The Golden State Warriors have been defined by a couple of numbers during their current dynastic rampage over the NBA.
The number 30 — the number that Stephen Curry wears. He is the bedrock and foundation of the franchise, a two-time Most Valuable Player, and the greatest shooter to have ever graced the NBA.
The number 40 — which stands for 40 years that the franchise had endured without a championship, before winning one in the 2014-15 season.
The numbers 73 and 9 — the amount of wins and losses the Warriors had in the 2015-16 season, which is the best record by an NBA team in the regular season.
The numbers 3 and 1 — signifying the lead that the Warriors had to overcome against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. On the other hand, it was also the lead they established over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, before the Cavaliers, led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, mounted a comeback to snatch the championship away from the Warriors.
The number 35 — the number that Kevin Durant wears. He is, without question, the biggest free agent acquisition in the history of the Warriors franchise — a two-time Finals MVP who transformed the Warriors into the ultimate superteam.
But the significance of the number 35 doesn’t stop there.
The number 35 — the 35th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Draymond Green, hailing from Michigan State University.
Initial doubts of Green’s success in the NBA
Green was an enormous question mark coming into the league. He was a pudgy, 6-foot-7-inch tweener, who was considered small for the power forward position, let alone at center. Even though he had an excellent collegiate career — winning the Big Ten Player of the Year award as a senior — NBA teams had doubts as to whether that pedigree would carry over to the NBA.
During his time in college, Green was described as a “jack of all trades.” He could shoot, pass, dribble, and rebound the ball. He was capable of being the fulcrum of the offense by making plays for his teammates. He was the walking definition of basketball versatility.
Despite that, he fell to the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft. His reputation as a tweener made teams think that he wasn’t capable of playing defense at the NBA level. Per an ESPN draft report leading up to the 2012 draft, Green was described as having “questionable defense.” He was also described as someone who “struggles to stay in front of quick wings,” per Draft Express.
To be fair to those pre-draft assessments, Green certainly had holes in his game that he needed to work on. There is no question that he read those reports, and used it as fuel and motivation to work harder and improve his ability to play defense. It was perhaps the only way that he would be able to stay in the league.
The culmination of his hard work, competitive drive, and unending thirst to be the best player that he could possibly be was being awarded the Defensive Player of the Year accolade in 2017, after finishing second behind Kawhi Leonard the previous two years. (Without question, it was another sore point and source of fuel for Green to use.)
Green’s competitive nature
However, in the 2017-18 regular season, Green suffered a noticeable regression in his play. Uncharacteristically, he was often a liability on defense. He seemed to be a step slower at times, and often was taking games less seriously. It did not help that all season long, he was suffering from several injuries to his shoulder and elbow. As he suffered, the entire team also slogged through the regular season.
Green was able to recover to play the best games of his 2017-2018 season during the playoffs. It was enough to help the team win their second straight title — but for Green, it wasn’t enough for him to be satisfied with his own performance throughout the season.
Green was “only” placed in the NBA All-Defensive 2nd team. He took that as a personal affront.
Draymond Green, very much revving up his Defensive Player of the Year campaign early this season: “I need that. Bad.” pic.twitter.com/qT4NYJNa5D— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) November 1, 2018
The competitive fire that burns within Green would not allow him to settle for anything less than another Defensive Player of the Year award. With the Warriors having renewed motivation to be the best version of themselves, Green also has a renewed impetus to be the best version of himself.
Against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, he reminded everyone that he is still the best all-around defender in the NBA.
Green establishes a defensive rhythm against the Timberwolves
Coming into the game against the Timberwolves, Green was fresh off of an excellent all-around performance against the New Orleans Pelicans, with 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 8 assists, while leading a great defensive effort by the Warriors against Anthony Davis.
Green continued where he left off, making good defensive plays and making it hard for the Timberwolves to get any sort of offensive rhythm.
Green is a master at making good contests of jump shots — just enough to make players miss their shots, but not overly eager and ambitious to the point that he ends up fouling them. When he does decide to close out and go all in on his contests, he does an excellent job at blocking the ball cleanly:
Green’s fourth quarter defense
Entering the fourth quarter, the Warriors were trailing by four points, and were in need of a momentum boost. Klay Thompson was able to cut the lead to two with a jumper, but a Butler backdoor cut on the other end put the lead by the Wolves back to four.
A couple of good defensive possessions by the Warriors — and timely three-point shots by Thompson — allowed the Warriors to snatch the lead back from the Wolves.
Thompson shakes off his defender to get open for the three, courtesy of a pass from Green. On the other end, Jimmy Butler gets switched onto Jonas Jerebko and drives, but he is stifled by a good defensive effort from Jerebko, with help from Andre Iguodala. Green hauls in the rebound and passes it to Thompson, who misses the jumper.
