As a rookie, playing in an NBA playoff game can be extremely nerve-racking. It’s very rare for a kid fresh out of college to be prepared for the pressure that comes with performing under a microscope, and the magnitude of the moment often overwhelms young players. When that playoff game is in a hostile environment, just going through the lay-up line can make you nervous.
So, imagine you’re Draymond Green. As of 7:10PM central time, your head coach Mark Jackson has stated that he’ll stick with rookie Festus Ezeli as his starting power forward in game two, working under the assumption that Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw would be starting in the same spot for San Antonio. But as the teams take the floor an hour later for warm-ups, Gregg Popovich finally shows his hand and now Matt Bonner starting at power forward was the news buzzing around the arena.
When Jackson got wind of this, he sent someone out onto the floor to tell Green, who was working up a sweat on simulated drives to the rim after passing on a pre-game stretching session due to some tired legs, that he’d be getting the first playoff start of his career and just his second start of the entire season.
Now, it’s not as if Green was buried on the bench next to Andris Biedrins or anything – he exceeded starter’s minutes in game one with 38 minutes of court time – but the designation of starter is still one that carries a lot of weight, particularly in a road playoff game. Getting off to a good start can set to the tone for the game and, especially in the case of the Warriors in game two, give a team an emotional lift if they are have any doubt about their competitiveness. Even if it was just a token start and even if Green was going to play the same amount of minutes regardless, being on the floor when the ball is thrown into the air is a huge deal to a second round pick.
The decision to start Green was a tactical one designed to neutralize the threat of a Tony Parker/Matt Bonner pick-and-pop comprising the Warriors’ defense. Golden State’s precision in the half-court on the defensive end is the main reason they were up in game one, and it order to preserve optimal chemistry on that side of the ball, Jackson sticks his most versatile perimeter defender on Bonner.
Golden State executes one of two coverages any time Bonner comes up to set a screen for Parker; either Green is going stick to Bonner’s body, giving him no space to receive the pass, much less get a shot off (also known as the “Dirk” coverage) or the Warriors will switch the action, putting Klay Thompson on Bonner and Green on Parker.
Now, you can count on one hand how many players in the league would be able to switch a 1/4 pick-and-pop involving someone as good in one-on-one situations as Parker (LeBron, Taj Gibson, Josh Smith, and Serge Ibaka), but the Warriors shifted Green onto Parker with no qualms whatsoever. Why, you ask?
Because Green had done everything in his power to earn the trust and respect of his coaches and peers. And, because it worked.
When Draymond Green got to Golden State, he was not informed by Mark Jackson that his primary role with the ball club would be as a defensive specialist. The Warriors didn’t draft him because they saw something specific on film that they thought would fit into their defensive scheme. Golden State took Green because they saw the same qualities – the high basketball IQ, the all-around offensive game, the advanced playmaking for his size – everyone else did, only they decided they couldn’t pass on him with the 35th pick in the draft. At that point in the draft, a “positionless” player is more than worth it if they have talent (as it turns out, being positionless has actually been extremely beneficial for Green and the Warriors).
Green’s rookie season was a very unique one to say the least. Throughout the entire year he battled knee tendinitis that hampered his ability to get into a rhythm with his jumpshot. When you see that a second round pick shot 33% from the field and 21% from three in his rookie season, it’d be logical to assume that all of those numbers came on one end or the other of a blowout.
That wasn’t the case for Green, though. For someone that couldn’t buy a basket to save his life, the 6’7″ tweener forward found himself as a rotation piece for the Warriors, playing 13 minutes a night in 79 games in his rookie campaign. This is far from a common occurrence in the NBA – most coaches would stick a rookie struggling so mightily with his shot on the bench and keep him there until he was forced to play him again.
But that’s where the beauty of Mark Jackson comes in. After spending just a few days around him, it’s abundantly clear that no coach believes in his players more staunchly than Jackson. Though overly ballyhooed, Jackson’s religious beliefs clearly factor into his career as a coach; he’s a man with unwavering faith in his players.
