BOSTON — The Golden State Warriors have, throughout the NBA Finals, made it a point to say how talented and tough their opponent is.
But on the eve of Game 6, when the Warriors could close out the Boston Celtics with a win, Draymond Green said the challenges they present do not compare to battling the Warriors’ more familiar foe in this round: LeBron James.
“It doesn’t compare to mentally playing against LeBron James, who I think is arguably the smartest guy to ever play this game,” Green said. “Not one of, he is arguably the smartest guy to set foot on a basketball court. To say that it compares to that, it’s disrespectful to LeBron, and it’s a lie to you.”
Green does not like to be taken out of context (who does?) and is not immune to saying that’s what happened, even when it didn’t. It’s also worth noting that James is business partners with Green on multiple ventures. So, from the NBA’s official transcript, here is the question Green was answering Thursday, before the Warriors’ practice.
You’ve been in so many high-profile championship series against all-time players like LeBron over the years. Where would you say this series ranks in terms of the mental challenge of having to anticipate three steps down the road what Boston is going to do and trying to attack them three steps down the road?
Green clearly wasn’t having it. The Warriors faced James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in four consecutive finals, from 2015-18, and won three times. But in 2015, the Warriors fell down 2-1 even though Cleveland’s second- and third-best players, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were out. In 2016, James orchestrated a historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win.
Of the Celtics, who are Green’s chief concern, he said, “It’s a challenge mentally because these guys are super athletic.” He said their youth and talent has caused him to have to try and outthink the Celtics, and “that’s been huge in this series from a mental standpoint and just trying to understand and be a step ahead of them.”
And then he said facing the Celtics is “not as much of a chess match as it is when you’re playing LeBron, who is dissecting every play in that computer of his, like in real time.”
“Like that’s just a skill that not many people possess,” Green said. “Not many people can come and sit here and find a random stretch from seven minutes to four minutes in the second quarter and give you every play like to the T and not miss a beat. There’s not many people that can do that.”
Green, still talking in his stream of consciousness, then made it a point to mention two Celtics who, in his mind, are smart. One is Marcus Smart, who “is extremely smart, who it’s like a chess match going up against him.” And Boston coach Ime Udoka “is extremely smart. We know his pedigree.”
“So the challenge is there, but you can’t put it up there against LeBron’s,” Green added. “Like I said, he’s probably the smartest guy we’ve ever seen play basketball.”
LeBron, of course, isn’t in this series. The team for which he currently plays, the Lakers, did not make the playoffs. So what should the takeaways be from Green’s comments?
Does this rise to the level of bulletin-board material for Boston? Green suggested he has been able to outthink the Celtics’ younger and more talented players. He didn’t name names, but that means Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — two players he’s tangled with throughout the series. When you get to an elimination game and you’re on the wrong side of it, as the Celtics are, what more motivation is needed than wanting to avoid watching Golden State pop champagne at TD Garden? Tatum hasn’t shown interest in engaging with Green anyway, even when Green followed him to the bench during a timeout in Game 5. But it’s not much of a leap to deduce that Green was saying neither Tatum nor Brown rises to LeBron’s level. It’s one thing to say neither player is as good as LeBron; there may only be one player in the NBA’s 75-year history who was better. But there is room for some of the Celtics to be upset over this, if they want to be.
Is Green right, so far as he’s been able to outsmart the Celtics? He really struggled in games 3 and 4, with Steve Kerr going away from him for much of the fourth quarter of a game the Warriors came back and won (Game 4). Green was much better in Game 5, with eight points (he’d scored four in the previous two games), eight rebounds and six assists, though he fouled out. Green clearly disrupted the Celtics’ flow in Game 2 (another Boston loss) by being an unrelenting pest. On more than one occasion, Boston’s players and coaches have admitted to allowing outside forces like Green or the officials to cause them to lose focus. If that was Green’s plan, it’s working.
Another way to think about LeBron, the Warriors, and staying on top: Green obviously was looking to credit LeBron, whose legacy in the NBA is cemented. But the Warriors forged this dynasty against those Cavaliers teams with LeBron. In an age of unprecedented superstar player mobility and empowerment (if you don’t like where you are, you can go, contract be damned), the fact that Golden State is again in a finals, with Green and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson as its nucleus, probably deserves even more praise than it gets.
Those great warriors teams kind of broke up in a way, with Kevin Durant leaving through free agency, the franchise trading Andre Iguodala for cap space (hey, it eventually got him back) and acquiring an influx of talent (like Andrew Wiggins) who had never been to the playoffs before. But Golden State didn’t fire Kerr after losing the most games in the NBA in 2020. It didn’t tire of Green and trade him. The franchise has been rewarded for its patience while Thompson missed more than two seasons with devastating leg injuries. And Curry has been the calming influence — the unquestioned leader, the rock upon which the Warriors’ stability was built — who will stay for probably the rest of his career. LeBron didn’t want that in Cleveland — or at least, he didn’t want it enough that he reached the point where he wanted to leave for Los Angeles in 2018.
LeBron’s Lakers won a championship when the Warriors were at their worst. If James had never left Cleveland, maybe it’s the Cavs playing in the 2019 NBA Finals with Durant and Thompson eventually going down to injury? Anyway, all of this was a long time ago, and we’ve all moved on.
But the warriors are still, largely, together after building their reputation and their legacy against James.
“As you grow and realize those things, they aren’t promised, and you try not to take these things for granted and understand that you are probably closer to the end than you are the beginning,” Green said. “It’s just a totally different appreciation that you have for these moments now as opposed to then.”
(Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)