MEMPHIS – Moments before they learned Draymond Green had been ejected from the game, Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr and guard Stephen Curry looked out at the crowd Green had enraged. Kerr and Curry laughed as fans chanted, “Throw him out.”
But the longer the referees took to review Green’s hard foul on Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke, the more concerned they looked. Green sat on the scorer’s table, expressionless, until the referees delivered his fate.
Kerr and Curry started shouting at the officials about how outrageous they found the call. Green leaped from his seat and ran to the opposite sideline, returning to the Golden State bench to say goodbye to his teammates. Fans cheered, and Green motioned for them to get louder. They were happy to oblige and jeered at Green as he skipped backward toward the tunnel to the locker room, where he would watch Golden State beat Memphis, 117-116, in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series.
Golden State has experience with all this – with Green being ejected, with a hostile crowd, with a young team that isn’t afraid. So, at halftime, the team wasn’t concerned.
“I was really proud of the guys for really maintaining their poise through some difficult adversity,” Kerr said.
The Grizzlies had the second-best record in the NBA this season, and reached the second round with a taxing win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. It took them six games, and they often saw big deficits. They closed games with enough ferocity that the Timberwolves ran out of steam. Memphis finished the series on Friday night, then traveled home to welcome the Warriors two days later.
Golden State, which had the third-best record in the league, needed only five games to beat the Denver Nuggets, ending the season of Nikola Jokic, a top candidate to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award. It had a three-day break before Sunday’s game.
Its young players, like Gary Payton II and Jordan Poole, had learned how to excel in the NBA, molded through minutes in which at least one of Curry, Green or Klay Thompson was often injured, if not all of them at once.
Healthy once the playoffs started, Golden State had the luxury of combining seasoned youngsters with three men who won three championships together. It gave Golden State an edge, but not one that scared the Grizzlies.
Famously confident, particularly in front of its boisterous home crowd, Memphis punched first in the game, with back-to-back 3s by Ja Morant. Memphis led the Warriors by 10 points in the first quarter and had a 6-point lead at halftime, behind Morant’s 18 and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s 14. Jackson, who had struggled against a bigger Timberwolves team, finished with a season-high 33 points.
Golden State started Payton instead of Poole on Sunday, with Kerr reminding Poole that Curry, an eight-time All-Star point guard, had come off the bench earlier in the playoffs. Poole did not protest coming off the bench.
He scored 31 points, making five of 10 3-pointers, including one early in the fourth quarter that caused Memphis forward Kyle Anderson to slam on the scorer’s table in frustration.
“Tonight is the rule rather than the exception,” Kerr said. “The Jordan we’ve seen now the last few months, this is what he looks like. He’s not always going to make five 3s and get 31 points, almost get a triple double. But he’s a playmaker. He’s a shot creator. He’s been fantastic for us all season, so this didn’t surprise me at all. ”
The Warriors trailed by 3 points when Green fouled Clarke hard.
Green’s right and left hands struck Clarke, and a replay in the arena showed Green grabbing and pulling on Clarke’s jersey, then grabbing it to prevent him from hitting the ground too hard.
The last thing Golden State expected was an ejection, but Green’s body language as he left the court during the replay indicated he knew he had erred. Kerr said the referees told him that Green’s ejection came because he hit Clarke in the face and threw him to the ground.
“It’s unfortunate,” Thompson said. “We’re not the same team without him. But I’m incredibly proud of how we responded. ”
At halftime, down 6, Golden State steeled its resolve.
“You know, just there’s no reason why we can’t go out there and win the game,” Kerr said. “We’ve got plenty in reserve.”
The Warriors took a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the Grizzlies clawed back.
With 2 minutes 19 seconds left, Morant rose for a layup in traffic and drew a foul as he made the shot. He walked over to the corner of the court and pounded his chest as he looked up at the crowd.
The game’s final minute was no less chaotic than the rest of it.
With 39.7 seconds left, the Warriors won a jump ball and Thompson hit a 3-pointer to give the Warriors an 117-116 lead.
Curry blocked Morant on the Grizzlies’ next possession, leaving Golden State seconds from a victory. Rather than looking pleased, the Warriors looked angry and defiant, with Curry sauntering across the court.
“I played angry,” Thompson admitted after the game.
Thompson missed two free throws with 6.7 seconds remaining, giving Memphis one last chance.
“I’ve learned from so much experience that you have to move forward,” Thompson said. “We still had the lead, still had time on the clock. We had to get a stop. ”
Morant backed away from the basket as his team set up a play.
“They put him in the backcourt, and we knew they were going to try to get him to go downhill,” Poole said. He added: “Seen that play a couple times.”
The game ended with a miss by Morant, who was guarded by Thompson and Payton. Thompson ran to midcourt screaming, “Come on !,” as the fans filed out.
“It feels really good to know that these guys have been in the fight and they have championship experience,” Poole said. “They know how important specific properties are. It was huge. Just being able to follow in those guys’ footsteps and watch the way they move was huge for us today. ”
Curry joined Thompson at midcourt after the game, shouting in celebration. Television cameras caught Green celebrating in the tunnel, waiting for them.