The Bay Area postseason blitz is on, but given their almost unfathomable collapse last year in the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors are making their list, checking it twice and emphasizing the critical categories in notes mode.
If a 3-1 best-of-seven championship series lead isn’t safe – with a Game 7 played in Oracle Arena, no less – then nothing in sports is sacred. Then there is life, right?
Steve Kerr is out indefinitely, tending to complications from back surgery he underwent almost two years ago. Stephen Curry tweaked one of his tender ankles in Tuesday’s semfinals opener against the Utah Jazz and sat out Wednesday’s practice for precautionary reasons, but continues to downplay the matter.
Draymond Green, it turns out, is in the best physical shape of his career and, in his own words, vowing to maintain his edge without losing his emotional cool. The world – and the refs – will be watching. For his coaches and bosses, and all those Warriors fans who remain convinced his suspension in Game 5 of the Finals cost Golden State the title against Cleveland, the emoji of choice these days is the one with hands clasped, pointing upward, in a soulful, heartfelt plea.
“That’s the plan,” Green said with a sly grin late Tuesday, after another of his familiar performances against the Utah Jazz that fill the stat sheets, frustrate foes and reinforce his reputation as one of those rare, dynamic NBA stars who are impossible to categorize. In that regard, he has more in common with Hall of Famer/TNT analyst Charles Barkley than he appreciates. Barkley was another undersized power forward with the outsized personality who filled stat sheets, then filled reporter’s notepads and exhausted tape recorders and television cameras. His was the voice without the filter – occasionally to his detriment.
One major difference was this: While Barkley always spit out the term “defense” as if it were a four-letter word, Green is the equivalent of a one-shop stopper; he slams the door and talks trash at the same time. Yes, he likes to pass, facilitate, drive and dunk, and, at the moment, is taking particular delight in his improved 3-point shooting. But when he talks about rotating and recovering, guarding all five positions, having the freedom to roam and protect, as sort of a combination free safety/middle linebacker, he clearly thrives as the defensive mind leading his teammates along on a string.
Quick-footed and muscular, if not particularly long at 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, Green explains a technique rooted in memorizing and attacking an opponent’s tendencies, reading and reacting, studying and exploiting angles, shouting out switches, anticipating passes and relying on his fast hands for steals and deflections, and at times, often on blocked shots, simply relying on sheer will, raw athleticism and brute force.
In another era, he would be competing with Ron Artest, Michael Cooper, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and trash-talker extraordinaire Gary Payton among the very few who were perennial contenders for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Leading contenders this season once again include San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard – known as “the claw” for his massive hands – and Utah’s Rudy Gobert, the Frenchman still not fully recovered from a sore knee.
But Green both likes his chances and wants it badly. On a team that finished with the NBA’s best record (67-15), he led the league in steals, was second in deflections, sixth in contested shots and was easily the leading shot blocker among players not considered a big man. His obvious attempts to play with controlled passion in recent weeks has not gone unnoticed, either. After assessing 16 technicals during the regular season, he has been tech-free in the playoffs, even when obviously provoked.
During Tuesday’s opener against the Jazz, Green barely reacted when Gobert two-fisted him out of bounds in the second half. This time it was Gobert, not Green, who was hit with the Flagrant 1.
“I think it’s part of maturity,” said Green, explaining his measured response. “You learn from things and you grow. You don’t make the same mistakes twice. I think when I harness my emotions and let them work for me, I’m a damn good player. My Dad has told me my entire life, ‘Don’t let your attitude be your enemy. Let it work for you.’ I think I’ve gotten better with it, but it’s also something I’m more conscious of now.”
As he says, that’s the plan, anyway.