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Harper | Durant playing center is Green-proof insurance Warriors need

Zach Harper

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Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) and forward Draymond Green (23) celebrate during the first half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors don’t really have to worry about Draymond Green this year.

His absence from Game 5 shifted the entire result of the 2016 NBA Finals. As of right now, the Warriors aren’t up against any problematic thresholds for Green. He doesn’t possess a dangerous number of flagrant-foul points because he hasn’t committed a flagrant foul yet. The refs have given him a technical foul twice so far this postseason.

Unless Green decides to go throw some punches in this series, the Warriors don’t have to concern themselves with losing Green in a game due to suspension. Maybe an ejection for a couple of techs could be a threat. Green, despite a past with plenty of technical fouls, doesn’t think his past should create assumptions about his temper or fiery nature. A year ago, it cost the Warriors a championship. This time, the Warriors seem impervious to such a potential wild swing in the series.

The notion that Green can’t control his emotions offends him. He found himself in foul trouble during Game 2. To nobody’s surprise, he had problems with a few/all of the calls against him. Green reacted and gesticulated to foul calls against him. He almost dared the refs to give him a technical foul in the process. When asked about it after the game, Green defended himself and his emotional state.

“You act like I’m just this troubled guy who’s been in a bunch of trouble and can’t control myself,” Green said after the Game 2 victory. “I just been playing basketball, brother. And when you got great teammates like I do, who allow me to play with my emotions and allow me to be emotional when I’m talking to them, to use my emotions to the better for us, it’s easy.

“So just really trying to lead this team as much as I can in the ways that I do for this team. Not worrying about the officials and all that. I think at the end of the day, I think everyone talks to officials. I talk to them. But going over the edge isn’t going to win me a championship. I think I’m a pretty smart guy and I learned my lesson, so I went over the edge before, fool me once, you can’t fool me twice.”

Green’s aggressiveness arguing with officials still remains a potential detonation. This type of thing (although due to flagrant points last year) doomed the Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. If it happens again, the likelihood of it sinking the Warriors has diminished considerably. The Warriors can thank Kevin Durant for that insurance against a Draymond meltdown that results in removal from a game. Part of that might be Durant is another veteran voice to help calm Green when he starts to let the expletives fly.

The other part comes from Durant showing he can be their center whenever Steve Kerr desires it. Pitting him offensively against centers seems unfair, to say the least. Durant is a 7-footer, no matter what he claims to measure to. His wingspan unfurls like those giant team banners franchises stretch across fan sections in arenas. His jumper doesn’t hurt against taller players because nobody can really match his reach. When the Utah Jazz led against the Warriors in Game 3 of their series, Durant attacked Rudy Gobert in the pick-and-roll because they knew it would make the Defensive Player of the Year candidate compromise the defense. That’s how deadly Durant can be against height.

(Ezra Shaw/Pool Photo via AP)

Ezra Shaw/Pool Photo via AP

Defensively, the Warriors can rely on Durant to be the rim protector they need, especially in this series. Against Cleveland, the Warriors don’t have to deal with great size. Outside of LeBron James being built like a middle linebacker, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love aren’t going to bother Durant around the rim. Channing Frye isn’t the presence the Cavs need inside on either side of the floor. He serves his role as a stretch big, out where Durant loves to defend. Cleveland players outside of LeBron attacking the rim are more crafty than bully. This allows Durant to utilize every bit of his 7-foot frame.

In the Game 2 victory, the Warriors flexed their Durant big man muscles more than ever. Green found himself in foul trouble throughout the night, and the Warriors wanted to keep their flexibility with being smaller and more versatile. That meant not relying as much on guys like Zaza Pachulia or JaVale McGee to man the middle.

In just over 7 minutes of Game 2, the Warriors went with Durant as the lone big man. No Pachulia. No McGee. David West and James Michael McAdoo stayed on the bench during these lineup experiments. The Warriors went with Durant as the big and some combination of wings and lead guards.

For the most part, those lineups worked tremendously. They didn’t dominate those stretches, but the Warriors finished plus-7 with those lineups in Game 2. Golden State scored 20 points on 16 shots (37.5 percent shooting). They allowed 13 points on 42.8 percent from the field.

Every make by the Cavaliers during these 7 minutes came from a highly contested shot. Durant blocked a dunk attempt by Iman Shumpert and it was followed by a Love tip-in. LeBron made a running layup against Durant that almost looked like KD tipped it. Kyrie Irving had a couple of tough scores inside. LeBron also made two contested outside jumpers — one of them a 3-pointer. The Warriors relied on good, sound defense without a true center or Green in the game, and it worked.

“His defense was amazing,” Kerr said of Durant after Game 2, “and we needed it. Especially with Draymond out. It’s a small game and you got shooters everywhere and you have to be able protect the rim with LeBron coming downhill, with Love posting up and Draymond’s on the bench. So that’s a pretty scary proposition for us.

“I thought that Kev’s defense was unreal, and it was probably the key to the whole game. Along with the perimeter defense of Klay (Thompson) and Andre (Iguodala), trying to do their best with Kyrie and LeBron, but KD was amazing.”

The Warriors mostly ran a lineup with Durant at center that included Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Steph Curry and Thompson. While Iguodala and Livingston aren’t floor-spreaders, they know how to space through movement. They can and do make plays for others on both ends of the floor.

“That’s what we envisioned from KD,” Kerr said before practice on Tuesday. “He was a monster defensively, blocking shots, guarding everybody. He guarded Draymond quite a bit. So we knew he could guard multiple positions, block shots, protect the rim. That’s what we envisioned. And putting him with a lot of like-size, like- minded guys, Draymond and Andre, Klay, and all the switching that we like to do. So we knew he would fit perfectly into what we already did but make us better.”

Kerr went to this type of lineup despite it only happening for six total minutes over seven games in the regular season. Both lineup combinations included second-round rookie Patrick McCaw and both lineups got smoked out there. This is almost a completely new weapon for the Warriors to unleash, and they’re doing it at a time in which the Cavaliers don’t seem to know how to combat it. With the way Durant has played defensively this season, his ability to block shots and create turnovers in this series hasn’t been a surprise.

Maybe this move by Kerr is a surprise the Cavs don’t know how to combat. If so, it means any potential surprise Green blowup probably won’t cost them another title.

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Zach Harper is a basketball obsessive with a penchant for outside shooting and high volume scorers. He believes in living life 3-point line to 3-point line. Zach has worked for ESPN, Bleacher Report, and CBS Sports since 2010. He's as interested in exploring the minutiae of the game of basketball as he is in finding the humor in it. Basketball in previous eras was fun, but it's much better now. Embrace change.

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