OAKLAND – By suspending Draymond Green for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the league shoved the Warriors into the mental and emotional space where they summon the best of themselves.
They’re never better than when they’re fighting for a cause they believe in, and Green’s loss gives them one as big as they’ve ever known.
The Warriors feel slighted. They feel wronged. They feel the NBA listened to Cleveland superstar LeBron James, and acquiesced to his pleas for punishment in an instance that, by the reckoning of the Warriors, did not call for it.
The defending champions also are bothered by the fact that news of the suspension came as they were about to wrap up their practice session on Sunday. An hour or two earlier, and coach Steve Kerr and his staff would have adjusted and conducted a different session.
So. There has not been a game this season – including Games 5, 6 and 7 in the Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City – in which the Warriors were as sharply focused as they’ll be when they take the floor against the Cavaliers in Game 5 Monday night at Oracle Arena.
“We’re going to come out aggressive and confident, just like we would if Draymond was playing,” Stephen Curry vowed. “We understand what we’re playing for, and that’s all that matters.”
The Warriors want to win Game 5 for their fans. They want to win it for anyone who dares to believe Green’s absence instantly tilts the scales toward James and the Cavaliers. They want to win it because they desperately wish to avoid getting up Tuesday morning to make the trip back to Cleveland for Game 6.
They also want to win it for Draymond, whom they feel is being cheated.
“We know it’s going to kill him not being there,” guard Klay Thompson said, “But we’re going go out there and do it as a team and win for him, go out there and try to make a statement on our home floor.”
Green indisputably is a crucial member of the team, as important as anyone – even Curry – to the machinery behind the team that posted a 73-9 record, the best in NBA history. He’s All-NBA, All Defensive Team and the high voltage that runs through his blood often electrifies his team.
Green in these Finals leads the Warriors in assists and rebounding and, prior to Curry’s 38-point outburst in Game 4 on Friday in Cleveland, had been their leading scorer in The Finals.
As a presence, he’ll be missed.
As a player, he’ll be missed.
All of which leaves the Warriors with much less room for error. And we’ve seen how they can be inattentive, even careless, when they sense they have room for error. If they sense easy prey, there always is the possibility they will include elements of the Harlem Globetrotters in their performance, particularly when at home. Turnovers pile up and they fall behind on the scoreboard. Sometimes, they’re good enough to come back. Sometimes, they are not.
If there were even the slightest possibility of the Warriors feeling full of themselves with a 3-1 lead in the series, knowing Green will be absent completely destroys any chance of such complacency.
Asked during the interview session Sunday if he could recall an example of a team overcoming the loss of a critical player in a crucial postseason, Kerr did not hesitate, recalling his days as a Lakers fan and the memory of Magic Johnson’s epic game in the 1980 NBA Finals against the 76ers.
Starting at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson totaled 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. Kerr’s numbers were off (he said 42, 19 and 15) but his point was that championship teams dig deeper when facing obstacles.
The Warriors now are Game 5 underdogs in the minds of some, so Curry is in his happy place. So, too, is Thompson. It’s no different with Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston.
“It’s kind of the ultimate test, with him and Steph being guys that are kind of irreplaceable,” Livingston said of Green’s suspension. “But it’s something that we can rally upon. It’s something that guys can step up. We can play with a chip on our shoulder.
“The same heart that he brings every game, we can play with that as a team. And I think we will.”