LOS ANGELES -- When asked about finishing five layups over Los Angeles Clippers center and bouncing port crane DeAndre Jordan on Saturday, the Golden State Warriors' ever-versatile Draymond Green made a succinct declaration of his powers: "Best center in the league."
He soaked up the pause that followed, stone-faced. Finally, he revealed the declaration to be a deadpan when he cracked a smile and added, "Nah, I'm just playing."
Is he? Was he?
Although listed as power forward at a shooting guard's height, Green's side work as a 5 has been particularly potent. He swarms larger men defensively, picks apart their tendencies and beats them down the floor on fast breaks. Sometimes, it's difficult to know whether Green is sneakily the league's best center or a harbinger of the position's doom.
In a 115-112 victory Saturday, the Warriors needed Green to be something like the best 5 in the league. That much was a surprise to Green, who learned he would be starting at the center spot 33 minutes before tipoff. Warriors center Andrew Bogut sat out the game because of Achilles soreness, and backup Festus Ezeli remains out after surgery on his left knee. Green was the last and only line of defense in stopping Jordan from finishing lobs all evening.
With Golden State coming off a blowout road loss in Portland, Green responded with another triple-double (18 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) and a first half in which he held Jordan to one field goal. (To be fair, Jordan finished with 16 points and 21 rebounds). To thwart the Los Angeles lob attack, Green tracked Jordan's movements diligently and refused to give up space for a leap.
On his approach to dealing with Jordan, Green said, "Just trying to put him in uncomfortable situations, and when he's at the rim, kind of make [Chris Paul] finish instead of just giving up the sure lob, and also, when he's there fighting for the rebound, just stay into his legs. You know, it's hard to jump if a guy's into your legs."
After the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr assessed Green's work as a 5: "I thought Draymond was brilliant tonight. In many ways, he's kind of the key to everything we do.
"Draymond is the guy who's at the center of our defense all the time. He's at the center of our pick-and-roll stuff with Steph [Curry] where we trap him, and he's the guy making the next play. He does everything for us. He's a remarkable player, especially because he's only an inch taller than me."
Kerr might be exaggerating with the "inch taller than me" part -- but not by much. Green stands at a sturdy 6-foot-5¾ in socks. And while his strength is useful in these battles against Goliaths, his mind tilts the odds in his favor.
Green was particularly opportunistic on a night such as Saturday, when the Clippers' defense sold out to guard Curry. Guard Curry the Clippers did -- and quite well (5-of-15 for 23 points). But there's a tax on devoting so much attention to one man: Other players get open.
For example, Green snuck in a layup to beat the third-quarter buzzer when he saw Los Angeles jump out to contain Curry. The Warriors ran "elevators," a play on which screeners converge to wall off defenders as Curry slings from deep. Golden State ran this play from a different angle in its Nov. 19 victory over the Clippers. On that occasion, Green slipped past the leaping defenders for an easy bucket. History repeated itself Saturday, as defenders jumped and Green punished their effort.
"You play with somebody so much, so long, there's only so much you can do in a basketball game," Green said of the moment. "You know how to react."
Green, who often says "experience is the greatest teacher," continues to learn and continues to find avenues to victory. While Saturday's win was also propelled by Klay Thompson (32 points, 22 shots) and Harrison Barnes (18 points, eight shots), Green's ingenuity was crucial.
Green will continue to innovate while Golden State lacks size up front. As he makes light of his status as the NBA's best 5 and as Kerr makes light of his stature, Green will probably keep bamboozling the larger men of this league.
A 6-foot-5¾ fellow as the NBA's best center? Like so much great comedy, maybe it's funny because it's true.