OAKLAND – Warriors forward Draymond Green and coach Steve Kerr talked about it several times through summer and into preseason. Green and general manager Bob Myers had multiple conversations the same months of healing and introspection.
Green wanted to find the emotional compromise to successfully walk the razor blade, to continue to play with the fire that drove him from second-round pick to star without spinning further into instability. He wanted the input from two people he respected and appreciated, to the point of considering Myers a life coach.
Finally, Green gave some telling feedback in October. He was struggling with the adjustment, he told Kerr. “Zombie” is the word Green uses, looking back, to describe himself in exhibition games, overdoing the restraint until he played as if wearing a straight jacket.
That wasn’t the answer either.
What happened in the first days of December, then, could be viewed as the strangest of positives. It started last Thursday night at Oracle Arena as James Harden of the Rockets got between Green and the basket while Green powered up in the lane, Green’s right leg flew unusually high during the off-balance follow through and the back of the heel clubbed Harden in the face.
That play the resulted in a flagrant foul was one thing, and Green could make the argument that flinging the leg was a natural act while trying to steady himself in mid-air and in no way intentional.
On Saturday, though, after the chance to express his frustration in post-game interviews two days earlier and with the new opportunity to move on, he didn’t. A lot of the men on the competition committee can’t even touch the rim, Green said, intimating that the people who make the rules know little about playing. It would have been a nice shot if not for the fact it was completely inaccurate — the committee includes several current and former players turned executives.
It was a bad look for an All-Star and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate trying to wring the negative energy from his game. On the other hand, in the positive the Warriors could take from the incident, that definitely was no zombie.
No one, not even Green in his most optimistic moments, claimed it would be a quick and seamless adjustment. He has become an attention magnet in general, part of the price of fame, and any further tryout to join the Rockettes or handle NFL field goals will receive particular scrutiny after the same right leg landed a shot to the groin of Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams in last season’s Western Conference finals.
But for all the renewed attention that came with Green asking Harden to look very closely at his Achilles’ tendon in mid-play, there is no question Green has gotten much better at channeling his energy. He has maneuvered through the lost exhibition schedule to remain a force for the Warriors at 10.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists at power forward with standout defense heading into the Pacific Division showdown against the Clippers tonight in Los Angeles (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“I think Draymond has made a change since a year ago,” Kerr said. “He talked this summer both publicly with you guys (the media) and internally with us about wanting to grow and wanting to learn from some of his mistakes and he’s backed it up. He has a couple of technicals, but that’s it. He hasn’t gone overboard in terms of getting on the refs or getting angry during a game.
“He’s kept his poise. He’s been one of the best players in the league night in and night out and he’s doing it in a manner in which he’s kind of maintained his emotion but kept his edge. That’s the balance we were hoping he would find. He’s doing a great job of it.”
It wasn’t just the Adams episodes, of course. Green was given a flagrant foul in the first round for a takedown of Houston’s Michael Beasley and, in the Finals opener, kicked Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers in the chest. Swinging his right arm to hit LeBron James in the groin in the same series earned Green a suspension for Game 5, when the Warriors went from the verge of winning a second consecutive title to the first of three consecutive defeats as the first team to ever waste a 3-1 lead in the championship series.
And it wasn’t just basketball discipline. He was accused of slapping a man outside a restaurant in Michigan in July and charged with misdemeanor assault, before reaching a plea deal that carried $560 in penalties for what turned into a civil infraction.
The first round of the playoffs to the first weeks of offseason — going from 12 technicals and one flagrant foul in 81 games to five techs and two flagrants in just 23 playoff games — became the tipping point. Green recognized he needed to change.
“I really just grew up,” he said. “How to keep my composure better. How to be a better leader. I think all of that goes hand-in-hand. Keeping my composure, staying poised and just trying to be more even-keeled as opposed to up and down, up and down, up and down. Obviously I wear my emotions on my sleeve so it’s still a challenge and at times that can still waver.
“But I think the most important thing is being conscious and aware of it and being able to catch it when it is wavering. All the stuff that I went through over the course of the past seven months, on and off the court, it’s really taught me to grow and learn from those things to not put myself in that position again. It wasn’t really about the growth to the public to me.
“It was more about the growth to my teammates, to my organization, to the people who I’m with every day who deal with me on a daily basis. The growth with them more importantly more than anything.”
Said Myers: “He’s a complicated soul. But I love the things that complicate him. He just lives life in fifth gear. Which is a lot better than a lot of people who don’t get out of park.”
Green started to gain his emotional balance on a consistent basis early in 2016-17. He has four technicals, on pace to surpass the 12 of last season that tied for the third-most in the league, but while appearing more grounded compared to the playoffs as ugly, regrettable moments piled up.
“That,” he said, “was really Steve’s challenge to me – ‘How do you find that balance? Being you, maybe playing on the edge because we need your edge, yet not going too far.’ I’m not going to lie. It was tough.
“Even in the preseason I kept talking to Steve and I’m like, ‘I’m struggling with it a bit.’ And he’s like, ‘I can see it. But just keeping working on it. At the end of the day, if you’ve got to just be you and take a suspension here and there, that’s what we’re doing. We’re not going the complete opposite way.’
“I just kept working at it, kept working at it, and all of the sudden I started to feel it, that I was finding the balance. I think I found it. I’m not saying that I’m perfect because I’m not. But I think I’ve done a great job with it.”
Green’s sudden, awkward leg movements will be tracked closely and conversations with his coach and general manager may continue. But this has been, at the very least, a promising start as part of the overall positive direction of the Warriors at 18-3, with his energy still in place and no further sign of the zombie.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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