m the rim protector," Green said. "That’s also being the guy who’s vocal talking to everyone because I’m usually the last line of the defense. Sometimes that means switching out on the guards. It also means holding the paint down and coming up with rebounds."
And yeah, Green did all of that. Not only did he hold his own on the boards, he also challenged shots at the rim, offered help on LeBron James post-ups and isolations and raced back to chase shooters off the 3-point line. He was a prime reason why the Cavaliers missed 28 attempts in the paint and shot just 33 percent from behind the arc. There are very few players who can do what he does.
Side note: The smallball lineup machinations are the best tactical subplot of this series and the Cavs have a decision to make. There are two schools of thought here. One is to try and match Golden State with speed and skill and the other is to essentially try and make them pay for going small by pounding them with size. The Cavs did that a bit last season in the Finals but couldn’t sustain it. Timofey Mozgov has been a non-factor during the postseason, which may also play a part in Ty Lue’s thinking. Other teams have also tried this tactic to little avail, but size does play a part in Golden State’s thinking.
"It’s really physically draining to guard bigger people," assistant coach Luke Walton said. "If it’s a true center we don’t want to do it for too long because Draymond’s already playing 40 minutes as it is. If we have him wrestling with someone bigger than he is for a lot of the time we’re wearing him down too much. We know how potent our small lineup is, but we try to use it in spurts to take advantage of them."
The Cavs came into this series with a possible antidote, that being Channing Frye, a stretch five who lit up the postseason with his long-range shooting. The Warriors had a plan for that and here again Green was an integral component of another undersized unit, the one that took the court at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters. Green effectively chased Frye off the court. How the Cavs decide to attack that lineup will go a long way toward defining this series. That’s what having a player like Draymond Green does to opponents.
His Game 1 performance was the kind of all-around performance for which he first made his name and in that it wasn’t much of a surprise. His play in last year’s Finals helped turn the series around and the Cavs offer a more different if not more favorable matchup for Green than, say, Oklahoma City with its length and athleticism. If Golden State is going to repeat as champs, the Warriors are going to need their situational superstar to control the situation. Even if his work is less noticeable.
Staying under the radar is a good place for Green to be these days because there isn’t a media availability that goes by without someone bringing up The Thing from the last round. At this point it’s more like an accumulation of things: the leg-kick, the technical fouls, the takedown, et cetera et cetera. If he accrues one more flagrant foul he’s subject to an automatic one-game suspension. If Green picks up two more techs, the same penalty applies. He’s essentially on probation and everyone knows it.
"I don’t worry about those things," Green said. "Whatever happens is going to happen. I got a big enough task with the Cleveland Cavaliers and all the guys I have to check and the things I have to do on the offensive end to focus on, rather than focus on that."
Green’s manic energy and unhinged emotion has gotten the better of him at times, but the Warriors also need that to thrive. It’s a delicate line he needs to walk, especially for a player who possesses all the outward subtlety of a swift quick to the groin. For their part, the Warriors more or less encourage Green to be Green, within limits.
"We love it," Walton said. "Obviously sometimes it goes too far and we tell him that and he knows it. It’s good for our team, it’s good for him. It gives him his edge. But there’s times it gets the better of him. Whether that comes out in technical fouls or flagrants or him forcing up a bad shot because he’s mad, he’s got to learn to always be in control of those emotions. But the emotion he plays with, we encourage that."
Has any player gone through more revaluations and interpretations over the last few years than Draymond Green? From second-round steal to viable rotation player to situational star to legit All-Star, Green’s career has already run the gamut during his four years in the league. Now he finds himself in a slightly different position, as the face of the Warrior backlash.
Green offers no apologies and no regrets. What you see is what you get, which is part of his charm or a searing indictment, depending on how you look at it. Here’s a player who can rattle off the name of every player of chosen ahead of him in the draft. He can suss out opposing playcalls and sets with the sharp mind of one who is blessed with instant recall, which he told me in January that he has. He remembers everything and forgets nothing.
"Every player needs to motivate himself however he needs," Kerr said. "So Draymond finds any little sleight to get himself going, and that's great. He's our emotional leader. He's our slightly-crazy, gives-us-the-edge type guy that you need to compete at the highest level, and whatever he needs to do to motivate himself, he does."
That crazy edge belies an incredibly smart and attuned basketball player whose ability to read and diagnose opponents is a big part of his value both as a player and a teammate.
"People have no idea how intelligent of a basketball player he is," Walton said. "It’s really impressive. There’s plays that we bring out of the archives that we haven’t run since last year and we’re a little rusty on them and he’ll start pointing people in the right direction."
So, which Draymond Green will we see in Game 2: the one who is in control of himself and the situation at hand, or the one who lets his emotions get the better of him? The Warriors need the former and Draymond Green needs to be that player, as well. His value has never been greater and his presence has never been more needed than it is right now.
We’ve had two days to think this through so here are the five things to watch as we get ready for a pivotal Game 2 tonight at Oracle.
Play with pace: The Cavs want to play faster. That was the message that Ty Lue repeatedly reinforced over the last few days. It’s not only a matter of getting out in transition, although that’s obviously a factor. It’s also getting into sets quicker, ball movement, spacing, all the elements of a good offensive flow that were rarely apparent in the opener. To be sure, the Warriors had a lot to do with that. They only turned the ball over nine times. Golden State’s defensive strategy of switching just about everything also plays into this since it invites one-on-one opportunities, but the Cavs played right into their hands. That needs to change.
