SAN FRANCISCO — By the time Draymond Green made it to the Chase Center late Thursday night, he knew what needed to be done. Green had watched the Golden State Warriors’ season-saving win against the Sacramento Kings in Game 3 of their best-of-7 first-round series from home after serving a one-game suspension for stomping on the chest of Kings center Domantas Sabonis in the fourth quarter of Game 2.
“I was dialed in,” Green told ESPN after the Warriors evened the series 2-2 with Sunday’s 126-125 win. “It was like watching film for me. And I saw things.”
The Warriors’ spacing was better with only one big on the floor in the Game 3 home win. And that big, the chronically under-appreciated Kevon Looney, had been awesome (20 rebounds, nine assists and four points) filling in for him.
Green arrived back at the arena while his teammates were still in the postgame locker room. He spoke to Stephen Curry about his idea, then marched into coach Steve Kerr’s office to deliver the pitch.
Only one big should start Game 4 and it should be Looney, not him.
“We can’t pull him. That’s BS. He doesn’t deserve that,” Green said. “If this is going to be a thing, let it be me.”
It was a full circle moment for Green, who’d started all but two of the 597 games he’s played for the Warriors since Kerr chose him to replace two-time All-Star David Lee in his first season as coach back in 2014.
“The biggest thing for me is that I can walk in the room and say, ‘Coach, I need to come off the bench.’ Because I watched David Lee hug me, put his arms around me no matter what the situation was and say, ‘This is what you need to do,'” Green said. “So you can never be the opposite way.
“Because my whole thing started on the back of a guy who was an All-Star that said, ‘All right, here’s what you need to do.’
Green was in his third season at the time and still trying to establish himself in the NBA. He still has the chip on his shoulder that comes from being a second-round pick out of Michigan State, and it could’ve easily crushed him had he not gotten the opportunity to prove himself.
Making him a full-time starter, and not just an injury-replacement starter, was the most validating thing Kerr could do. And it unlocked the Warriors as we’ve come to know them for the better part of the past decade.
“That moment for me was when it got real,” Green said. “This isn’t like a 16-game thing. We’re rolling with this thing. Here is my opportunity to become everything that I always thought I could become … and the rest is history.”
Giving up that starting spot was not something Green or Kerr would ever do lightly. But it was clear that’s what needed to be done to help the Warriors get back in this series.
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“I love the ovation our crowd gave [him],” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “Now to go down as a player who changed the way basketball is played as far as being a floor spacing big who can guard every position. We’re just grateful for Draymond’s unselfishness and leadership. He thinks the game better than anybody I know.”
It is impossible to separate Green’s choice in Sunday’s game from the chaos his suspension had thrown the team into before Game 3. Whatever frustration there might have initially been toward Green at getting himself and the team into such a situation quickly turned to anger and resolve to avenge what many within the organization thought was an unjust suspension by the NBA, according to team sources.
The Warriors rallied around Green, publicly and privately. Then they went out and won by one point.
Had it gone the other way, if the Warriors had lost Game 3 while Green was out, the reckoning might have ended very differently as the team faces an uncertain future with an aging, expensive roster.
But Golden State adapted on the fly, winning Game 3 by going with a more wide-open, up-tempo style of play.
Which is really not all that uncommon for them during this dynastic run. For as much as the Warriors’ style of play has defined this era of basketball, it has actually changed quite a bit at key moments over the years.
In the middle of the 2015 finals, Golden State inserted Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup in place of Andrew Bogut to counter the Cleveland Cavaliers’ big lineups, which had successfully slowed the game down by trapping Curry.
With the Cavs leading the series 2-1, a young assistant named Nick Uren suggested the unorthodox small-ball lineup during a coaches’ meeting and basketball history was made.
Sunday’s lineup change might not usher in a new era for either the Warriors or the NBA. Jordan Poole, who replaced Green as a starter Sunday, also replaced Curry in the starting lineup for four games during last season’s playoffs as Curry worked his way back from an injury.
And it’s too soon to say how long this adjustment will stick. Green started the second half as Kerr looked for ways to slow down Sacramento guards De’Aaron Fox and Keegan Murray. But the Warriors have experimented with versions of this switch all season, occasionally starting Poole to try to create the kind of space necessary for Curry and Thompson to operate as they need to.
It’s a lineup change that feels like it’s eventually going to come, whether it’s Green, Looney or someone else who steps aside to open it up.
On Sunday Green embraced it, as Lee did for him all those years ago. And he did so confidently.
“You have to always reciprocate, never get too big for the moment, never get so high on yourself,” Green said. “If that’s what’s ultimately going to help win, that’s what you have to do because that’s the most important thing.”