SAN FRANCISCO — Of all the fiery moments that might have compelled Draymond Green to express remorse on Saturday night, from the first-quarter faceoff against Phoenix Suns center Jusuf Nurkić in their grudge match to his third-quarter technical foul for complaining about a call to the R-rated trash talk that wasn’t fit for the Disney platform, it spoke volumes that he chose to apologize for this.
A naughty word — more of the PG-13 variety, really — said for all to hear during a press conference in which Green was responding to Nurkić’s extensive postgame criticism after the Warriors’ 113-112 win by encouraging him to become an equestrian.
“He tried to get in my head, and it didn’t work,” Green said of the big man whom he struck so wildly on Dec. 12 en route to an indefinite suspension (which ultimately lasted 12 games) from NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and with whom he battled so bitterly throughout the rematch. “If (Nurkić) wants me to walk around quiet like him, I’m never gonna do that — quiet guys don’t win.
“So yeah, I thought I was pretty great tonight. … He can keep riding the same horse that he rode in on. He can ride his ass on out of here on the same horse. It ain’t working.”
Cue the brief pause for Green’s concern to creep in.
“Sorry, Adam,” Green added. “I didn’t mean to curse. That just slipped out. Sorry.”
Steph Curry’s 3 rescues Warriors from another last-second heartbreak
This wasn’t quite like Ferris Bueller breaking the fourth wall back in 1986, but it was as close as NBA scenes get. Here was Green, well aware that he’s being watched by the league more closely than any player these days, addressing the game’s most powerful figure in the kind of direct manner that reminded the masses how high the stakes are.
It has only been a month (and a few days) since the 33-year-old Green revealed that he considered retirement after his suspension, with Silver convincing him to stay.
“Adam said, ‘You’re making a very rash decision and I won’t let you do that,’” Green had recalled on his podcast back then.
Yet in his 11th game back, with the Warriors having finally found their rhythm of late and Green leading a defense that has vastly improved, this Suns matchup featured a bevy of opponents who spark memories of some of his worst times. Chief among them, the Suns’ Kevin Durant, who bore the brunt of Green’s wrath in such a profound way during their time together with the Warriors that many believed it was a major reason he headed for Brooklyn in free agency in 2019. But when it comes to the present day, Nurkić was the one whose pestering presence changed the energy in the Chase Center room.
The too-small move by Nurkić midway through the third quarter was next-level trolling, as he backed Green down in the paint and buried a right-handed hook before indicating that the former Defensive Player of the Year was, apparently, six inches tall. He even smacked the hardwood twice for emphasis.
Less than a minute later, Green — whose listed weight is 60 pounds lighter than that of Nurkić — buried his right shoulder into Nurkic’s chest in the post before finishing a left-handed hook. To no one’s surprise, he mimicked Nurkić’s too-small gesture on his way down the floor.
“You can’t get bullied a couple plays later if you want to do that,” Green said afterward. “And you can’t be a nothing defender if you want to do that. So you know, you gonna do all of that — that man probably outweighs me by 70 pounds, and you get put in the rim? Got to be more careful.”
As it turned out, that advice applied to Nurkić’s postgame performance as well.
If only for a night, it was Green’s opponent who struggled to figure out where that line was that shouldn’t be crossed. And after spending so much of his 26 minutes trying unsuccessfully to bait Green into self destruction, Nurkić — who had previously said that Green “needs help” — declared afterward that “I take back everything I said; he don’t deserve a chance.”
“It’s sad. He didn’t learn anything. Just a matter of time. He’s going to hit somebody else again. Take back everything I said. He don’t deserve a chance.”
Jusuf Nurkic on Draymond Green, who got suspended after hitting him in face Dec. 12.
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) February 11, 2024
There were high jinks in this latest Green performance, to be sure, the kind of bravado and hoops entertainment that he has provided for the vast majority of his (future) Hall of Fame career. But there was a plot twist this time, a welcome change in this season in which his laundry list of over-the-top offenses had threatened to ruin his reputation: Green walked the proverbial line to perfection, and put together the kind of masterful performance that has been a driving force behind the Warriors dynasty. Nurkić, meanwhile, overplayed his hand in front of the microphones just as he had during the game.
As is almost always the case with Green, the numbers — 15 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists — didn’t fully tell the tale. From beginning to end, he made the sort of high IQ plays that have represented the best of what he has to offer.
Take the offensive foul that Green drew midway through the first quarter, for example. After the two big men exchanged words early on in the game, with Klay Thompson even drawing a technical foul when he smacked the ball out of Nurkic’s hands, the Suns big man barreled through Green shortly thereafter while going to the rim and drew the wrong kind of whistle. As Green ran the other way, he pointed to his head.