The Wolves try to push the pace on the other end by passing it to Butler, who is ahead of everybody else — except for Green, who stays in front of Butler and impedes his attempt to drive inside. This leads to Butler eventually putting up a shot that badly misses; Jerebko does an excellent job of not letting Butler have any space whatsoever.
On the other end, Thompson gets a pin down three, with help from a solid screen from Green. Watch the successive sequences here:
The Warriors fail to extend their lead further after a messy offensive sequence. Butler receives the ball and is matched up with Alfonzo McKinnie. Butler tries to drive baseline, but McKinnie does an excellent job at denying Butler the room to push inside. This serves as the cue for Green to come over and double Butler, who is forced to give the ball up. The possession ends on a missed shot that is well contested by Iguodala.
Kerr brings out a classic play
The Warriors call a timeout, which allows Steve Kerr to cook up one of his ATO concoctions. The following sequence should look very familiar:
It is the classic Warriors Cyclone play, where Thompson sets a back screen for a cutting Green, who finishes inside. The Wolves lack the proper communication and switching to defend this, and it stretches their deficit to four points.
Green defends Butler
The Warriors manage to stretch their lead to six points. Off of a timeout, the Wolves somehow get Butler switched onto Green, who welcomes the challenge of defending the star two-guard.
Butler’s initial drive to his right is stymied by Green, who displays a textbook example of moving his feet and staying in front of his man. Butler resets, and with the shot clock winding down — and unable to penetrate past Green — he goes up for the shot. Despite Green’s excellent contest, Butler somehow buries the shot. Green played great defense, but credit must be given to Butler for making the tough shot.
Warriors take the Wolves for an “Elevator” ride
In the following possession, the Warriors run an excellent play. Watch Thompson as he moves without the ball. Starting from the baseline, he runs in between Green and McKinnie, who slowly “closes the door” on Thompson’s defender — the classic “Elevator” play:
Green’s solid screen impedes Thompson’s defender, who falls for Thompson’s pump fake. Meanwhile, Iguodala is left all alone on the left wing. This allows him to cut inside, and he receives the excellent bounce pass from Thompson for the slam dunk finish.
Green closes it out on defense
The Wolves give the ball to Andrew Wiggins in the next possession. They look for another switch onto Green — which is a peculiar choice, since Green is more than capable of defending Wiggins.
Dribbling and handling the ball aren’t exactly considered strengths for Wiggins, and Green takes advantage of that. He stays in front of Wiggins, who struggles with his handle — eventually bobbling the ball and giving it up to Iguodala, leading to a fastbreak dunk for McKinnie.
In this next sequence, Green is once again thrown into a gauntlet of switches on the defensive end. Watch as he seamlessly flows from one defensive assignment to another:
Green initially defends Karl-Anthony Towns. Lacking the moxie to try his luck against Green, Towns passes the ball to Butler, and Green switches onto him. Butler also opts not to try his luck against Green, and pulls up for the long three-point jumper — but as expected, it is excellently contested by Green, and it misses.
Green has another string of excellent defensive plays. He goes up to contest Josh Okogie’s layup, and when Okogie rebounds his own miss, Green gets his hands on the ball and forces a jump:
Okogie wins the jump, and the ball goes to Wiggins. With only a few seconds left on the shot clock, Wiggins goes up for the three, which badly misses due to another excellent contest from Green:
In this sequence, Towns attempts to post up, but Green denies the entry pass by poking the ball from behind, leading to a fruitless jumper from Tyus Jones:
The Wolves finally manage to get the ball to Towns on the right block, but Green once again plays great defense — he forces Towns to receive the pass at the elbow, preventing deep post position. Green does not give Towns any space to operate, and he bothers the shot attempt enough to force an air ball:
With Green having led the Warriors’ fourth quarter comeback through his defensive genius, the Warriors laid down the final nail in the coffin, courtesy of the Curry/Durant pick-and-roll:
Green dominated and stamped his class upon the Wolves, and it was clear that he had a chip on his shoulder. He is out to prove to everyone that he hasn’t gone anywhere — that he has set his sights on a second Defensive Player of the Year award. Not only will he get another trophy to his collection — by winning the award (or being named to an All-NBA team), he will become eligible for a five-year, $225 million super-max contract in 2020.
Green is a man on a mission. He is no longer a player with “questionable defense,” no longer someone who “struggles to stay in front of quick wings.” He is a defensive maestro, perhaps the best there currently is in the NBA.
Number 35 in the 2012 NBA Draft has become the number one defensive option on the best basketball team in the world.
Ten down, 72 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.