OAKLAND, Calif. — To get to their coronation, the Warriors will first need to wade through another controversy.
The NBA announced Sunday that Golden State All-Star forward Draymond Green has been suspended for Game 5 of the Finals against Cleveland on Monday, with the Warriors leading the series 3–1. The decision came after the NBA ruled that Green had made a flagrant “retaliatory swipe” to the groin of Cavaliers forward LeBron James.
Here’s a quick rundown of the implications, fallout and other issues surrounding Green’s suspension as the Warriors aim to close out their back-to-back championship runs.
Why was Green suspended?
Technically, Green was suspended because he has accumulated four “Flagrant Foul Points” during the playoffs under the NBA’s postseason guidelines.
According to league rules, a player is automatically suspended for one game during the playoffs once he accumulates four points, with a Flagrant Foul 1 being worth one point and a Flagrant Foul 2 being worth two points.
During Golden State’s 108–97 Game 4 victory over Cleveland on Friday, Green delivered a low blow to James after the Cavaliers forward stepped over him. Although Green was not assessed a foul on the play by the game officials, the league office review determined the blow was worthy a Flagrant Foul 1, given to contact that is deemed “unnecessary.”
Entering the Finals, Green had already accumulated three Flagrant Foul points.
In the closing seconds of Golden State’s 97–96 Game 3 loss to Houston in the first round, Green tackled Michael Beasley to the court. Although the game officials didn’t assess a foul, a league office review upgraded that to a Flagrant Foul 1, giving him one point.
Then, during a hotly contested sequence from Golden State’s 133–105 Game 3 loss to the Thunder in the Western Conference finals, Green kicked Steven Adams below the belt as he followed through on a shot attempt. The game officials deemed Green’s play a Flagrant Foul 1, but a league office review upgraded that to a Flagrant Foul 2, which is a designation that applies to contact that is “unnecessary and excessive.”
With one point from the tackle of Beasley, two from the kick of Adams and one from the swipe at James, Green had accumulated four points and therefore needed to sit for Game 5.
“The cumulative points system is designed to deter flagrant fouls in our game” NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe said. “While Draymond Green’s actions in Game 4 do not merit a suspension as a standalone act, the number of flagrant points he has earned triggers a suspension for Game 5.”
As part of the suspension, Green cannot attend Oracle Arena for Game 5. If the Warriors clinch the title, reports indicate that Green will be allowed to participate in the celebrations with his teammates.
See the 23 best Sports Illustrated photos of Draymond Green
SI's Best Photos of Draymond Green
Was James punished?
The NBA also retroactively assessed a technical foul to James for stepping over Green during the altercation, which occurred late in the fourth quarter of Golden State’s 108–97 win. The league determined that James’s action qualified as a “physical taunt.”
“I’m not a disrespectful guy,” James said Sunday, when asked about the step over. “I don't disrespect anybody. … I was just trying to get back into the play.”
James is eligible to play in Game 5 as Cleveland looks to extend its season and force a Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday.
Did the NBA make the right decision in suspending Green?
This was a defensible decision on the NBA’s part, even though its implications are potentially gigantic within this series and it opens up the league to conspiratorial charges that it’s trying to extend the series for its own financial benefit.
By the book, Green’s action was worthy of a flagrant foul. The blow to James was certainly “unnecessary” and it was delivered to a sensitive region. Unfortunately for Green, he can’t really play the “I was reacting to James stepping over me” defense, as swiping at James was not an act of self-defense or a basketball play, but a pure retaliation.
After Game 3, James said he expected the NBA to review the play, adding that he didn’t expect Green to be suspended. On Sunday, James suggested that he felt the low blow fit the definition of a flagrant foul.
“I felt like at that point in time it was a little bit outside of basketball,” he said.
Green’s track record did him no favors here. Remember, the NBA already cut him some slack during the Western Conference finals, when it opted not to suspend him for the direct kick to Adams’s groin. During that episode, Green hammered home the idea that he hadn’t acted with intent.
Now, with multiple kicks and another groin shot to consider, the NBA could reasonably conclude that Green had already used up his benefit of the doubt and it therefore shouldn’t turn a blind eye to this incident. That’s true even though the swipe at James was significantly less violent than the Adams kick.
With all of that being said, the suspension was still a surprising ruling given that it has the potential to alter the course of the Finals. Before the ruling, Golden State seemed poised to coast to the series victory. After, Golden State is left facing a number of questions while Cleveland suddenly has reason for hope.
How did the two teams react to the news?
