Get all of Ben Golliver’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
OKLAHOMA CITY — The kick that dropped a 7-footer, incited an angry mob, sparked a game-changing run and prompted a postgame circling of the wagons from the Warriors and Thunder has placed Draymond Green in the middle of a season-defining storm. Behind the “What, me worry?” smile he wore as he delivered a blanket denial in Golden State’s locker room, Green finds himself in the last place he wants to be: as a bystander to his own fate.
The Thunder smoked the Warriors 133–105 at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday to take a 2–1 series lead in the Western Conference finals. This was the worst postseason loss of the Steve Kerr era, easily, one that left Golden State’s coach looking downtrodden and a bit queasy as he faced two tremendous predicaments.
There were his Game 3 problems: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 63 points, the Thunder reasserted themselves on the glass and in transition, Billy Donovan successfully deployed a seldom-used small ball look to great effect and the Warriors’ offense crumbled again due to poor decision-making and rushed shots.
Weighing even heavier, though, was Kerr’s Game 4 problem: Will Green face a suspension after he received a flagrant foul for kicking Thunder center Steven Adams in the groin during the second quarter?
With the Thunder leading 48–40 midway through the second quarter, Green drove to his right from the top of the key. As he reached the protected circle, he slammed on the brakes, hoping to create space for a short runner over Adams. Oklahoma City’s center reached in with his right hand, fouling Green on the left side and knocking the ball free. Following that contact, Green kicked his right leg upward, in an apparent attempt to sell the contact, and made direct contact with Adams’s genitals, sending the New Zealander to his knees in pain.
The play, which triggered a video review that led to Green’s flagrant foul, immediately morphed into one of the NBA’s great “Eye of the Beholder” moments in recent memory.
Did Green mean to kick Adams or was it an accident? Could it have really been accidental given that it was the second time in as many games Green made contact with Adams below the belt? In turn, did Green deserve a flagrant foul, a Game 3 ejection, a Game 4 suspension, a fine, or nothing at all?
Green’s version of events: Both blows were unintentional, he hadn’t realized he had kicked Adams until well after the fact, he was surprised the referees had assessed a flagrant foul and he expected the NBA to rescind it.
“I thought it would probably get rescinded,” Green said. “I followed through on a shot. I didn’t try to kick somebody in the midsection. I’m sure he wants to have kids one day. I’m not trying to end that on the basketball court. ... My core isn’t strong enough to stop my leg halfway. ... I don’t think I’ll get suspended. I don’t know how anybody could possibly say I did that on purpose, regardless of the way it may look.”
Kerr and Stephen Curry vouched for Green.
“I would think they would rescind it,” Kerr said, adding that he didn’t understand why the referees deemed Green’s foul to be flagrant. “This stuff happens all the time. [Russell] Westbrook kicks out his feet on every three and there is contact.”
Curry, who led the Warriors with 24 points, suggested Green “inadvertently” connected with the kick as he was “trying to show the ref he got fouled.”
“It’s unfortunate he got kicked, but it was a normal reaction to a foul and to a play,” he added. “Hopefully [the NBA league office] sees that.”
Oklahoma City’s view on the play, unsurprisingly, was quite different. As the referees went to the tape, the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd chanted in unison, “Kick him out!” When their collective request wasn’t granted, they proceeded to boo Green every time he touched the ball.
While Thunder coach Billy Donovan took a diplomatic approach after the 28-point victory, saying that he wasn’t sure whether Green had acted with intent and punting any further analysis to the league office, his players took a harsher stance.
“It’s happened before, mate,” Adams said. “He’s pretty accurate, that guy. ... [I didn’t hear the crowd reaction]. It was straight to the jewels, you don’t think about any of that stuff. Yeah, it was rough.”
Westbrook was even more direct.
“Honestly, I think it’s intentional,” the Thunder’s point guard said, after posting 30 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. “That’s two times in the last two games. I don’t think you can keep kicking somebody in their private areas. [Green] probably said he didn’t do it on purpose, but I think the way I look at it, it looks intentional to me.”
SI's Best Photos of Draymond Green
Adding another level of complexity to the debate: On Sunday, shortly before Game 3 tipped off, the NBA issued a one-game suspension to Cavaliers guard Dahntay Jones for a below-the-belt shot to Raptors center Bismack Biyombo. Did that ruling set a precedent for Green?
The NBA looks damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Suspending Green could easily have series-deciding implications and spark a backlash among Warriors fans over the issue of intent. Not suspending Green, given the Jones suspension and Green’s previous blow, would immediately raise questions about a double standard and superstar treatment. Controversy is guaranteed either way.
As the Warriors await word from the league office, which should come down on Monday in advance of Game 4 on Tuesday, they are left picking through the rubble of an unprecedented butt-kicking. Previously, Golden State’s worst postseason loss under Kerr was by 13 points. The Thunder led by as many as 41 points, and Curry played just 29 minutes because the game got too far out of hand.
Green’s kick represented only one scene from a night to forget. The NBA’s leader in raw plus-minus finished a career-worst minus-43, the worst plus-minus showing in a playoff game since at least 1997. He shot 1 for 9, committed four turnovers and made a series of mistakes following the kick that culminated with a foul of Westbrook as he attempted a long three-pointer.
One of the NBA’s best all-around players, a versatile forward known for doing all of the little things, was suddenly making a mess of things big and small. And as Green goes, often go the Warriors, who gave up a 24–7 run before halftime in the six minutes following the kick.
“The six minutes in the second quarter decided the game,” Curry lamented.
After flirting with adversity in the second round with the Blazers and in Game 1 against the Thunder, the Warriors find themselves engaged to it now. They’ve been down 2–1 in playoff series before, to the Grizzlies and Cavaliers last year, but neither of those teams had the Thunder’s combination of formidable star power and good health. They’ve bounced back time and again this season, never losing two games in a row, but they’ve never been without Green in any of those games. Indeed, the only time they’ve taken the court without him this season, they lost to the 33-win Nuggets.
Green is known for his directness and honesty, and he now finds himself stripped bare at the most important moment of the Warriors’ season to date. If he’s suspended, or if he fails to recover from his dreadful performance in time, he becomes a natural fall guy, especially for critics of his demonstrative, noisy style. If he’s cleared to play, Green will have the chance to wrest control back from Durant and Westbrook and rally the Warriors out of their biggest hole yet.
This is it: feast or famine, hero or villain, scapegoat or savior. Green has welcomed the pressure and responsibility throughout Golden State’s 73-win season. Now it’s his, fully his, yet he’s stuck waiting for his verdict along with the rest of us.