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Spaced out: Draymond Green and the problem of spacing

Green needs to turn a weakness into an advantage.

2022 NBA Finals - Game One Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Draymond Green’s response to his performance in Game 1 — how he’ll adjust, how the team will adjust, and how much of a factor he can be on one end of the floor — is becoming a significant bellwether for the Golden State Warriors’ NBA Finals success.

Green’s Game 1 was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. He hauled down 11 rebounds and dished out 5 assists, but scored only 4 points on 12 shots. He was 2-of-8 on twos and a miserable 0-of-4 on threes — looks that the Boston Celtics were completely fine with him taking.

All of Green’s misses from beyond the arc had something in common — and it wasn’t just the fact that the Celtics dared him to shoot those, although there is heavy correlation.

See if you can point it out:

The one common theme from every Green miss from long range? They all came during the latter half of the shot clock.

Green taking these threes wasn’t by design, but something the Celtics forced to happen, a product of shutting down the Warriors’ half-court offense in the first 14 seconds or so of the possession.

Contrast that with a possession that came after a timeout, with approximately 5 minutes to go in the 4th quarter. The Celtics were in the process of blitzing the Warriors, courtesy of a 26-11 run.

Knowing the Warriors were going to run one of their intricate motion sets out of the timeout, the Celtics seemingly predict the flow and direction of the Warriors’ play. But more importantly, how Al Horford chose to defend Green was a subtle stroke of brilliance.

With Green as the intended triggerman, the Warriors run “Zipper” action for him that turns into a 4-5 ball screen between Green and Looney, which serves as a mere progenitor for the real meat of the set. Klay Thompson sets a backscreen for Stephen Curry, and then receives a down screen himself from Kevon Looney — the usual misdirection fare.

Anticipating a switch, Looney slips the down screen, with Derrick White on the wrong end of the screen. Green sees this and attempts a pass to the cutting Looney.

But something happens that probably even Green himself didn’t expect:

Horford doesn’t give Green the amount of space defenders usually do out on the perimeter; he crowds Green’s field of vision, puts a fair amount of ball pressure, and anticipates Green finding one of his teammates on the weak-side action. When Green picks up his dribble, Horford puts his hands up, correctly guessing Green’s intention of passing it off to a cutter.

Horford gets a deflection, causes a turnover, and to add insult to injury, drills a trail three after the Celtics push the pace and cause the Warriors defense to shrink inward.

The Celtics understand that to guard Green is almost as much of a unique endeavor as it is when guarding Curry. The common consensus when it comes to guarding Green has been to leave him alone out on the perimeter, shore up everything else, and let him take the shots.

That’s closer to being a half truth. Leaving Green alone is the best course of action if he’s forced to create something out of nothing: when actions are being switched, off-ball screens are overplayed, the paint is walled off, or the ball can’t find its way to the Warriors’ shot creators. Whenever those happen, the shot clock is typically winding down.

But when the Warriors need Green to be the man with a bird’s eye view of everything happening in the half-court — the key to unlocking the off-ball talents of Curry and Thompson — there’s a need to blind that view.

The operative name in that scenario, however, is Curry. With him on the floor, defenses can’t afford to make mistakes. It takes an unusually high amount of focus to not only key in on Curry, but also to make sure the actions that are born out of Curry’s pull are shut down.

Without Curry on the floor, that becomes a slightly easier endeavor for a switch-mostly-everything defense.

The Warriors run “Floppy” — multiple down screens for a shooter or shooters near the baseline — in the clip above. The Celtics easily switch the down screens: Jayson Tatum takes Jordan Poole on the right block, and Jaylen Brown takes Thompson on the left.

That leaves Andre Iguodala on Payton Pritchard on the left block. Despite the size advantage, an Iguodala turnaround fade isn’t the shot the Warriors really want.

Even with Curry on the floor, it’s harder for two non-spacers — especially when both of them are situated mainly on the perimeter — to co-exist effectively on the floor. Curry has virtually no room inside when defenders are allowed to shrink the floor, with no regard for the likes of Iguodala or Green punishing them from outside.

Even if the possession above ended in a Thompson three, it’s a tough shot over a decent contest, with the shot clock winding down. The result was ideal, but the process was far from it.

(How about White’s excellent navigation of the screen on that Curry relocation? White has always been smart with his screen navigation — he shoots the gap by ducking under the screen to catch up to Curry and crowd his space. But knowing White as a defender, that’s no surprise.)

Whether that’s a product of lineup incompatibility, poor execution, or excellent defense from the Celtics (a bit of everything seems like the correct answer), the Warriors can’t bank their success on an unsustainable shot diet — while also hoping that the Celtics’ streak of hot shooting isn’t sustainable.

Was there an element of variance to the Celtics’ incredible 21-of-41 (51.2%) three-point shooting? Definitely. But was it all variance? Absolutely not.

Much like Frank Ntilikina and Josh Green in the Mavericks series, the Warriors pegged a few Celtics players as shooters they can give an ample amount of space to. Horford – shooting 46.3% on 4.6 attempts per game from beyond the arc in these playoffs — was a curious inclusion in that list.

Green was Horford’s primary defender. Some of Green’s shortcomings against Horford was due to pure choice:

And some were the Warriors failing to make that extra rotation on the weak side, courtesy of non-existent “X-outs” that were unbecoming of an elite defensive team.

While it wasn’t necessarily Green’s fault that Horford was left open for the corner three above — pre-rotating and sinking in against Tatum’s drive and showing early help while accounting for Robert Williams III is schematically sound, with Wiggins failing to rotate toward the corner — Green being on Horford and forced to act as a roamer and helper off of a bona fide stretch big is a burgeoning concern.

The Celtics will continue to stash Horford in that corner to put pressure on the low man. Green may have to make plenty of difficult choices throughout this series.

Maybe Green just needs to be more attached and wary of Horford’s shooting. Or maybe Green needs to guard someone else — perhaps Jaylen Brown or Marcus Smart, akin to how he spent time guarding Jalen Brunson in the Conference Finals — to be fully engaged and involved.

Space — and lack thereof — will play an important role in this series. Green and the Warriors need to find a way to use that concept to their advantage; if they can’t, the Celtics will, as they did in Game 1.

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