The media session at Sunday’s practice was undeniably chippy. In addition to Green’s suspension and the fact that James had stepped over him, the Warriors seemed a bit irked James had taken Green to task for the trash-talking that occurred during the incident. Following Game 4, James told reporters at his press conference that Green had gone “overboard” with some of the language he used.
“I don’t know how the man feels,” Klay Thompson said, when asked if he thought James had overreacted with his postgame comments. “But obviously people have feelings and people’s feelings get hurt even if they're called a bad word. I guess his feelings just got hurt ... Guys talk trash in this league all the time. I’m just kind of shocked some guys take it so personal.”
“We’ve all been called plenty of bad words on the basketball court before. Some guys just react to it differently. All I can say for myself, individually, [is] I just try to ignore it or just let it fuel the fire. I don’t carry it with me when the job is done.”
James looked and sounded incredulous when informed of Thompson’s comments, laughing at first and saying “Oh my goodness” before finally responding.
“It’s so hard to take the high road,” James said. “I’ve been doing it for 13 years. It’s so hard to continue to do it, and I’m going to do it again. At the end of the day, we’ve got to go out and show up and play better tomorrow night. If we don’t, then they’re going to be back-to-back champions, and that’s it. But I’ve taken the high road again.”
That “high road” take prompted Curry’s wife, Ayesha, to chime in on Twitter, suggesting that the whole incident could have been avoided if James hadn’t stepped over Green.
“High Road,” she wrote. “Invisible bridge used to step over said person when open floor is available left to right.”
More on the brewing back-and-forth can be found right here.
Who replaces Green in Golden State’s starting lineup?
Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters Sunday that he hadn’t yet decided how to replace Green.
“I found out [about the suspension] right near the end of practice,” Kerr said. “So we’ll meet as a staff after practice and discuss what our starting lineup and rotation will look like.”
Kerr has a number of options at his disposal, but it’s important to note how reliable Green has been this season. Entering Game 5, Green had missed just one game (regular season and postseason) all year: a 112–110 loss to the Nuggets on Jan. 13. Aside from Stephen Curry’s record-setting shooting and unanimous MVP level of play, Green’s consistent availability and production was probably the single biggest factor driving Golden State’s 73-win season. In the playoffs, Green’s 792 minutes lead the NBA. In addition to being one of the league’s top all-around players, Green has been an absolute rock.
Jason Thompson, the player who replaced Green in the starting lineup for the loss to the Nuggets, is no longer on the Warriors’ roster. That leaves Kerr with the following options:
Andre Iguodala: Arguably the Finals MVP through four games thanks to his defense on James, Iguodala could be more directly matched up on James if he started, with Harrison Barnes shifting up to the four. Kerr took this approach against the Thunder, when he started Iguodala alongside Green (in place of Barnes) in Game 7 so that his minutes would align with Kevin Durant’s. This approach would front-load Golden State’s rotation and require Kerr to re-jigger his bench approach.
Shaun Livingston: Starting the long-armed Livingston (and moving Barnes to the four) would give Kerr a quality perimeter defender who can switch onto James without changing Iguodala’s customary role. While Livingston isn’t a shooter, his ball-handling ability could help get Curry and Klay Thompson going early.
James Michael McAdoo: The seldom-used reserve forward came out of nowhere in Game 4, scoring two points in seven minutes. At 6' 9" and 240 pounds, with good overall skills and mobility, McAdoo could be deployed as a hole-plugging starter, allowing Kerr to buy time and keep the rest of his rotation intact as much as possible. Kerr said Sunday that he thought McAdoo played “really well” in Game 4 and he “would expect” him to see time in Game 5 as well.
Brandon Rush: A forgotten man during the playoffs, Rush started 25 games this year when Barnes was injured. A capable shooter with good size for a wing, starting Rush would help the Warriors keep their floor spacing on offense and their ability to switch defensively, while also keeping Iguodala in his standard role.
To be clear, no one player will be able to fill in for Green, who is averaging a team-high 38.1 MPG during the Finals. Kerr told reporters Sunday that he expects to play 12 players in Game 5, the maximum he will have available, as Green must fill one of his 13 active spots.
Even more interesting than who starts in Green’s place is who takes his place down the stretch, as Kerr has opted for small lineups with Green at center in Games 6 and 7 against the Thunder and in Game 4 against the Cavaliers. Without his “Death Lineup,” Kerr might prefer to go back to center Andrew Bogut late in hopes of shoring up his interior defense in Green’s absence.
Will Cleveland change its starting lineup?
Interestingly, Kerr isn’t the only coach in this series facing lineup decisions in light of Green’s suspension. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue inserted forward Richard Jefferson in place of the injured Kevin Love for Game 3, forging a new-look small-ball starting lineup. That group fared so well that Lue stuck with it for Game 4, even after Love was cleared to return.
