Late in the second quarter, as the Golden State Warriors crept within five points of the visiting New York Knicks, Warriors forward Draymond Green backpedaled in frustration after throwing an errant pass toward rookie center James Wiseman.
Yapping at the 7-foot-1 big man in an attempt to align his team defensively, Green and the rest of the Warriors roster were shocked to hear a whistle from officials accompanied by a technical foul.
The problem for Green was that it was his second tech of the game, resulting in an automatic ejection.
Left without its defensive general and offensive facilitator in Green, Golden State found itself unable to overcome a stout Knicks roster led by head coach Tom Thibodeau. Thursday night’s 119-101 game exposed not only Green’s value but also some glaring holes early in the season.
“Obviously Draymond is one of our best and most impactful players,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “It hurt us but we were playing very poorly up to that point anyways.”
Since the day Steve Kerr arrived in the Bay Area, the 55-year-old head coach has instilled a defensive-minded philosophy. The idea is simple: Strong defense will translate to better offense.
This theory rang true, with three championship rings serving as evidence of its effectiveness. Early on in this season, however, the Warriors lost sight of this approach to the game. In fact, in the first five games of the year, the Warriors gave up over 123 points four times, resulting in three losses.
Then Green returned on January 1 against the Portland Trailblazers.
Since then, the Warriors’ defensive effort has improved immensely — and the stats back it up. After beginning the season as one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, the Warriors have risen to the fifth-best team in opponents’ field goal percentage and currently sit as the 11th-best team in defensive efficiency ratings.
“It’s very obvious how much he changes our team,” Kerr said before Thursday’s game. “We were a mess without him. I think Draymond is recognizing how important he is to our team and he’s motivated, he’s excited and it’s really showing in his play.”
Against the Knicks, who entered Thursday’s game with the slowest pace of any team in the NBA (98.2 possessions per game), the Warriors were tasked with combating a team that likes to slow down ball movement and eliminate the flow of the game.
Initially, giving up 40 first-quarter points, the Warriors witnessed one of the Knicks most efficient frames of the year. In fact, those 40 points were the most New York has scored in a single quarter all season.
Part of the issue, which persisted over the course of the remaining three quarters, was Golden State’s penchant for committing fouls. In the first half alone, the Knicks shot a total of 26 free throws.
Golden State’s foul troubles persisted throughout the night, leading to 41 total free throw attempts for New York resulting in 32 points for the visiting team. According to Kerr, the Knicks were able to get to the free throw line so often due to Golden State’s lack of discipline.
“We just foul constantly,” Kerr said. “We’re undisciplined and we have to find a way to defend without fouling… Mindless reaching, mindless decision making defensively.”
Despite this trend, Golden State was able to stay within striking distance thanks to Green, who in 17 minutes of play in the first half dished out eight assists while chipping in three points.
On the defensive side of the ball, it was Green’s ability to slide players into the appropriate defensive position, call out switches and assist with weak-side help on the ball that stifled a Knicks team that was streaking offensively.
In the second quarter, the Warriors even pulled themselves even at 55-55 with just over two minutes to play.
Just one minute later, Golden State found itself without Green after he was given his second technical foul of the game. The first came with just over four minutes to play in the first quarter after arguing with an official.
The problem with the second technical foul, though, was that Green was thrown out for yelling at his own teammate, Wiseman, who stood to Green’s right as Golden State trotted back on defense following a turnover.
“I was trying to get a post-up but he threw it too early,” Wiseman said. “Just one of those moments where he was just like ‘catch the ball.’”
According to reports, Green also shouted several expletives at Wiseman in the same interaction. Unfortunately for Green, however, game officials felt those comments were being directed at them, resulting in his ultimate removal.
“At halftime, [referee] Ben Taylor told me it was a mistake,” Kerr said. “He didn’t realize Draymond was yelling to his teammate. He thought he was yelling at him.”
Without Green on the floor, the Knicks, who entered the game as the NBA’s No.1 ranked defense in terms of opponents’ field goal percentage, three point percentage and defensive efficiency ratings, were able to pull away from Golden State coming out of the break.
By the end of the third quarter, New York had built its lead to 16 points and by the middle of the fourth quarter, it was up to 19, warranting the categorization of a blowout.
With the loss, Golden State snaps a two-game winning streak and absorbs its seventh loss of the young season. More importantly though, it highlights some glaring issues the Warriors will need to fix in order to compete in the Western Conference this year.
“We’re dead-last in the league in free throws allowed,” Kerr said. “We are not a solid team. We can be a good team but we have a long way to go.”