“I was saying he was a dummy when I was pointing to my head,” Green explained of Nurkić, who finished with six points, six rebounds and four assists. “I wasn’t necessarily saying (that) I was keeping my head. You can’t start talking, and (then) charge into me. That’s not smart.
“He was hitting me a lot today. You should go back and watch the film, just key in on him and look at him. There (were) a lot of little cheap shots. But I knew his goal was to get me out (of) the game. No one wants to see me in a game. That makes the game a lot tougher.”
The most revealing sequence came with three minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the game, when Green drove to the lane and Nurkić hit him with his left hand and leg and was called for the foul. It was the kind of move that would typically incite Green, with Nurkić standing over him as if to dare him to retaliate. So, I asked Warriors coach Steve Kerr afterward, was that the kind of moment where you hold your breath that nothing disastrous is coming next?
“Not really, to be honest with you, because we’ve been together 10 years,” Kerr said. “And I’ve watched him for the vast majority of that time do exactly what he did tonight. And obviously, this past year he’s had several incidents where he crossed the line. But that month off, that suspension, was real.
“I think more than anything, Draymond felt vulnerable. He knew that his career was on the line, or is on the line. He’s a really smart guy, a very smart guy. So he understands he’s got to be the guy he’s been for the last nine years — not the one he’s been the last year. And I see him doing that.”
This time around, Kerr’s faith was rewarded.
With the Warriors up 102-101, Green went to work. He lost Nurkić on a designed play with 3:32 left and found Jonathan Kuminga for an alley-oop that extended the Warriors lead. At the 2:47 mark, he faked a dribble hand-off to Brandin Podziemski up top and fooled Nurkić again with a crossover layup that put the Warriors up five (and inspired Green to go full MJ with a tongue-wagging celebration in response). Not long after, with Nurkić having been played off the floor, Green took a pass from Curry in the lane and dribbled past Durant to hit another layup and put Golden State up 108-104.
The Curry magic followed, of course, with his game-winning three-pointer deciding it. But Green, for good measure, had the deciding defensive play at the buzzer when he kept Durant from receiving the inbounds pass with 0.6 seconds remaining. This was, in essence, everything the Warriors wish Green would provide every time he steps on the floor.
If only it were that easy.
Yet as Curry and Kerr discussed afterward, this latest Green performance was proof positive that he’s keeping his word to them. And that, as Nurkić clearly didn’t understand, is all that truly matters here.
When it comes to accountability, Green is doing what he promised so long as Silver, Curry and Kerr continue to approve.
Everyone else — from Nurkic and beyond — simply doesn’t matter.
“It’s mostly him living up to this word in the conversations we had when he was out, and how he felt in those moments where he knew what he needed to do,” Curry explained. “At the end of the day, we just need him available. You’ve seen the difference in our team when he’s out there on a consistent basis and he’s playing and feeling like himself. So we’re a different team without him than with him and he knew, and still knows, what he needs to do consistently to put himself in the best shape mentally and physically to go out there and play basketball and be the Draymond Green who has helped us win championships. I’m gonna keep encouraging them to do that because you see the results, and it’s fun to watch.
“Draymond was in (Nurkić’s) head. Plain and simple. So like I said, for Draymond to be able to — knowing what happened last time we played him — I give him all the credit. Everybody talks about how much Draymond needed to change and figure out what he was doing during the suspension and all that. Tonight was exactly the playbook of how you play basketball at a high level. So I love it.”
And with good reason.
In this stretch in which the Warriors have won six of seven games while crawling up to 10th in the West (25-25), improved defense has been the catalyst. They were 24th in defensive rating through Jan. 29, and have the league’s fourth-best defensive rating since then. All the while, the notion of them making their way up the West standings looks increasingly possible as the crunch continues in the middle, where seven teams are separated by five games. And Kerr, who knows all too well how nights like this can turn the tide on a team’s season, is believing as much as anyone else in the Warriors world.
“Draymond was amazing,” he said. “He’s been amazing ever since he came back. Just everything: the ball movement, the rebounding, the scoring tonight. With the floor spread, he got to the rim several times, made some big baskets for us. But it’s the leadership and the belief and the competitive desire that makes Draymond special. So he was brilliant tonight.
“Draymond, if he’s passive, we might as well not play him, right? Everything about him is about his force, and his energy, and his competitiveness. That’s what makes him unique, and makes him the great player that he is.”
(Photo of Draymond Green and Jusuf Nurkić: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)