From a matchup standpoint, Love becomes much more valuable when Green isn’t on the court, as Green can track him on the perimeter, stand up to his post game, and expose Love’s defensive limitations thanks to his shooting ability, versatility and playmaking.
Perhaps, then, Lue will use Game 5 as an opportunity to reinsert Love into his starting lineup. If Kerr elects to go with a small lineup, one that utilizes Barnes as the power forward, Love could be in position to make a bigger impact than normal.
Lue refused to divulge his Game 5 starting lineup on Sunday.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m just saying [the suspension] doesn’t have an impact one way or another. … His suspension doesn’t make us win the game. We’ve got to go out and win the game and take the game. So it’s a big suspension on their end, but we’ve still got to play.”
Can Golden State win without Green?
The best way to quantify Green’s play this season has been to look at his overall impact. After leading the NBA in raw plus-minus during the regular season, Green ranks second in the playoffs at +153, trailing only James (+166). With Green on the court in the Finals, the Warriors have outscored the Cavaliers by 36 points in 152 minutes. Conversely, Cleveland has outscored Golden State by seven points in the 40 minutes that Green has been on the bench.
These numbers don’t happen by accident. Green has been the backbone of the Warriors’ lethal small lineups, he’s been one of the leading rebounders in the postseason, and his defensive instincts—on the ball, off the ball and at the rim—have been key to limiting James’s effectiveness during the postseason.
To win without Green, Kerr will likely need to rely more heavily on his big lineups, he’ll need Barnes to “play big” on the glass and defensively and he’ll need Iguodala to continue to limit James as much as possible. A crazy shooting display from Curry and/or Thompson wouldn’t hurt, either.
It’s also worth noting that Golden State has lost at home just three times all season and only once in the playoffs. The Oracle Arena crowd will be a tough test for the Cavaliers, who are trying to become the first team in history to dig out of a 3–1 hole in the Finals. Green’s absence will make it more difficult for the Warriors to claim Game 5, but they should still be regarded as the favorites.
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NBA Championship Rings Through the Years
Who benefits the most from Green’s absence?
There’s no bigger beneficiary of Green’s absence than James, who must win three straight games to avoid falling to 2–5 in the Finals during his career. When facing elimination, James has averaged 32 PPG, 11 RPG and 7 APG in 15 playoff games, and the Warriors must now prepare for his “season on the line” fury without their proverbial “heart and soul” defender.
Look for James to enter all-out attack mode without Green roving as a second line of defense behind Iguodala. An aggressive approach would likely send James to the foul line more often, as Barnes and Golden State’s other smaller options don’t protect the basket as well as Green. There will also be extra pressure on Iguodala and Bogut to defend James without fouling him. In related news, Lue just received a $25,000 fine for working the officials on behalf of James. The cynical money is on James parading to the stripe in Game 5.
Kyrie Irving, too, should benefit from Green’s absence. If and when both teams go small, the lack of Green should make it easier for Irving, who struggled in the fourth quarter of Game 4, to finish around the basket. In fact, Kerr might find it preferable to stay big throughout much of Game 5, turning to the combination of Bogut and backup centers Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao to help protect the rim and clear the defensive glass in Green’s absence.
Lastly, Love, Tristan Thompson and perhaps even Channing Frye will be breathing a little bit easier without Green on the court. As mentioned above, Love could see a greater role given that he should theoretically win his matchup against any of Green’s replacements. Thompson, a voracious offensive rebounder, should have even more opportunities to extend possessions and find second-chance points without Green in the paint battling. Frye, meanwhile, has been used sparingly in this series but he could find more minutes if Kerr stays big, as the threat of his shooting could pull the Warriors’ bigs out of the paint.
How does this impact the Finals MVP race?
Through four games, the Finals MVP race has been wide open, with Green, Iguodala and Curry all having cases. Thanks to his strong Game 2 performance and consistent all-around impact throughout the series, Green might have even entered Game 5 as the favorite. Now, it’s difficult to envision voters rewarding him if the Warriors do close out their title on Monday night in his absence.
Curry, fresh off a 38-point performance in Game 4, will likely get the nod if he delivers a signature performance in Game 5. Even though he started slow in this series, his case would benefit from his star power, the fact that he “saved his best for last,” and the idea that he delivered for the Warriors in Green’s absence.
Iguodala, last year’s winner, looms as a quality backup option. If Golden State wins despite a so-so showing from Curry, Iguodala’s defense on James and his skills as a distributor could put him over the top.