Golden State Warriors center Draymond Green (23) grins as he misses a practice shot before the start Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors on May 30, 2019 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner)

For Golden State to beat Raptors, Green has to live up to own billing

Golden State’s transition defense needs to improve, and that starts with Draymond Green

TORONTO — Stephen Curry’s face snapped from a soft smile to a furrowed brow. He’d been taking some delight in post-game trash talk between forward Draymond Green and Toronto Raptors super fan Drake after Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Then, as Curry gently moved Green away, the R&B artist fired off one more insult.

“You’re trash,” he appeared to say. Green, a former Defensive Player of the Year and a five-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection had just seen his primary defensive responsibility — Pascal Siakam — score 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting in a breakout performance on the biggest stage in the NBA, dealing Golden State a 118-109 loss. Drake smirked. Green turned and walked away. Perhaps, contained within the smack talk, there was the sting of truth.

For a player who, two weeks ago, declared himself the best defender ever in the history of the NBA, Thursday’s performance — against a third-year project just now coming into his own and maximizing his potential — was a wake-up call for both him and the Warriors. For Golden State to win its third title in three years, Green has to live up to his own bravado.

Siakam, a Cameroon native who spent his youth at a seminary, has only played basketball for seven years. Over his first two seasons — which included trips to the G League — he averaged just six points, four rebounds and 1.3 assists per game, averaging 18.7 minutes and starting just 43 games.

Since then, Siakam has become “a guy,” Green said — otherwise known as “a Dude,” athlete slang for a player at the top of the scouting report. This season, he averaged 16.9 points, 3.1 assists and 6.9 rebounds while playing 31.9 minutes per game with 79 starts. Still, those numbers hardly seemed predictive of the damage he did on Thursday.

“I can’t say I foresaw that,” Green said after Game 1. “I played against him last year. I had no clue he would be this guy this year. But he spent a lot of time in the gym and it’s paying off in his game.”

His skills have finally caught up to his raw athleticism, length and physicality. He’s emerged as the second option to Kawhi Leonard, and while the Warriors were effective in containing Toronto’s superstar — throwing varied blitzes at him and holding him to 2-of-7 from the field in the first half — Green was tasked with handling Siakam. Yet, at times, the famously diligent Green looked wholly unprepared and even rusty, seeming startled at Siakam’s scoop shots, losing Siakam in transition and struggling to fight through screens. 

The nine-day layoff may be to blame, and it’s far from irregular for Finals participants to go through a feeling-out period in Game 1s, especially if, as in the case of these two teams, multiple stars missed one or both games (both Green and Leonard missed one of the two). “Really the only time I ever really played him was last year,” Green said.

On the other hand, Green has been playing arguably his best postseason basketball, with five triple-doubles over the course of the postseason, and is playing with more speed, quickness and durability since he dropped 23 pounds over the course of six weeks.

“I got to do a better job of taking his rhythm away,” Green said. “I will, but he had a great game. But that’s on me.”

The 24 points Toronto scored in transition was one of Kerr’s biggest points of emphasis. It was something the Warriors knew would be an issue, and it was something Siakam had excelled at during the playoffs.

Yet, there were times when Green looked almost startled by Siakam’s sudden scoop shots. Siakam was so good in starting the transition offense that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr dubbed him a “young Draymond.” Of his 14 field goals on Thursday nine came in the restricted area, and four of those were in transition.

On the 47 possessions in which Siakam was guarded primarily by Green, the former G League Finals MVP product scored 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Though that’s better than the 7-of-7 when he was guarded by anyone else, without being able to match Siakam’s length with that of the injured Kevin Durant — he’s been ruled out of Game 2 with a right calf — Green, the self-proclaimed best defender there is, is Golden State’s best option.

Possessed of one of the highest basketball IQs in the league, Green is known for his ability to make game-to-game adjustments. In long playoff series that become a series of adjustments to adjustments and then counters to those adjustments, the long game tends to favor experience, and Green has plenty. After studying tape on Friday and Saturday, it’s hard to think that Green will make the same mistakes again, as he and Golden State pursue their fourth title in five years. If he can get right against Siakam, and the Warriors can continue to do what they did against Leonard, Toronto should be very concerned.

“We know what we can do better,” Green said immediately following Game 1.

Asked on Friday what defensive adjustments he’d like to see Green make, Kerr said, “Draymond is always going to take the burden on his shoulders, and I respect that about him.”

Before the series even began, during Wednesday’s Media Day, Green was asked about his locker room comments two weeks ago, proclaiming himself to be the best defender in league history, Green said, “If you’re trying to do something meaningful, if you don’t have the mindset that you’re the best ever, you failed already … That’s been my mindset since I can remember. That will be my mindset as long as I can remember anything — that I am the best ever at what I do.

“Every day that I step on the basketball floor I will strive to be that. But my mindset will always be as such, as I am the best to do what I do. And that will give me a shot at being the best.”

On Sunday, he’ll have a chance to follow through. If he doesn’t, the Warriors could return home down 2-0. Game 2 tips off at 5:10 p.m. Pacific on ESPN.

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