It was an epic double-overtime showdown between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers — one the Lakers edged out courtesy of LeBron James’ clutch free throws. James (36-20-12 on 57.1% on twos, 50% on threes on a 2-of-4 clip, and a perfect 6-of-6 at the line — 65.1% True Shooting) had another titanic clash with his eternal rival in Steph Curry (46-3-7 on 57.1% on twos, 40.9% on threes, and 3-of-3 at the line — 61.6% True Shooting), who made clutch shots in overtime, albeit not enough to get the Warriors over the hump.
But the one person who arguably made the difference between what could’ve been a Warriors win and what turned out to be the second one-point loss in as many games didn’t even reach 10 points.
Take this for data: The Warriors outscored the Lakers by a whopping 31 points during Draymond Green’s 45 minutes and 42 seconds on the floor. When he was on the bench, the Warriors got outscored by the Lakers by an equally whopping 32 points in a one-point loss.
Single-game plus-minus has a lot of noise behind it, which typically makes it an unreliable measurement by its lonesome. But in the aggregate, it can be indicative of true impact and value. We don’t need to go into a long anecdote about Green’s value to the team and how important it is that he stays on the floor and keeps himself available at all times — his body of work speaks for itself.
In the four games since returning from a lengthy suspension and ramp-up period — from the disastrous game against a hobbled Memphis Grizzlies squad up to this recent heartbreaker of a loss to the Lakers — the Warriors have outscored their opponents by a cumulative 65 points in 123 minutes with Green on the floor.
It’s an emerging trend that isn’t really much of a surprise if you’re truly attuned to the Warriors and how they work. Their offense is built around the otherworldly talents of Curry, but it runs with nary a hitch with Green as decision maker and floor director — all while being the central hub and lifeline of their defense.
It was telling that the Warriors’ first offensive possession against the Lakers was a set drawn up for Green — one that was built to capitalize on how the Lakers typically choose to guard him in half-court situations:
A Green “keep” action — a fake handoff to Curry, one that he’s done with his partner-in-crime a bunch of times — is aided by a Klay Thompson screen in the paint. This is to take advantage of the fact that Anthony Davis is sagging off of Green, with D’Angelo Russell not willing to detach himself from Thompson. The result: Green goes all the way to the rim without Davis threatening to block his shot.
“Keeper” specials for Green are nothing new — but he’s also the only one on the roster with both the wherewithal and timing to properly execute them:
The operative words with Green on offense: timeliness and awareness. That goes for the keep actions above and also knowing when to set Curry loose in transition by picking at a specific weak link at a given moment.
Step-up screens in transition, for example, to take advantage of an unaware defense who fails to take away Curry’s space:
It also goes for possessions where one key aspect of Curry’s greatness is unleashed, allowing it to blossom into its full potential: his off-ball skills.
Inverting the floor with Green as the decision maker at the top of the three-point line allows him to find Curry on a variety of actions within the same 5-out alignment. Whenever Curry comes off a pindown/pin-in screen when lifting from the corner, Green may be the only one on the team who can perfectly place the ball in Curry’s shooting pocket:
When the same 5-out alignment materializes down the line, Green connects with Curry once again — but on a different kind of play type altogether, with a higher degree of difficulty but with execution built through a decade of playing together:
It doesn’t have to be on a conventional 5-out setup where Green shows his ability to unlock Curry’s full off-ball potency. On possessions where Davis is sagging off of Green and Curry is lurking nearby, the Warriors have been experts at parking Green in the corner — with Curry nearby on the wing — to execute beautiful hand-off concepts such as this one:
Green’s ability to see things develop on the floor before they happen — and playing his part to make sure what he envisions becomes reality — is a trait that doesn’t grow on trees. He points his teammates to spots where he needs them to be in order for him to find them:
Green sees the play unfold before it happens — he calls for the entry pass with Austin Reaves on him, which compels Davis to lurk and drop in case Green decides to take Reaves by himself. At the same time, Green directs Trayce Jackson-Davis to set the flare screen for Thompson and for Thompson to come off of the screen.
Thompson gets the message and — seeing that Davis is preoccupied with helping and Prince is caught up in the flare screen — cuts inside. Green finds him with a perfectly placed pass, with no Davis to protect the rim.
But arguably more than offense, it has been Green’s bread-and-butter defensive acumen that has kept this otherwise struggling defense from completely sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor.
The big, eye-catching plays have been there. When locked in, Green is still the defensive beast that he has been throughout his career, worthy of consideration as one of the best defenders in the history of basketball — to the point that he can even stuff arguably the greatest rim-attacker in basketball history:
Force another miss from the greatest rim-attacker in basketball history and send the game into a second overtime period:
Make shots tough for an elite big with the height and touch to score in the paint — and running back on the floor to set a “Gortat” screen on the other end to create a clear driving lane for Curry:
And wear many hats on defense, all in one possession: as a pick-and-roll big executing the coverage (up to the level of the screen in the instance below against Reaves), recovering toward his man in isolation, and as a help defender who comes in to dig at the ball and force the turnover:
But it’s also in the little details — ones the casual eye doesn’t readily capture, and therefore, don’t readily appreciate — that Green is arguably at his best as a defender.
Green’s ability to play the middle ground when guarding the screener/roller — and in proper position to “veer” back toward his man to either discourage the pass or outright intercept it — is one his more underrated and understated skills as a defender:
Both the Warriors’ offense and defense are much better with Green on the floor. But something even more of note — related to their offense but deserving of its own section because of its stylistic importance — is pace.
The Warriors aren’t built to be a team who pounds the ball in the half court in a deliberate manner. They thrive in chaos and speed, even in half-court situations off of made buckets. Watch a Warriors game from their heyday and there is rarely a possession where they don’t immediately execute a catch-and-go or take the ball out of the bucket, inbound the ball immediately, and hastily cross half-court — all to put pressure on a defense that is attempting to get set.
When on the floor, Green is at the forefront of that philosophy:
As opposed to when he’s off the floor — and a weird amount of ball pounding and pace slowing becomes prevalent:
Even if Brandin Podziemski scored above, it’s not a sustainable approach to wait for something to happen off of a miss by slowing things down in a deliberate manner — and without more than one advantage creator on the floor. Pouncing on a defense that is scrambling back to match up — when stops have been hard to come by as of late — is paramount.
That’s where Green’s crucial advantage lies: his ability to push the pace, increase the tempo, and make quick decisions with the ball is what makes these Warriors the Warriors of old, to go along with everything else he does to make the offense tick and the carry job he has had to perform on defense to slow down a sinking ship.
Whether it’ll be enough to get them out of a 19-24 hole — 12th in the Western Conference — is the biggest question Green and this team must answer.