SAN FRANCISCO – After their fifth straight loss, the Warriors locker room was pretty empty. No bowed heads and sentimental feelings to be found. There is no embarrassment. No visible signs of irritation. There are no people. Most of the players were on the practice field as the Oklahoma City Thunder rolled 128-109 Thursday, an hour after their latest Chase Center rumble.
It looks like an informal players’ meeting is taking place, enough for the fighters to close their view of the weight room and practice on the court with black curtains. But balls do bounce. Weights were getting tighter. Music was playing. And a bunch of players were huddled in the yard. In the middle was Stephen Curry, easy to spot in his yellow hoodie. Chris Paul was in it. Jonathan Kuminga. Gary Payton II, one of the few fully clothed.
In times like these for the Warriors, one of the best people to listen to is Kevin Looney, who makes it more real than a hundred dollar bill on the line.
“I wouldn’t say I’m worried,” Lonnie said, pausing at the locker before pulling his shirt over himself. “Ahhhh, I guess you can be a little worried because you can’t lose games like this at home. I think we have enough to be good, but we need to know.
That seemed to be the case after the Thunder made light work of the Warriors, shooting 50.6 percent from the field on 19-of-32 from 3. OKC was the latest young, athletic, tall and aggressive team to arrive at the Chase Center. And make the fighters look old, slow and underpowered. So they pretended to want an answer.
Conspicuously absent from the show, shaken from the solution, was Draymond Green. Serving his first five-game suspension. Whatever was going on, he felt like he hit the brakes, a concerted effort to resolve this skid. And what was clear about their inability to do anything against the Thunder on Thursday night, just as it was when Minnesota stepped on the gas two nights ago, was even clearer in this postgame buzz: They need Draymond.
They need his protection. They need his experience. They need his genius. They need his leadership. They need that special something that comes when it’s really good. They want the best.
The NBA universe is once again on Green’s neck, after he locked in on Rudy Gobert, the latest incident reconfirms the league’s main villain. It prompted an even heavier hand from the NBA’s penal system — their No. 1 public relations discipline — and an attempt to change his behavior.
But in the locker room, this event ended differently. The final two periods Green’s overheated emotions caused chaos, the frustration in the locker room was palpable. But this time, their support shined through. If he flew off the hook, bringing drama and NBA rules to their territory, it was for good reason. This is why you love him, because green in your corner means you have a rider with you.
“We got his back,” Peyton II said. “And we’ll hold him until he comes back.”
Sources in the locker room said Green apologized and backtracked on his comments. He tells the team his intentions are pure – to protect his teammate – but he takes it too far.
“It’s something we’ve been working hard on behind the scenes,” coach Steve Kerr said. “Draymond has to find a way to not cross the line. And I’m not talking about getting ejected or getting a technical, I’m talking about physical abuse. That’s no excuse. We have to do everything we can to give him the help and assistance he needs to get the difference.”
But the message that should land with Green, who should consider where the Warriors sit, is his importance to this team. Because 12 years later, as the Warriors build toward their fifth crown, he’s still proving irreplaceable for Golden State. They signed him to a $100 million contract based on the premise he helped build. No matter who signed it or drafted it, no matter what plan they ran, it’s still the truth. They need Draymond on the court and in between.
Their defensive rotations set up a buffet of open shots for the Thunder. Guards Isaiah Joe (7-for-7 from 3) and Josh Geday (3-for-3) were freebies.
The Curry-less Warriors had no offensive answer. Klay Thompson’s slump dug a new rock bottom: 5 points on 1-for-10 shooting in 27 minutes. Andrew Wiggins has had some success attacking inside. But his shot is still a long way off. He missed all four of his 3s and is now 5-for-37 in the contest. His long haul percentage has current mortgage rates looking over their shoulders. Wiggins also turned it over five more times and is a team-worst minus 74 on the season.
The Warriors need Draymond on the court.
Rudy Gobert called Draymond Green’s ‘nice character’ in his latest spat.
And it’s now clear that anything he does will be met with a response from the NBA that includes a Draymond Green tribute. Their serious criminal approach is aimed directly at him. So he must henceforth assume that, even if he had good reason for his actions, he would be subject to a ban on speech.
So even when he tries to help the team, he gets hurt. When it’s right, it’s going to be wrong. And when it goes wrong, it merges with cruelty.
The Warriors and Green have been battling the fire for years. The rewards are many – four championships, six NBA Finals appearances and one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. The costs are significant — missing the 2016 Finals, Kevin Durant’s departure, the viral video of him punching a teammate — but it’s always worth it to the Warriors. Because while most of the outside world is fed up with Green, the Warriors continue to embrace him, handing him a series of $100 million contracts to keep him.
Because the right balance of fire and skill prevails. And the fighters, at their core, are about winning, not appearances.
But a new era is upon them and green. It may not take much longer for the league to take action. This means that Green needs to operate at 85 percent of its burning capacity to avoid excess heat. And the Warriors may need that 85 percent consistently — more than they need a 100 percent chance to burn.
“His voice,” said Lonnie, discussing the intangibles he misses in Green’s absence. He helps us make a lot of adjustments. When things don’t go right, he’s one of the best basketball minds in the league. So he’s seeing things and we’re adjusting and telling the coach, ‘We’ve got to do this instead.’ He makes things so. Or he can do everything in the court where he sees things. It cleans up a lot of mistakes. I think we miss a lot of it. He also pushes the speed. If things don’t go right, we can’t score, he pushes and makes guys open balls and pretty good.
Of course, if things click elsewhere, perhaps the Warriors will bear the brunt of their lack of green. If Thompson isn’t mired in another season-opening slump. If Wiggins’ game isn’t hijacked by the Monsters. If Kuminga is taking the expected jump. If Kerr and his crew are nailing the spins and schemes. If only their defenders scored a little more. If their scorers are a little locked up on defense.
But that is not happening now. And if they were, the presence of the green and the various contributions would be more influential.
This is shaping up to be one of those seasons where the Warriors can’t afford to stretch out a long stretch of futility. There are questions about how well this should-be-high-scoring team can handle the distractions and potential circus of the Warriors.
They will endure this five-game hiatus, even if it comes at a bad time. He wouldn’t have played the 82 anyway. But he comes back at the NBA sorry, knowing they don’t seem built to handle life without him for long.
They want him with them. Any solution that is designed behind the scenes may not work without it.
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(Top photo: Kelly L. Cox / USA TODAY)