AS THE FINAL seconds wind down in the first quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks, Spencer Dinwiddie drives toward the right side of the paint. But Draymond Green is perched there, already anticipating what is to come — a Dinwiddie pass to Dorian Finney-Smith in the left corner.
When the Mavs guard starts to make the pass, Green explodes across the paint, zeroing in on Finney-Smith and rejecting the Dallas forward’s catch-and-shoot 3 back toward the Mavs bench with 5.3 seconds left.
Green lets out a scream as he walks by Dallas owner Mark Cuban and former Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki.
It’s an emphatic finish to a first quarter that saw the Warriors take a 10-point lead. When Dallas gets within two points in the second quarter, Green scores on a layup while being fouled by Maxi Kleber. Sitting up on the floor, Green flexes his arms and stares at Kleber before converting the 3-point play.
The Mavericks felt Green’s presence especially on defense, where he held them to 4-for-15 shooting as the primary defender, including 0-for-9 from behind the arc — tied for the third-most misses against a single defender from 3 since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking playoff games in 2013-14.
Mavericks star Luka Doncic finished with 20 points, his lowest output of the postseason, in the Warriors’ 112-87 Game 1 win.
“I have so much respect for Draymond,” Doncic said on the eve of the Western Conference finals. “Obviously Klay [Thompson] and Steph [Curry], incredible offensive guys. But I think the key to the Warriors’ team is Draymond. He’s just unbelievable.”
Green has waited three years to return to this stage. After the Warriors’ loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, he watched Thompson (torn ACL, ruptured Achilles) and Curry (broken hand) suffer significant injuries. Without those two, Golden State missed the playoffs and Green was incomplete. It showed when he shot a dismal 38.9% from the field — the lowest since averaging 32.7% from the field his rookie season — in 43 games during the 2019-20 season.
“It was brutal,” Green said of not being in the playoffs the previous two seasons. “We’ve been dying to get back to this space.
“And we didn’t leave the space because we just got too old to do it … [or] because all of us went our separate ways. … Yeah, Toronto beat us, but no one has really come and said, ‘All right, the Golden State Warriors’ time is up.'”
Following a down 2019-20 and postseason absence, the Warriors’ fiery leader is not only eager to remind what he can do on this stage again, but he’s ready to show he is the best version of Playoff Draymond yet.
“I think that’s very scary for people,” Green tells ESPN. “And that’s why I feel so confident … people had a hard time dealing with me before. [But] I’m in a space now that’s a totally different, better space. Not even close. Much, much better than I was in before.”
Green said he has never been more “locked in” mentally and defensively, even during the Warriors’ run to five straight NBA Finals, than he is now. He’s allowing 37.3 % shooting as a closest defender in the 2022 playoffs, his best in the Steve Kerr era when excluding last year’s play-in, according to Second Spectrum.
After the injuries to his teammates, the many losses and the failure to impact the game, Green says he’s at the top of his defensive powers as the Warriors look to take a 3-0 lead over Dallas on Sunday.
“I feel like right now, I am at the highest as far as my mental capacity that I’ve ever been,” Green said. “For sure.”
AS THE WARRIORS gathered on the Chase Center floor for shootaround hours before Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Grizzlies, Green sat in the locker room.
Earlier that morning, Green woke up to the shocking news that his former Michigan State teammate and roommate Adreian Payne had been shot and killed hours earlier in Florida.
A grief-stricken Green had been excused by Kerr to go home. But he stayed, choosing to join his teammates on the court that morning and to “lose myself in the game for 48 minutes,” as he would tell ESPN after Golden State’s 101-98 Game 4 victory.
Green delivered perhaps the biggest play of the game with a block on Jaren Jackson Jr.’s potential game-tying 3 with 12.7 seconds left.
After the high from coming back from 12 down to beat the Grizzlies began to subside, Green’s grief set back in.
“So my emotions are kind of all over the place now,” Green said, apologizing to the media for not taking any questions. “I’m kind of losing that emotion from the game. So I’m going to go home and just sit on my podcast and talk.
“Because I can pause that and cry if I need to cry. I don’t like to cry in front of people.”
Ten days prior to Payne’s death, Green had credited his growing family for his newfound perspective, a trait he says he struggled with as a younger player.
“I love basketball,” Green explained. “[But] what my kids have done is given me perspective of what matters, what doesn’t matter and how to react to the things that matter.”
Early in his career, Green’s emotions often got the best of him. But with his fiancée and three kids, Green learned to troubleshoot issues with patience.
“There’s a way of working through that,” Green said. “Like working with your children through things, or for me, with my fiancée and working through things with her. How to react to those things is something that they’ve taught me.”
Five-year-old DJ has given Green added motivation this postseason. Toward the end of the Warriors’ five consecutive Finals runs, Green’s kids were too young to understand how much their father won. This season, DJ has been around the team for practices and games, and several people close to Green say this is the best mental space they’ve seen him in.
