OAKLAND, Calif. -- Heading into this Christmas NBA Finals rematch, the Golden State Warriors tried to downplay proceedings. This was business as usual, no more significant than a Monday night against the Denver Nuggets.
It would not be an indication of how the Finals would have gone if Cleveland was healthy -- or how it will go if Cleveland is healthy.
Interim Warriors coach Luke Walton communicated that his players hadn’t discussed the Christmas game all season, and players reiterated that theme. The Warriors even kept their recent starting lineup, asking Brandon Rush to guard LeBron James from the outset. Though Rush acquitted himself nicely on defense in Golden State’s 89-83 win, it was not a choice the Warriors would make if stakes were higher. The implicit message: The Cavs aren’t getting our best shot until and unless we need it.
One subtle choice belied the projection of blasé: Draymond Green's shoes were different. Green usually plays in a LeBron model, and he doesn’t like to deviate. After a win against the Utah Jazz, Green was asked if he would change shoes when actually facing James. With a smile, he said, “I’m thinking about it. They’re comfortable, man. It’s a comfortable shoe.”
So, Green had a dilemma of comfort versus principle. Initially, principle won out, as it had in the Finals, when Green wore different shoes. On Friday, he began the game in a non-LeBron model, and played brilliantly from the outset. The feel wasn’t quite right, though, and during halftime, Green eschewed principle and slipped back into his old LeBrons. His postgame explanation: “They’re comfortable!” Green even indicated that if he faces James in the Finals, he's probably sticking with his opponent’s footwear.
On the one hand, wearing the shoes of an opponent is a tacit admission of his or her superior status. It’s not something a superstar does, as superstars get their own sneakers. Even Kyrie Irving, he of one, abbreviated playoff run, gets his own shoe line. In theory, a player of Green’s caliber, someone Jerry West plausibly described as a “top-10 player,” shouldn’t wear the shoes of a guy he’s guarding.
On the other hand, Green has been great without needing to fit old standards. He’s approaching stardom in his own idiosyncratic way. It doesn’t come in the form of an isolation, step-back game winner. It comes in the form of stopping that game winner. It comes in the form of screening for the guy hitting that game winner.
On Friday, Green’s unique iteration of stardom came in many forms. He, again, had a brilliant all-around performance (22 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks), the best of anyone who participated in what was a stilted, choppy game. Stephen Curry and James both were off, relative to their usual quality. Green shined through the muck, generating offense when Curry was trapped, shutting down Kevin Love and switching onto anyone the Warriors needed covering.
When Golden State went to close the game, it did so with Green at center. It was a sequence that was, perhaps, illustrative of how Green has eclipsed Love as a new age big man. Green ran the break on one end and added rim protection on the other. Love’s pace plodded, and he didn’t rotate to the rack in time on two late Curry layups. In contrast, with 20 seconds left, Green met James right at the rim, wrenching the ball from his hands, midair.
The impressive play was called a foul, a call that Green agreed with but lamented with a grin, “I think I fouled him, but it is what it is. I'm kind of mad at Scott [Foster] for calling that foul, because I would have been on the highlights.”
Highlights are hard to come by when your quality is subtle, and then are mostly predicated on stopping other men’s highlights. That goes for much of this Golden State roster. On a day when Curry struggled with a calf strain, the Warriors overcame the Cavs with players whose feats are mostly unsung. Andre Iguodala hit only one shot but was, again, fantastic guarding James. Post-up ace Shaun Livingston showcased his underrated game, going 8-of-9 for 16 points.
Friday's outing was the cliché, gritty, “ugly” team win for the Warriors, rather than the 3-point fireworks that were promised. It was a game defined by plays that don’t dominate Vine for a few hours. In this rugged milieu, Green reigned. He outplayed James while wearing the King's shoes. Though Green probably never will get his own sneaker, molded to his comfort, he’s racing toward All-Star status as a man who fits any mold.
Is Green better than Love, the All-Star who Golden State nearly traded for last season? Is he indeed a top-10 player, as West contends? If the shoe fits.