The Golden State Warriors’ 89-83 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers wasn’t the type of win we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing them get thus far this season.
Their resident superstar Stephen Curry missed part of the first half with a leg injury and finished with just 19 points on 15 shots, they only shot 27.8% from three, and for the first time in 47 games, they were held below 100 points at the Oracle. But despite their struggles, the Dubs still managed to eek out a win in what was probably the most anticipated game on the NBA schedule this year, thanks in large part to a monster performance from Draymond Green.
Though the Cavaliers came into Oakland with a fully healthy squad (which is the opposite of what they had in last year’s Finals), much of their strategy wasn’t about maximizing their own weapons, but instead trying to neutralize those of Golden State. Instead of pushing the pace after rebounds, the Cavaliers made a deliberate effort to slow the game down and force the Warriors to execute in the half court, evidenced by there only being a combined 18 fast break points all game.
Though playing in the half court seemed to limit Curry a bit, similar to the Finals, the plodding game seemed to benefit Green, as he scored 22 points on 8-of-17 shooting, and hit two threes from his favorite spot at the top of the key. As probably the most cerebral player on the Warriors (a result of four years with Tom Izzo), Green made his mark on the game with his screening, off-the-ball movement, and positive decision-making.
December 25, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) celebrates in the fourth quarter of a NBA basketball game on Christmas against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Cavaliers 89-83. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
In any half court set, off the ball movement is the most important aspect, and with Green making two or three hard cuts to the rim on a possession, or setting quality back screens to help free up shooters, it was difficult for the Cavs’ defense to key in on him, because most of his damage was done before getting the ball. Once he did get the ball, Green was quick to either make a move to the basket, rarely taking more than three dribbles on any drive to the rim, or to find players in better positions to score, leading to his game high seven assists.
On the defensive end, Green’s presence was also felt, as his two blocks and 14 defensive boards contributed to his +14 plus-minus rating, which was the highest for any player in the game not named Steph Curry. Green’s versatility and high IQ served him well in the half court minded match up, because not only was he able to understand where he could make his mark on the game, but he was also able to utilize his skills to execute.
December 25, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forwardLeBron James
(23) reacts in the fourth quarter of a NBA basketball game on Christmas against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Cavaliers 89-83. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
LeBron James, Green’s chief foil in this newly established rivalry, wasn’t able to have quite the same impact. In fact, he was a huge part of why Cleveland wasn’t able to come away with the win. Though he finished with a game high 25 points, LeBron only added two assists compared to four turnovers, shot just 38% from the field, and missed two key free throws with a minute and a half remaining.
Though it was Cleveland’s goal to play in the half court, other than LeBron taking poor shots in isolation, there wasn’t much continuity in the Cavaliers offense at all. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving shot a combined 9-of-31, which was likely why LeBron felt the need to bear the offensive burden, but his forcing the issue against a relatively stout Golden State D did nothing to help the Cavs on Christmas Day.
While he is the reason Cleveland was in the game for much of the fourth quarter, his ball dominance throughout left his teammates out of rhythm and thus in no position to help him carry the load in the waning moments, making it easy for the Warriors to either force the ball out of his hands, or to bait him into a bad shot attempt. It’s rare that James is going to finish a game with a minus-9 plus-minus rating, but when it does happen, it’s very clear what went wrong for him and his team. On Friday night it seemed to be a case of LeBron trying to put the team on his back — and failing.
Regardless, Golden State’s win wasn’t a Christmas miracle. It was the result of them out-hustling, out-defending, and out-passing the Cleveland Cavaliers, and at the core of all those facets of the game, Green was the one setting the tone.