That’s how a rookie who that scored just .678 points per possession this season according to Synergy Sports Technology (second worst mark in the NBA of players with at least 300 possessions) never fell out of the rotation for the Warriors. Jackson kept relying on Green, and Green kept giving him reasons to put him on the floor. Even though he wasn’t finding his way offensively, Green earned his playing time by developing into a very reliable defensive player.
“No,” Green said when I asked him if he was told to expect a defensive role with the Warriors. “You just find your niche. I knew I was struggling with my shot and didn’t have my legs all the way under me. But you gotta find something that you can do to stay on the floor, and you can always play defense. That’s what I was doing, and I’m going to continue to defend. At the end of the day, defense wins game.”
Green wasn’t billed as a stalwart defender coming out of Michigan State; many doubted what position he would guard at the NBA level and he was a bit hefty in college, leading to questions about his lateral quickness in a league that gets faster by the day. But Green has worked diligently on reducing his mass – undergoing what I would call the Marc Gasol transformation – and is now sleek with toned bulk. And as far as questioning his defense instincts, shame on those who doubted a disciple of Tom Izzo’s defense-first program.
“Coach Izzo helped my defense a lot,” Green said of his former college coach. “In high school, my coach taught a pressing defense, so it was all about getting steals and trapping. When I got to college, Coach Izzo used to say ‘You’ve gotta defend! You’ve gotta defend!’ and stayed on me about moving my feet so I’d be able to guard guards. Because if I was going to make it in this league, I’d have to be able to guard guards.”
Guarding guards, or perimeter players, was Green’s specialty this season. While Thompson is likely Golden State’s best perimeter defender, Green is a close second, and over the course a long season, you’d like to save a guy like Thompson from the physical punishment of guarding star players. Green was happy to step up to the challenge, though, and he checked everybody from Kevin Durant to Carmelo Anthony to LeBron James. And, per Synergy, he was effective in that capacity, holding his man to just 29% shooting in isolation this season.
“It’s all about heart,” Green said about facing off against the league’s best scorers. “When you’re facing those guys, you just do your best to contain them.”
Green understands the nuances of the game and how important they are in order to win games in the NBA. His determination to win the small battles for his team never wavered even as he was in the midst of an extremely disheartening and season long shooting slump. Green never slumped his shoulders or pouted about the basketball gods being unkind, he simply continued to compete as hard as he could in order to give his team a jolt.
“I’ve always been the kind of guy that will do whatever it takes to win and to do whatever I can to make an impact,” Green said when I asked him about his game-winning shot against Miami earlier in the season.
“It’s not all about scoring, it’s not all about getting assists. Sometimes it’s just about doing the little things that don’t show up on the statsheet. I always try to be the guy that’s going to do those little things. Those little things will keep you on the floor, whether or not you are struggling with your shot or struggling with this or that.”
It’s impressive to hear such a young player willingly preach about the importance of subtle victories in a possession, and it makes easy to see why Jackson never lost faith in Green. And what has Jackson gotten in return for believing in a player that was so inefficient at half of the game all season?
An improbable and inspiring stretch of playoff basketball that has the Warriors in a position to make it to the Conference Finals.
It started in game two of the Denver series when Green knocked down a spot-up three. The impulsive reaction of basketball nerds was one of disbelief as one of the league’s worst marksmen had just defied the odds in a big game. And then he made another three in game three, and two more in game four and then two more in game six.
By the end of the first round, Green had gone from an offensive non-entity that was hurting team spacing because his man would willingly leave him to clog the paint or crowd Curry or Thompson to someone with a natural comfort in big moments. With the knee soreness all but gone, Green was punishing defenses for ignoring him and thus making himself an extremely valuable rotation player for Golden State; the defense was always there, but now that he was hitting shots, the reasons to keep him on the floor far outweighed the reasons to keep him off.
