In 2012, Danny Green was just beginning to find his way in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs.
When he faltered in the 2012 Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Green failed in a way that was completely understandable and, more precisely, acceptable. A young player newly breathed in the thin air of late-stage playoff basketball. He climbed to a higher elevation and couldn’t climb the mountain. This is the natural order of things, the way of the warrior for most professional athletes.
Green had to live with that 2012 loss, but young athletes can view such moments as learning experiences, whereas much older athletes often look upon such setbacks as the final painful wounds in a long career. Falling short of the NBA Finals the way the Spurs did in 2012 casts a long shadow over a man at age 36 or 38. For the 2012 incarnation of Danny Green — then just weeks from turning 25 years old — the 4-2 series loss to Oklahoma City marked a time to grow up and learn how to compete at this time of year.
Green calmly reassessed his situation with the Spurs and merely proceeded to lead the team through the 2013 NBA Finals. Had Chris Bosh not gathered that rebound in Game 6, and had Ray Allen not hit that corner three a heartbeat later, Green would have become 2013’s answer to Andre Iguodala in 2015 with the Golden State Warriors: a most unlikely supporting-cast (read: non-superstar) NBA Finals MVP.
No matter: Green carried into 2014 what he achieved in 2013. He once again provided Gregg Popovich a reliable piece on a complete roster. The Spurs won one NBA title and came an eyelash away from a second one for many reasons; one of them was the flourishing of Danny Green. He has long been acknowledged as the player who makes the Spurs virtually impossible to beat if he’s tossing in threes. He’s the man who takes the Spurs from “very good or borderline great” to “overhwelmingly potent.”
As the Spurs prepare for what has become a best-of-three series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, no Spur faces more pressure to produce than Green.
The story of Danny Green in relationship to this series begins with the following fact from Game 3:
Tony Parker hit three 3-pointers in tonight’s game. Just the sixth time he’s done that in a playoff game. Last time it happened? 2004.
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) May 7, 2016
Tony Parker is the one member of the Spurs’ aging Big Three core who remains vital and especially formidable as the sands of time continue to slip through the hourglass. Parker has been his best self over the past two games, and on most occasions, a superb Parker means the Spurs win.
It didn’t on Sunday night in Game 4.
While Tim Duncan’s decline — yes, it has finally arrived — certainly diminishes what the Spurs can do, the presence of LaMarcus Aldridge has enabled the Spurs to retain a low-post threat with mid-range shooting capability. Parker is still the facilitator for this offense, but as the above tweet from Zach Harper shows, relying on the Frenchman to hit a steady stream of threes is not wise. Game 3’s explosion was aberrational, not common.
The Spurs need threes from the men who are paid to provide that specific component of production at the offensive end of the floor. Enter Green and teammate Patty Mills, who have been conspicuously quiet in this series as three-point shooters.
In the 2015 first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, Mills wasn’t the picture of consistency, but he played a few games in which his three-point shooting held the Spurs together at critical junctures. Mills finished 16 of 28 as a three-point shooter in that series, which makes his nonexistent shooting in this series — especially the end of Game 2, when he didn’t come close on a game-winning attempt — all the more noteworthy. Mills has been a talented shooter who relishes the opportunity to sling the rock. That he’s been such a zero when Parker needs a breather is something the Spurs cannot continue to live with.
It’s even more the case for Green.
The man who helped North Carolina roar to the 2009 college basketball national championship, and who nearly became an NBA Finals MVP, has watched his shooting touch disintegrate. The Spurs pride themselves on their depth and resourcefulness, but through four games, the Oklahoma City Thunder have fielded the better bench. Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter both hit crucial threes late in Game 4, and they’ve been much better on defense than most observers expected. For the Spurs, Boris Diaw hasn’t been the rock he was for the 2014 champions. Manu Ginobili can’t call forth a 20-point bench game the way he could in that same 2014 season.
Green — 12 of 40 on threes a year ago against the Clippers — represented a central reason the Spurs fell short in their memorable clash against Los Angeles. A year later, here we are again, and while Green doesn’t have to throw down six threes a night to change the equation for the Spurs, he certainly needs to make the two or three triples at a critical juncture of the game, the kinds of shots which carry significance within the flow of play.
San Antonio’s offense has been reduced to a lot of isolation plays for Aldridge in this series. Kawhi Leonard has been the second-best player on the Spurs, which doesn’t seem too bad in light of Aldridge’s magnificence. However, Kawhi’s lack of crunch-time three-point shooting rates as a conspicuous deficit. If the Spurs are going to regain their edge on offense, the best thing they can do — beyond moving the ball more and running cleaner sets — is for Danny Green and Patty Mills to thaw. They can’t remain ice-cold if San Antonio expects to win this series.
The Spurs count on their ability to call forth meaningful contributions from a wide array of players. Yet, the diminishment of Duncan and Manu cuts into that capacity. It’s up to the younger bucks to fill the gap for San Antonio. Otherwise, a crushing series loss to the Thunder — akin to the 2012 season which made Danny Green evolve as a pro — awaits.