Draymond Green is one of the NBA’s best defenders and here’s some of the best images to support that.
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SAN ANTONIO — There was a reason Steve Kerr referred to this place as a “lion’s den.”
The night before his Golden State Warriors took a huge step toward earning the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference — downing the San Antonio Spurs 110-98 at the AT&T Center that had been such a haunted house for them through all these years and giving themselves a 3½-game lead with seven to go — the coach who knows all too well about this opponent’s mystique roared about the organization that has been king of the NBA jungle five times since 1999.
“I love that we’re going down into San Antonio, into the lion’s den,” Kerr, who won two of his five championships as a player while suiting up for those Gregg Popovich-led Spurs, had said after the Warriors beat the Rockets in Houston on Tuesday. “It keeps going. We’ve got Houston again (on Friday), Washington coming up (on Sunday). This is great for us, to be challenged as we head for the playoffs.”
What a way to plop into the catbird seat, the Warriors falling behind 23-3 just seven minutes into play only to hit the offensive afterburners from there and torch the Spurs on their way out of town. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson caught fire after that horrific start, hitting four 3s apiece and combining for 52 points.
Draymond Green (16 points, six rebounds, three assists) continued his Defensive Player of the Year pursuit, leading the group that held the Spurs to 41% shooting and stifling MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard on his 7-for-20 shooting night (19 points, five turnovers). David West (15 point, four rebounds, five assists in 22 minutes) and Andre Iguodala (14 points, six rebounds) were fantastic off the bench.
And what an important statement for Golden State to make.
It’s awfully strange to ponder this notion that a team of this ilk could still have at least one foot in another’s shadow, but that just might be the case here. Even with all their historic success in Kerr’s three seasons, the back-to-back Finals appearances and 60-plus regular-season wins every time out, the Spurs are still the mystery they simply must solve, in large part, because they never took a direct hit when it mattered most.
In 2014-15, when Kerr’s debut campaign was a start-to-finish joy ride for their lovable lot, the Spurs loomed large as the hottest team around in the second half of the season. They’d won 21 of 24 games entering their regular-season finale, only to fall to New Orleans, slide to the sixth spot and face off against a Clippers team that downed them in seven games in the first round.
The silver-and-black bullet had been dodged.
It happened again last season, when the Spurs won a franchise-record 67 games and landed the No. 2 seed but fell to Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round. In the here and the now, the Warriors — who were routed by San Antonio in the season opener and routed again when both teams’ stars were out in the March 11 matchup — had no evidence to suggest that they were well-equipped to handle this version of the Spurs.
The cherry on top, from their viewpoint? It happened without Durant, whose late regular-season return is nearing after the Feb. 28 left knee injury that seemed to threaten the Warriors’ push. The ubiquitous mental edge, in other words, resides firmly in their corner now.
It’s a strange truth to process, this idea that a team of this caliber might still be in anyone else’s shadow. But anyone who doubts it underestimates the degree to which the Warriors and the rest of the NBA respects this storied group.
The faces have changed, of course, with David Robinson passing the torch to Tim Duncan and then Kawhi Leonard from there when it comes to the centerpiece players. Ditto for the co-stars who surrounded them. But the totality of their accomplishments, this remarkable run that Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford have had such a steady hand in, is the kind of thing that leaves modern-day players agreeing on one universal truth: the Spurs are a force to never be taken lightly, a “well-oiled machine,” as LeBron James called them on Sunday after his Cavs were embarrassed 103-74 in this very same building.
“When David Robinson retired, that’s really when Manu Ginobili and Tony (Parker) took ownership of the team,” Kerr reflected before tip-off. “It wasn’t just Tim Duncan. You had these two guards who are so dynamic. So then Timmy gets older, and Manu and Tony are all of a sudden in their last couple years, and the Spurs trade for Kawhi on draft night (in 2012) and sign (LaMarcus) Aldridge, which are the cornerstones now.
“That’s the key. Obviously it’s great coaching and player development. They’ve had a lot of guys who have just gotten better and better, undrafted players or second-round players who have contributed. But if you don’t have the cornerstones, nothing matters. So the Kawhi deal and getting Aldridge has allowed this thing to keep going, to keep moving.”
If only for a night, the Warriors brought the mighty Spurs to a standstill.
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter @sam_amick.