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 watched the rest of the game.
Golden State has experience with all this – with Green being ejected, with a hostile crowd, with a young team that isn’t afraid of it. So, at halftime, the team wasn’t concerned. In this game they drew on their experience, their determination and their delight at being back in the playoffs after a two-year drought to beat Memphis, 117-116, in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series.
“I just missed everything about this atmosphere and the opportunity to play meaningful games that require everything,” Curry said. “I missed everything about it.”
The Grizzlies got to this point with 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 that 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. They ended the season of Nikola Jokic, a top candidate to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award and had a three-day break before Sunday’s game.
They had missed the playoffs in the past two seasons because Klay Thompson had been hurt for both seasons entirely, and Curry for parts of each. Healthy once the playoffs started, Golden State had the luxury of combining seasoned youngsters like Gary Payton II, who started the game and helped on a game-saving defensive stop, and Jordan Poole, who scored 31 points off the bench, with three men who won three championships together in Curry, Green and Thompson. 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.
Poole started throughout the first round, but needing Payton’s defensive presence, Kerr switched his lineup for this game.
“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.”
Throughout the first half, the Grizzlies looked capable of challenging the Warriors, even though this was their first time, as a group, to make it to the second round of the playoffs.
When Green fouled Clarke, Memphis led by three.
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.
“He’s been known for flagrant fouls in his career; I’ve watched him on TV my whole life it feels like, ”said Clarke, who is seven years younger than Green. “So I wasn’t really shocked.”
Green said on his podcast that he was trying to hold Clarke up, and hoped the league would reduce the foul from a flagrant-2 to the lesser offense of a flagrant-1.
Golden State did not expect 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 are not the same team without him. But I’m incredibly proud of how we responded. ”
At halftime, Golden State steeled its resolve, but still needed late heroics to win the game. As young and inexperienced as they were, Memphis did not yield easily.
With 39.7 seconds left, the Warriors secured a jump ball and Thompson hit a 3-pointer to give the Warriors a 117-116 lead.
Curry stripped Morant on the Grizzlies’ next possession, leaving Golden State seconds from a victory. Asked about the play after the game, Curry said he barely remembered it. At that moment, 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, we still had time on the clock. We had to get a stop. ”
Said Curry, when told of Thompson’s quote: “That’s just championship DNA and being able to focus on what helps win games.”
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.
“I was actually beaten on the play,” Payton said. “Thank God Klay Thompson had my back and sniffed it out.”
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 possessions are. It was huge. Just being able to follow in those guys’ footsteps and watch the way that 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.