All year long the Golden State Warriors were the best team in the NBA. They won 67 regular season games, looking impenetrable in all facets. They punished opponents that tried to depress tempo by suffocating them with a league-leading defense, then getting out in the open floor to fling pin-point daggers from ear-bleeding distances.
Draymond Green was their second-best player. His unique two-way skill embodied the Warriors' team-wide versatility, and they outscored opponents by an incredible 16.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (and 2.5 points per 100 possessions when he wasn't).
Green gave plucky edge to a polished team and helped unlock Golden State's treasure chest of an attack, providing just enough space with his outside shot and consistently making the right play as Stephen Curry's pick-and-roll partner.
Green nearly won Defensive Player of the Year, and regardless of what happens after the NBA Finals, the second-round pick will receive a max contract on July 1, be it from the Warriors or some other team praying owner Joe Lacob mysteriously goes bankrupt at some point in the next couple weeks. This was a magical season for an undersized role player who ascended higher than even his most optimistic supporters expected.
Then the NBA Finals started. The opening three games have been an absolute nightmare for the Warriors, and Green -- a barometer of sorts -- is one of the biggest reasons why. Depending on how well you thought Andrew Bogut would do, Green is arguably the most disappointing player left standing. The Cleveland Cavaliers are forcing him to beat them, and he's failing, badly.
He scored seven points on 2-for-10 shooting in Game 3, tying Harrison Barnes with a team-low minus-14 in 30 minutes (he sat half the fourth quarter and battled foul trouble most of the night, committing 14 personal fouls since the Finals began). Even worse than the numbers is how he has looked. As was already mentioned, Green is getting a max contract this summer, but how dangerous can he truly be if the Cavaliers' (successful) defensive game plan revolves around putting the ball in his hands and letting him shoot?
Green's three-point shot once gave the Warriors' offense a dimension few teams could stop. But it's vanished in the postseason. He's at 25 percent in 18 games -- 26.8 percent on shots deemed "open" and "wide open" by SportVU's cameras. The Cavs are routinely using Green's man to keep Curry at bay whenever the duo runs a pick-and-roll. But when he pops to the perimeter Cleveland is giving Green the open look and staying home on Golden State's more dangerous options.
It's thrown a bag of wrenches in a system that once flowed like the world's smoothest assembly line. If Green can't hit shots he's dared to take, what will the Warriors do? It's a dark and devastating question, but hardly where the problems begin. A disturbing trend that began earlier in the series and continued in Game 3: Golden State's catalyzing Swiss Army knife passed up a few open looks and instead opted to meet Cleveland's Timofey Mozgov -- currently masquerading as the scariest rim protector in basketball history -- at the basket. It's stubborn, and a battle the Cavs are totally fine with.
Green is normally effective finishing around the basket, but not now, particularly when Mozgov is in the game. So if he can't score at the rim and he's bricking every outside shot, what other choices does Green have? Nothing nice. He shot a decrepit 28.4 percent in the paint (non-restricted area) during the regular season and is at 27.3 percent in the playoffs.
He isn't nearly accurate enough from the mid-range either, going 2-for-10 in the entire postseason. In Game 3, a frustrated Green even swerved outside his lane trying to climb Mt. Mozgov with an awkward floater that obviously didn't go in.
This is a red flag. But so is catching the ball on the move, seeing Mozgov and thinking "time to reset the offense!"
To be fair, this sequence was designed for Klay Thompson, who Bogut tries to free with a flare screen on J.R. Smith on the weak side. But it doesn't work, and Green isn't confident enough to make something happen on his own. (Moments later, with no option but to back things out and run a second pick-and-roll, Green missed another wide-open three.)
One of Golden State's most confident players has lost faith when and where it matters most, and recapturing it is key if the Warriors are to locate what made them so brilliant for an entire season. If he continues to hesitate in Game 4, David Lee -- the player Green replaced in the Warriors' starting lineup -- may be the better offensive option.
When Cleveland strings a big in front of Curry and forces him to the sideline, Lee can fill in as a dangerous release valve in the middle of the floor. He's a better all-around scorer than Green, and packs quality decision-making beside an unselfish eye. Lee can really pass, and has no difficulty finding the open man when Cleveland crashes in to prevent him from doing damage in the paint.
The Warriors went on their fourth-quarter run with Lee at center and Andre Iguodala at power forward, eventually forcing David Blatt to remove Mozgov from the game for a good chunk of the period. Even though small ball appears to be the Warriors' friend, they still need to take care of Cleveland's imposing work on the glass -- another area Green's struggling in. That problem isn't going away anytime soon. Then again, controlling tempo is key in this particular matchup, and the Warriors can't do that unless they downsize. Lineups that feature Green at center, Iguodala or Barnes at the four and either Shaun Livingston or Leandro Barbosa joining Curry and Thompson in a three-guard backcourt could sprout up for a few minutes in Game 4.
Then there's the option of deploying Green and Lee at the same time. The duo played just 189 minutes together during the regular season, but Golden State outscored opponents by 9.0 points per 100 possessions. Sadly, those units grabbed just 67.6 percent of their opponent's missed shots. Compared to how every team did in the regular season, that's substantially worse than the 30th-ranked Timberwolves.
But down 2-1 in the most important series of their lives, desperate times call for desperate measures. Bogut is a ghost and Festus Ezeli is a humongous liability.
It's frustrating to hear, but there's still no dramatic adjustment to be made because Cleveland's defensive strategy offers a straightforward response. Green needs to make the shots they give him, but he also can't let misses affect other areas of his game. There were lengthy stretches, when he wasn't struggling to keep Tristan Thompson off the boards, when Green was totally invisible. His shot wasn't falling, as tends to happen (he made 33.7 percent of his threes in the regular season), but his overall play was soggy.
For multiple reasons, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has yet to really utilize his best defender as a wall between LeBron James and the rim (a couple of those reasons being he doesn't want Green getting in foul trouble and needs his bigs to focus on the glass), but we could see a change in Game 4.
Green suffered a back injury late in Game 2, and it's certainly something to keep an eye on. We don't know exactly how much it's affecting him, but he did say it was an issue on Tuesday. But his shot was musty long before, and he appeared to move well enough throughout Tuesday night's loss. Green's issues were more mental than anything, and the Warriors badly need a more confident, productive and smart version of their emotional leader if they're to come back and win their first championship in 40 years.