Sports

Draymond Green’s Psychological Blitzkrieg

What the Warriors need now from their brilliant pest.

Green argues with a referee, an Xes-and-Os-and-arrows play illustrated behind them.
Draymond doing his thing in Game 3. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images.

A minor controversy erupted in the aftermath of the Boston Celtics’ 116–100 win over the Golden State Warriors to take a 2–1 lead in the NBA Finals this past Wednesday. Warriors guard Klay Thompson, coach Steve Kerr, and others in the Warriors’ corner took issue with some profane chants directed at Golden State’s brilliant, charismatic, and diabolically mercurial forward Draymond Green. “Dropping F-bombs with children in the crowd. Really classy. Good job, Boston,” remarked Thompson, perhaps leaning a bit too hard into Helen Lovejoy territory considering the game’s 9 p.m.-on-a-school-night start time.

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Since the Warriors snagged Green with the 35th overall pick in the 2012 Draft after a decorated four-year career at Michigan State—one of the great second-round heists in NBA history—he has been the frontal cortex of a team that is currently enjoying its sixth Finals appearance in the past eight years. So far in this series, Draymond’s play has been a roller coaster: In Game 1, a Celtics win, he grabbed 11 rebounds but scored a mere 4 points on 2 of 12 shooting before fouling out. In Game 2 he was an absolute menace: While his stat line of 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists doesn’t sound like much, raw numbers can’t begin to reflect his impact. Green harassed, taunted, tackled, and generally alpha-dogged the Celtics, making a team that generally thrives on bully-ball look punch-drunk and petulant in equal measure. Not coincidentally, the Warriors won.

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It was this performance that prompted Wednesday night’s Game 3 Boston crowd to serenade him with chants of “fuck you, Draymond” and “Draymond sucks” throughout the night. I attended this game and personally found these chants to be pretty stupid, not so much because four-letter words make me squeamish but rather because I don’t think anything makes Draymond Green happier than tens of thousands of opposing fans telling him to go fuck himself. (When asked for his thoughts on the chants after the game, Draymond dismissively remarked that Cleveland did it better.) Still, even if the jeers didn’t work it’s clear that something did, as Green finished Game 3 with an abysmal 2 points, 3 assists and 4 rebounds before once again fouling out in the fourth quarter.

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I have watched NBA basketball for decades and have never seen another player quite like Draymond Green. He has career averages of 8.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists and yet is almost certainly a lock for the Hall of Fame. As a low-scoring, defensive-minded and exorbitantly intelligent forward his most common point of comparison is Dennis Rodman, another larger-than-life figure both on and off the court. But unlike Draymond, Rodman put up video game–like rebounding numbers, and his penchant for playing the heel always seemed more like an overcompensation or defense mechanism. When the cameras were off, Rodman was famously shy and insecure; Draymond, on the other hand, is one of the most comically extroverted athletes of his generation, a man who claims to take his podcasting as seriously as he does his basketball. When opposing crowds boo and curse him his reaction is to flex, preen, and dance; it’s hard not to love a guy who goes out of his way to make hating him this much fun.

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Even though he’s only 32, Green’s skills are not what they once were, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. In 2016, Green scored 32 points to go with 15 rebounds and 9 assists in the Warriors’ Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, shooting 11 for 15 from the field, including 6 for 8 from 3. (However, in true Draymond giveth, Draymond taketh away fashion, arguably the only reason the Warriors were in Game 7 was because Draymond had punched LeBron James in the nuts late in Game 4 and earned a Game 5 suspension with the Warriors up 3–1 in the series.) In 2022, the likelihood of Green putting together a game like that in the NBA Finals feels only slightly higher than the likelihood of me putting together a game like that in the NBA Finals.

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But he’s still a force to be reckoned with, arguably still the greatest defensive player in the game and one of the most intelligent players the sport has ever seen. Green is always at his best when he plays right on the brink of chaos, right on the edge without stumbling over it. He’s often characterized as an emotional player, but much of his brilliance comes from his ability to turn other players into emotional players. His performance against the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown in Game 2 was a master class in this: By the second quarter, it felt like Green had pissed off Brown to such a degree that the latter seemed myopically focused on trying to embarrass Draymond on the offensive end, an ignominious pursuit considering Green’s still peerless defensive acumen. Brown ended up shooting 5 for 17 with 3 assists and 2 turnovers and spent much of the game looking like a kid brother fighting back tears while getting worked in the driveway by an older sibling.

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At its most potent, Green’s psychological blitzkrieg exceeds the players he’s guarding and seeps into the entirety of the game itself. Green is a master at heightening the contradictions of NBA officiating, in which mandates of exactitude and “fairness” rest uneasily against the subjectivity of interpretation and a desire to make the games as entertaining as possible. A prime example of this came in Game 2, when Green picked up a technical foul in the first quarter and then, by any reasonable standard, should have picked up another after a far more egregious dust-up with Brown in the second quarter. A second technical, though, would have ejected Green from the game; after extensive deliberation, the refereeing crew declined to assign double-technicals to Brown and Green so as to keep Green in the game, a ruling endorsed on ESPN’s telecast by former referee Steve Javie.

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I didn’t really have a problem with this decision: After all, ejecting a critical player for a relatively innocuous, if obvious, technical foul in the second quarter of a Finals game would have been a monumental decision that would have colored the rest of the game, if not the series. But the decision to not call it was a tacit admission that Green would thereafter be held to a different standard than the actual letter of the rules. It’s this gray area that Green has delighted in over the course of his career, and he has a genius for exploiting it. Take a sequence like this, from the same game, in which Draymond essentially turns into an offensive lineman to create space for Curry to drain a lightly contested 3-pointer. This is so far from a standard basketball play that it is essentially unintelligible, and Green wins his bet that it will be officiated as such.

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It’d be a take too hot by half to claim that Green is the Warriors’ most important player in this series—that obviously goes to Curry, who thus far has been brilliant—but the ebb and flow of Green’s play and his general volatility will play an outsized role in whether the Dubs can come back and win this series. If Green doesn’t play well in the remaining games, the Warriors are probably cooked; if he can stay focused and do what the Warriors need him to do, he might just win another title. And if the latter happens, I’m sure Draymond will be the first to let everyone know that four rings beats four-letter words every time.

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