OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors are a team known for flash and flair, style over substance, the unmatched shooting of the Splash Brothers and, with the addition of Kevin Durant, arguably the greatest offensive attack the league has ever seen.
But Golden State’s transformation into a super power, however, has as much to do with the snarling, sneering, jeering, gesticulating presence and persona of its power forward, Draymond Green. His unique contributions were on full display — and then some — Sunday afternoon, as his remarkable all-around performance — 19 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and five blocks in 37 minutes — helped Golden State to a tougher-than-anticipated 121-109 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of their best-of-seven first-round series.
“Draymond was amazing,” Warriors 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.”
While much has been made of Kerr’s arrival and the metamorphosis of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson into the game’s two most lethal shooters, it’s no coincidence that Golden State began to ascend to to the league’s upper echelon when Green replaced an injured David Lee in the starting lineup during the 2014-2015 season. The Warriors never looked back. Green was the final piece of the puzzle, the key to unlocking Golden State’s unmatched versatility at both ends of the court, which has come to define them.
The Warriors’ best lineups over the past three seasons have almost all featured Green — an undersize power forward who was an unheralded second-round pick in 2012 — playing center, often guarding players several inches larger than him, a practice that’s revolutionized the league. And it’s his ability to operate as both a de facto point guard offensively while guarding virtually every position defensively that’s made those lineups so impossible to stop.
Just look at Sunday’s game. Green had nine assists — five more than anyone else on either team and more than a third of Golden State’s total. Meanwhile, he met both Noah Vonleh and Damian Lillard on dunk attempts at the rim and came up victorious.
“I mean, when you block it at the rim, it’s a little different because that’s one of those plays where you’re within a half inch to a centimeter of being dunked on,” Green said. “So when you actually come up with the block, you know, it’s a bit more excitement.
“At the rim it’s mano-a-mano, man against man. Who is going to win the battle? It’s just a different type of emotion.”
All of those emotions came out when Green made those plays — and virtually any other throughout the game. That’s the other essential element Green brings to this Warriors team, and the one it can’t afford to be without. For all of the gifts of players like Curry, Thompson and Durant, none of them would be considered emotional players. In fact, part of their greatness — particularly as scorers — comes from their ability to move on from one play to the next with cold efficiency, never too high or too low.
Often, though, that leaves the Warriors as a team in need of a spark. That is where Green comes in. Few players in the league play with his level of fire and passion on a nightly basis — something that, at times, can work against him, as he and the Warriors learned the hard way during last year’s playoffs, when his suspension for Game 5 of the NBA Finals was the beginning of Cleveland’s comeback from down three games to one.
But the positives have outweighed the negatives for the Warriors, though, as they did again Sunday. With every play Green made, he became more animated, and the crowd at Oracle Arena grew louder each time he would exhort them to do so, a symbiotic relationship that spurred both to new heights as the game progressed.
It’s what made it fitting that in a game defined largely by offense — with 32 points for Durant, 29 for Curry and a combined 75 (including 48 in the first half) for Lillard and back-court mate C.J. McCollum — the pivotal stretch in the game was a 15-2 run the Warriors engineered to start the fourth quarter powered by the defensive efforts of both Green and David West, which included Green’s remarkable block of Lillard’s dunk attempt.
“I mean, I think having a guy like that on the floor, I think it raises the level of the game,” Lillard said. “Because I don’t even talk trash, and he was saying so much out there that I had a whole lot to say tonight. I think that’s just good for the game.
“I think the league has softened up a lot, and it’s not like that. So you’ve got to have a rough guy like him out there. I think it’s necessary.
“I think their team depends on him to be that dog out there, and to be that person.”
The Warriors depend on Green for many things, and all of them were on display Sunday. It’s why they have the first of 16 victories they need to win their second championship in three years, and it’s why their season will be nothing but a massive disappointment if they fail to get them.