Blazers star Damian Lillard was sprawled out on the court as Draymond Green just stood there. Oracle Arena was collectively losing its mind as the should-be Defensive Player of the Year tauntingly stared at Lillard.
Less than six minutes remained Sunday, the Warriors were surging and Lillard went for a tomahawk dunk to swing the momentum. But Green emerged from the weak side and stuffed the Oakland native at the rim. Then, like Maximus from the movie Gladiator, he let the fervor of the crowd wash over him.
It was the moment that summarized the 121-109 Game 1 by the Warriors in this first round of these Western Conference playoffs. It was also another snapshot in a defensive collage of a season. Green has put together the defensive version of Russell Westbrook’s season — a campaign replete with enough dominance and moments to convert non-believers.
Green is already an all-time great defender. He is the Bill Russell of the Millenial generation. He has the spirit of Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman crammed into Anthony Mason’s body.
Rarely do you see a player take over an entire game, fuel an entire team, with defense. It is unusual for a player to leave an arena gasping in awe because of his play on that end of that court.
It wasn’t a fancy dribble drive from Stephen Curry that brought the house down on top of Portland. It wasn’t a a barrage of threes by Klay Thompson that left viewers jaws on the ground. It wasn’t a thunderous dunk by Kevin Durant that punctuated the game-winning surge.
Curry and Durant were on the bench when the Warriors took control for good.
It was Green who put Portland in its place. It was Green who changed the tide of the game, preventing the playoff-opening loss that would have brought doomsday to the Warriors’ doorstep.
Green was one assist shy of a triple-double, but his stat line was still special: 19 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, five blocks and three steals.
“Draymond was amazing,” coach Steve Kerr said. “He made some tremendous defensive plays. He made threes. He rebounded the ball. He had nine assists. I mean, he played a game that I’m not sure anybody else in the league is capable of, honestly. Who else can do what Draymond just did tonight? He’s so unique and so important to us. He was phenomenal.”
This was a statement game, and take your pick which statement he was making.
Statement 1: It is indeed playoff time. Green’s energy and intensity illustrated that this is what he’s been waiting for. He was amped. He was talking trash, screaming and flexing. He was eagerly switching onto the Blazers guards, Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who was torching the Warriors’ guards, and protecting the rim with audacity.
The Warriors’ season has been marked by the appearance of boredom at times throughout the regular season. Their defense looked to be in regular season mode as Lillard and C.J. McCollum lit them up for 62 points in three quarters.
But Green almost singlehandedly yanked the Warriors out of regular season mode. The Warriors’ feed of Green’s fire. And he is fully lit for the postseason.
Which leads to Statement 2: he can be fully lit and yet under control.
What was noticeably absent, in all the yelling and celebrating and banter, was engagement with the referees.
The sting is still present from when he cost the Warriors a championship by being suspended for Game 5 of the NBA Finals due to an accumulation of flagrant fouls. He was close to getting suspended during the regular season for his technical foul count.
“Really,” he said, “It’s a waste of energy. In the end, the call is going to be the call. I’m better off directing that energy towards (the opponent). I’m not going to let them get to me and get caught up in that.”
Statement 3: Green is the team’s best center. So even though Bogut is gone, and Zaza Pachulia looks terrible sometimes, or JaVale McGee might be hit or miss, or David West might look too slow sometimes. They are all just set up men. They are biding time for the key component to the plan hatched in the Hamptons.
Green is the Warriors’ center. He is the rim protector. He is the post-defended. He is the last line of defense. And he is exceptionally good at it.
That was especially obvious in the third quarter when a turnover led to a 2-on-1 break for Portland. Lillard dribbled out towards the 3-point line as big man Noah Vonleh trailed down the middle.
Green jumped out on Lillard, taking away the pull-up 3-pointer that was sure to go in. But he opened up the lane for Vonleh. Lillard made the pass and Vonleh went up for the dunk.
But Green recovered. Met Vonleh at the rim. Blocking his dunk. He let out a yell from the gut as he punched the air, and Oracle turned into a loud, madhouse.