Game 2 LeBron: Much was made of LeBron’s record in Finals openers, but he’s also had an impressive streak of answers in the next games. The Warriors need no reminders given that they experienced a 39-16-11 Game 2 from James just last season. Given the offensive threats he has at his disposal this time around, the temptation to take over must be tempered by the willingness to get everyone else involved. That’s when James is at his most dangerous and that’s what the Cavs need most from their superstar.
Kyrie Irving’s floor game: The Cavs guard can get his shot whenever he wants it, but while his 26 points led all scorers in Game 1 he was hardly a model of efficiency. Too many times, Cav positions devolved into the Kyrie Show and that is a very tough way to beat Golden State. Again, a faster pace and more decisive sets are the answer.
Curry and Klay and role players redux: It’s highly unlikely that the Splash Brothers will shoot 8-for-27 again, but the Cavs deserve credit for focusing their defensive attention on the ace shooting duo. That part was good, but Golden State found the openings in the defense and exploited them time and again. That’s what makes defending the Warriors so difficult, but there were obvious breakdowns in communication that need to be rectified for the series to turn around. The opportunities are there for Green, Iguodala and Livingston to feast again. Something has to give here.
No rebounds, no rings: The Cavs grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in Game 1 and technically won the battle of the boards. But they also surrendered nine offensive rebounds and that won’t do against Golden State. This is one area they need to win decisively if they are going to have a chance at a split.
Tom Ziller ranked all 30 players in the Finals and between you and me I think he’s giving Jordan McRae short shrift here.
Game 1 was weird as hell and I’m not sure it meant anything in the grand scheme of things unless it told us everything we needed to know.
Good news, Cavs: You stopped the Splash Brothers. Bad news, Cavs: You forgot about everyone else. Mike Prada has the breakdown.
The Warriors depth was a huge factor in Game 1 and Jesus Gomez breaks down just how effectively Steve Kerr uses his bench.
"Obviously, we knew how great of a boxer he was, but I think that was only 20 percent of what made him as great as he was. What he stood for, I mean, it's a guy who basically had to give up a belt and relinquish everything that he had done because of what he believed in and ended up in jail because of his beliefs. It's a guy who stood up for so many different things throughout the times where it was so difficult for African-Americans to even walk in the streets. For an athlete like myself today, without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn't be sitting up here talking in front of you guys. I wouldn't be able to walk in restaurants. I wouldn't be able to go anywhere where blacks weren't allowed back in those days because of guys like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor, Jackie Robinson, and the list goes on and on."-- LeBron James.
Reaction: It’s impossible to encapsulate everything that Ali was in the space of a few lines, but James captured it well. Ali was, is and always will be the greatest.
"I think you all know it is my hope that we are not far away from some reform. This is an issue where I’m hoping we can strike some sort of a compromise. There’s three players in particular, and everyone knows who I’m talking about, and whatever team they’re on, if they’re going to play a lot of minutes and they’re poor free throw shooters, the ability to hack them away from the ball creates an advantage for the other team. What our analytics tell us is it’s not as big an advantage as some might think, but it’s an advantage. And it’s my job to look out for the greater good of the game."-- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on hacking reform.
Reaction: The most important takeaway here is that Silver is not intractable on these issues. He was an opponent of reform as late as last summer. That’s an early hallmark of the commissioner’s tenure and it’s a positive for a league that has always had to evolve with the times. Before everyone gets crazy with ideas, just extend the current off-ball rules from the last two minutes and be done with it.
"If you're able to stay healthy, there's a level of confidence and relief that comes with having a ring already. Especially these days. There's such a burden and a stigma on players and teams that have not won the big one. You can name any of the above superstars. You see their name attached, whether it's Charles Barkley or whoever, Stockton and Malone, oh, they didn't win the big one. I mean, come on, they were some of the greatest players of all time and had phenomenal runs. But winning the big one these days, it lifts a burden."-- Steve Kerr.
Reaction: Even for a team that is generally pretty relaxed and focused on the big picture, there does appear to be an even greater ease with the way the Warriors are carrying themselves at this point in the Finals. He’s right about the burden, by the way.
"That's the most ridiculous thing. If I were him, I probably would've strangled you guys."-- NBA legend Jerry West on LeBron James’ record in Finals.
Reaction: If anyone can empathize with LeBron it’s The Logo, who was 1-8 in Finals during his legendary career. We still remember West as Mr. Clutch and those Finals setbacks had an awful lot to do with the great Celtic teams of the Bill Russell era. We’d do well to remember the perspective of the times that James plays in currently when it comes time to write his definitive legacy.
"One thing about Shaun is he's never going to get outside of who he is. He's going to do what he does, and he's going to get to his spots and he's going to raise up and knock shots down."-- Draymond Green on Shaun Livingston.
Reaction: It’s really remarkable how Livingston has been able to build and then sustain his career after a truly horrific injury. If anyone deserved to have a Finals moment like that it’s Livingston.
Stupid clipboard, you go smash now.