Green’s run this post-season is a product of his incessant and diligent work to regain his shooting form all season long. Not for a moment did he let this shooting slump deter his work ethic or impair his confidence. Green never doubted his ability to come through for his team. Watching from afar, seeing the countless hours of overtime this second round pick put in, Jackson was at peace with Green shooting the ball without hesitation because he saw Draymond lay the groundwork for success.
As Jackson’s theory goes: If you are constantly working on a part of your game on your own time, then he’s confident in you taking those shots in a game.
All Green needed was to see the ball go into the rim for him to go on a run, and as the Nuggets continued to leave him open, he continued to make them pay.
“Huge,” Green said about the confidence boost be received as his shots began to fall against the Nuggets. “Huge. I worked on it everyday, night in and night out, before practice and after practice. Coming back in at night and shooting the basketball to get my legs back under me. It took awhile, but it’s paying off at the right time.”
If anything, Green seems to have a great sense of the moment. From his timely game-winning lay-in in the final second against the Heat earlier in the year to his post-season explosion, Green has found a way to deliver at the most opportune times, and last night was no different.
After playing every second up to that point, Mark Jackson decided to try and get Klay Thompson a couple of minutes of rest at the eight minute mark of the fourth quarter, subbing in Green in his place. Immediately following Thompson’s trip to the bench, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker hit right elbow jumpers to cut the Warrior lead to six with just under seven minutes remaining. After stringing together a couple of baskets, the San Antonio crowd was on the verge of bedlam and the sense in the building was that the veteran Spurs were about to pull off another miracle comeback.
Desperately needing a basket to stave off San Antonio’s run, the Warriors put the ball in Jarrett Jack’s hands. He took the ball from a few feet above the key and attacked Gary Neal off the dribble, getting just enough of a step on him to force Matt Bonner to slide into the paint from the left wing.
Bonner was playing the percentages here and likely following the Spurs gameplan: cut off dribble penetration and force a 21% three-point shooter to make a shot. But unlike Bonner, a dead-on three-point shooter in the regular season that has struggled to produce in the post-season over the past few years, Draymond Green went through a pitiful regular season for that one moment in time.
Green caught the ball, wound up his release and calmly launched the three as Bonner flew at him to close out. Swish.
There was still plenty of time left in the game, but that shot by Green completely swung the momentum of the game for a possession, and winning those subtle possessions are what the playoffs, and Green, are all about.
Green is now 9-of-18 from three in the post-season after making just 14 triples in 79 regular season games. And seemingly everyone of those threes has come at a big moment; as defenses over compensate to prevent the Warriors’ stars from making shots, they leave Green open by choice, and he’s burning them at an extremely impressive 50% clip.
“Of course it motivates me, but it doesn’t bother me,” Green said about being left open. “I’ll take the open shots whether I’m shooting the ball great or not. Teams are never going to key on me; they’re gonna key on Steph, Klay, Jack. So the open shot is still going to be there, it’s just a matter of me stepping up and continuing to knock them down.”
Stepping up is one of the many ways we can define what Green has done this post-season. Even if it’s a small sample size, the development of Green’s outside shot in the playoffs has had a massive impact on the Warriors as a team. Even one or two threes a game from Green makes him worthwhile offensively, and that means Jackson can put in one of his best and most versatile defensive players without sacrificing spacing or scoring.
After the game, Green joked about coming into the game for Thompson as an offensive substitution specifically so he could hit that three.
“Well, Coach (Jackson) subbed me in the game for one minute,” Green said. “He told me ‘Hey, I need this big three out of you. I’m gonna take Klay out and put you in the game for the three because you’re my knockdown shooter!'”
Green had a big smile on his face as he said that, clearly soaking in everything he could about the crucial win on the road of the two seed in the Western Conference that he started and just helped clinch.
And, for a player that worked his tail off for six months both in and out of the public eye in order to be successful, it was hard not to smile back in appreciation of what diligence and desire can help someone accomplish.