“I think that’s helped him too, to see DJ rebounding in practice, sitting on the sidelines, taking it all in,” Kerr said. “There’s something about being able to play and have your child old enough to see what’s going on and to even be a part of it.”
Green has been mentoring Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga and Gary Payton II, showing them how to play championship-winning defense. Warriors defensive coordinator Mike Brown said part of Green’s greatness this season has been lifting a unit with some players not known as defenders.
“A completely different Draymond,” Poole said of experiencing Green in the playoffs for the first time. “The energy he brought, how locked in he was, how focused, he is already a vocal person but the things he would talk about, how detail-oriented he was, his leadership, the way he would move people around and get us into positions. He was just engaged all 48, every single game.”
There has been a lot more responsibility quarterbacking this defense compared to the veteran-laden Warriors units that made the Finals in the past.
“I think this has been the best year for him in his career in terms of internal leadership,” Kerr said. “And holding our team to a standard defensively and mentoring young guys, but also inspiring them.”
Of course, Green hasn’t lost his famously explosive edge.
“I need you to keep that fire,” Brown said he has told Green. “… We need you to keep that fire for this team, and we’re going to be good.”
In the opening minutes of Game 2 of the conference semifinals, Memphis fans got a taste of the old Green. After absorbing an inadvertent elbow from Xavier Tillman that left him bloodied near his right eye, Green walked to the locker room to be treated for a possible concussion.
On his way to the tunnel, Green heard jeers from the Memphis crowd and reacted by flipping both middle fingers at the crowd. He would say later “it felt really good to flip them off” because they were booing him as he was bleeding with a swollen-shut eye. Green, who was fined $25,000 by the league, said if the Memphis fans were going to be nasty, “I can be nasty too.”
He returned and played 32 minutes, finishing with 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 points in the loss. And during Golden State’s 126-117 win in Game 2 on Friday against Dallas, Green pushed the limits with officials with one technical foul but didn’t earn a second before eventually fouling out in 28 minutes.
“I mean, let’s face it,” said Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, who was in the stands in Memphis when Green flipped off the fans. “Draymond can get, I don’t know what the right word is, but you can get emotionally a little bit out of sorts once in a while. Through most of this year, he’s really been in the right frame of mind. If he’s in the right frame of mind mentally, then he can react to all these things with his basketball IQ.
“He’s a piece of art watching him work defensively.”
ONE DAY AFTER digging his nails into reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and eliminating the Denver Nuggets in the first round, Green celebrated by getting a manicure and pedicure in Los Angeles.
He turned the team’s day off into a getaway spa day for him and his fiancée, Hazel Renee.
The way Green saw it, he had earned some pampering after facing Jokic left him physically and mentally drained. Jokic and the Nuggets might have won only one game against Golden State, but Green says this was his most challenging defensive assignment.
Green actually thanked Jokic on the court when the series was over for making him better.
“I was in a five-round heavyweight battle,” Green said. “That’s coming with Iron Mike-like power punches. But only against LeBron James does that come with having to outthink someone at such a level that it’s almost higher than a level that you can even reach.”
“Every possession was a chess match.”
Statistically, Jokic’s numbers — 31.0 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists — were in line with his regular-season production. But Green rose to the occasion when the Nuggets center needed a basket the most.
With 40.8 seconds left in Game 3, the Nuggets, down five, inbounded to Jokic. The 6-foot-11 center backed down the 6-6 Green, who saw Jokic was not only dribbling high but also away from his body. Green took a swipe with his left hand and got the ball so cleanly that it spun back to Green’s right hand for a game-sealing steal, helping Golden State take a 3-0 series lead.
“I always told him when he was little, ‘Man, put this in your bag and when you need it, it’ll be in your bag,'” said Green’s uncle, Bennie Baber, whom Green credits with teaching him how to play defense in elementary school. “‘Try everything … you will find out when you need to use them.'”
“[You know how] guys get in the rhythm on the offensive end and they’re going for 30 [for like] 20 games, that’s how I feel right now on the defensive end,” Green said. “I just feel like I’m so mentally locked in to my space that I feel like I’m in the midst of a run where I can do no wrong on the defensive end, and I’m going for 30 every night.”
And if he can continue to help Golden State solve Doncic, Green will be back in the place that makes him happiest.
“I have so much more gratitude for each game,” Green said. “I have so much more gratitude for [just] winning the first-round series.”
The Warriors know there might not be many more of these runs with Steph, Klay and Draymond.
“We all recognize that we are no longer the team with a 10-year runway ahead of us,” Kerr said. “… This is closer to the twilight. It’s closer to the end.
“… We’d like to think we got a few years left. But it’s a different vibe.”
The mission remains the same. Green wants to reestablish the Warriors as the kings again. But this time as the best version of himself at the peak of his defensive powers.
“If I can [be] that much better [than before], how much better can I make this team?” Green said. “If I can make this team that much better, then who’s going to beat us? That’s how I feel.”