August 13, 2022

BOSTON — The Golden State Warriors were keen to say throughout the NBA Finals how talented and tough their opponent was.

But on the eve of Game 6, when the Warriors could close out the Boston Celtics with a win, Draymond Green said the challenges they present don’t compare to battling the Warriors’ most familiar foe in this round: LeBron James.

“It doesn’t compare to playing mentally against LeBron James, who I think is arguably the smartest guy to ever play this game,” Green said. “Not one, he’s arguably the smartest guy to ever step foot on a basketball court. To say it compares to that is disrespectful to LeBron, and it’s a lie to you.

Green doesn’t like being taken out of context (who does?) and isn’t immune to saying that’s what happened, even when it didn’t. It’s also worth noting that James is Green’s business partner in several ventures. So, according to the official NBA transcript, here’s the question Green answered on Thursday, before the Warriors practice.

You’ve been in a lot of top championship series against all-timers like LeBron over the years. Where would you say this series ranks in terms of the mental challenge of having to anticipate three stages down the road what Boston is going to do and trying to attack them three stages later?

Green clearly didn’t have it. The Warriors faced James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in four consecutive Finals, from 2015 to 2018, and won three. But in 2015, the Warriors fell 2-1 even though Cleveland’s second- and third-best players, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were absent. In 2016, James orchestrated a historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win.

Of the Celtics, who are Green’s main concern, he said: “It’s a mental challenge because these guys are super athletic.” He said their youth and talent compelled him to try to outplay the Celtics, and “it’s been huge in this series from a mental standpoint and I’m just trying to figure it out and have a length of it.” advance on them.”

And then he said going up against the Celtics isn’t “as much of a chess match as when you’re playing against LeBron, who dissects every play on his computer, like in real time.”

“Like it’s just a skill not many people have,” Green said. “Not many people can come and sit here and find a random seven-minute to four-minute streak in the second quarter and give you every play like the T and not miss a beat. There aren’t many people who can do that.

Green, who was still speaking in his stream of consciousness, then made a point of mentioning two Celtics who, in his mind, are smart. One is Marcus Smart, who “is extremely intelligent, which is like a game of chess against him.” And Boston coach Ime Udoka “is extremely smart. We know his pedigree.

“So the challenge is there, but you can’t put it there against LeBron,” Green added. “Like I said, he’s probably the smartest guy we’ve ever seen play basketball.”

LeBron, of course, is not in this series. The team he currently plays for, the Lakers, did not make the playoffs. So what should the takeaways from Green’s comments be?

Does this rise to the level of bulletin board material for Boston? Green suggested he was able to outplay the Celtics’ younger, more talented players. He didn’t name names, but that means Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – two players he’s tangled with throughout the series. When you get to an elimination game and you’re on the wrong side, like the Celtics are, what more motivation is needed than wanting to avoid watching Golden State pop champagne at the TD Garden? Either way, Tatum showed no interest in committing to Green, even when Green followed him to the bench during a timeout in Game 5. But it’s not a leap to infer that Green said that neither Tatum nor Brown reached LeBron’s level. It’s one thing to say that no player is as good as LeBron; there may only be one player in the NBA’s 75-year history who was better. But there’s room for some Celtics to be upset about it, if they want to.

Is Green right, in that he was able to outsmart the Celtics? He really struggled in Games 3 and 4, with Steve Kerr walking away from him for much of the fourth quarter of a game the Warriors came back and won (Game 4). Green was much better in Game 5, with eight points (he had four in the previous two games), eight rebounds and six assists, despite committing a foul. Green clearly disrupted the Celtics’ flow in Game 2 (another Boston loss) by being a relentless pest. On more than one occasion, Boston players and coaches have admitted to letting outside forces like Green or officials cause them to lose focus. If that was Green’s plan, it works.

Another way to think about LeBron, the Warriors and staying on top: Green was obviously looking to credit LeBron, whose NBA legacy is cemented. But the Warriors forged that dynasty against those Cavaliers teams with LeBron. In an era of unprecedented superstar mobility and empowerment (if you don’t like where you are, you can go, contract be damned), the fact that Golden State is in the Finals again, with Green and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson as its core, probably deserves even more praise than it gets.

Those great Warriors teams kind of went their separate ways, with Kevin Durant leaving free agency, the franchise trading Andre Iguodala for a cap (hey, that finally got him back) and gaining an influx of talent (like Andrew Wiggins ) who had never been to the playoffs before. But Golden State didn’t fire Kerr after losing the most games in the NBA in 2020. It didn’t get tired of Green and didn’t trade him. The franchise was rewarded for its patience as Thompson missed more than two seasons with devastating leg injuries. And Curry was the calming influence — the undisputed leader, the rock upon which the Warriors’ stability was built — who will likely remain for the rest of his career. LeBron didn’t want that in Cleveland — or at least he didn’t want it enough to get to the point where he wanted to leave for Los Angeles in 2018.

LeBron’s Lakers won a championship while the Warriors were at their worst. If James had never left Cleveland, maybe it’s the Cavs going to the 2019 NBA Finals with Durant and Thompson ending up injured? Anyway, that was all a long time ago, and we’ve all moved on.

But the Warriors are still, in large part, together after building their reputation and legacy against James.

“As you grow and realize these things, they’re not promised, and you try not to take these things for granted and realize that you’re probably closer to the end than the beginning,” said Green. “It’s just a totally different appreciation you have for those moments now than then.”

(Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today)