Draymond Green ejection, Klay Thompson benching spotlights another Warriors nightmare

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PHOENIX — The latest nightmare night for a spiraling Golden State Warriors team began early in the third quarter. In an effort to jump-start a feeble starting unit, Steve Kerr made some radical rotation choices at halftime. He benched Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney, shifting Draymond Green to center to speed up the game and, in Kerr’s words, create more space for Steph Curry.

It temporarily worked.

“You saw he got that layup the first play of the half,” Kerr said of Green.

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Warriors' Green ejected after Nurkić hit: Will he face suspension?

But nothing has been sustainable for the 10-13 Warriors through 23 games. Part of the problem has been Green’s lack of consistent availability. He remains probably their second most important player. But, for that to matter, he must stay on the floor and out of the league’s disciplinary program.

The Warriors held steady to a five-point lead as the third quarter clock ticked under nine minutes. Green tried to free himself for a post feed in the far right corner near the Warriors’ bench. While doing it, Jusuf Nurkić had his right hand on Green’s right hip. In a wild attempt to get the official’s attention, Green did a 360 spin and flailed his arms. His right forearm smoked Nurkić right across the left cheek with serious force.

It sent Nurkić tumbling to the ground for about a minute, triggering an automatic review from the officials. It didn’t take long. Green was ejected for a Flagrant 2 and jogged the locker room without disputing it, agreeing later it was deserved.

Draymond Green has been ejected for the third time this season after hitting Jusuf Nurkic in the face.

🎥 @TSN_Sportspic.twitter.com/vuAwwvgo6y

— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) December 13, 2023

This was already the third time this season that Green has been ejected. He was tossed in the second half of a close game against the Cavaliers for a dust up with Donovan Mitchell. The Warriors lost to Cleveland. He was ejected while the score was still 0-0 for his first quarter chokehold of Rudy Gobert. The Warriors lost that night to the Timberwolves. They’d go 2-3 during his five-game suspension.

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A look at Draymond Green's suspensions

They were up five on the Suns when he hit Nurkić with the spinning forearm. They went on to lose 119-116, meaning they are now 2-6 this season in games that Green has been either ejected or suspended.

“Huge swing,” Kerr said. “We felt good about having him at (center), spreading the floor, shooters out there. We changed the lineup around. We thought that could really get Steph some space and Draymond could use his speed … We need him. We need Draymond. He has to find a way to keep his poise and be out there.”

The spotlight now shifts to the league, which has been transparent in its dealings with Green, letting the world know in official statements that his past transgressions have led to stiffer punishment. There will be a review in the next 24 hours and a suspension decision expected before the Warriors play on Thursday night against the Clippers in Los Angeles. How long will they be without him?

Green will be part of the review process. He expects a call from the league — Joe Dumars and perhaps Adams Silver — on Wednesday and said he will talk with them. Green was calm in the postgame locker room and agreed to talk to reporters, holding a 13-minute news conference that previewed what will surely be his defense to the NBA on Wednesday.

“He was pulling my hip and I was swinging away to sell the call,” Green said. “Made contact with him. As you know, I’m not one to apologize for things I meant to do. But I do apologize to Jusuf. Because I didn’t intend to hit him. I sell calls with my arms. I don’t fall to sell the call. I’m not a flopper. So I was just selling a call. I spun away. Unfortunately, I hit him.”

Draymond Green apologized to Jusuf Nurkic for his swinging hit above the shoulders, but said it was unintentional and he was just trying to sell a foul pic.twitter.com/uyXfaZ9F2D

— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) December 13, 2023

Green watched the replay. He agreed it didn’t look good but reiterated that his intentions were to sell the call, not strike Nurkić, which — when tracking Green’s history — is most similar to his playoff kick to the groin of Steven Adams while trying to sell a foul call. He didn’t receive a suspension in that case, though the flagrant points eventually accumulated to that Game 5 one-game ban in the NBA Finals.

But that was several transgressions ago. The league typically discusses incidents with all parties involved, and Nurkić didn’t sound too sympathetic to Green’s explanation that it was unintentional.

“What’s going on with him, I don’t know,” Nurkić said. “Personally, I feel like the brother needed help. I’m glad he didn’t try to choke me.”

That comment was relayed to Green.

“I think we all need help,” Green said. “I don’t think any of us are too perfect. So, respect. I’d tell him the same thing I told you. I apologize to him. I didn’t intend to hit him.”

Curry has talked about the new year being a demarcation point for these Warriors, referencing a need for them to solve their problems and generate momentum before the calendar flips. They have nine more games in December against these opponents: Clippers, Nets, Blazers, Celtics, Wizards, Blazers, Nuggets, Heat, Mavericks.

The Warriors need to win a handful of those to stabilize a wobbly situation. The league again is about to decide how many (will it be any?) of those games Green will be eligible.

“I didn’t intend to put the team in a bad spot,” Green said. “I intended to get a foul and I made contact with him. To Steve’s point, of course, I need to be there for us to win. I understand that. It’s why I haven’t been arguing with refs since I’ve been back, I haven’t got into it with any players since I’ve been back. Because I do understand that. Unfortunately, bad luck. Trying to draw a foul and I made contact with him. But this ain’t those same things.”

With or without Green, Kerr is facing some larger bigger picture questions about the Warriors’ evolving rotation. Since his return from a recent finger injury, Wiggins has put together three of his worst games, combining to go 8-of-30 shooting with 11 turnovers against the Blazers, Thunder and Suns.

It finally reached a decision point for Kerr late in the second quarter against the Suns. Wiggins missed a layup and dribbled it off himself out of bounds soon after entering to presumably close the first half. Jonathan Kuminga had played well behind Wiggins. So Kerr pulled Wiggins with more than four minutes left in the half and put Kuminga in the lineup for him to begin the third quarter. Kuminga played 29 minutes. Wiggins played a season-low 15 minutes. He didn’t close the game.

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“I still feel good,” Wiggins said. “I just gotta do more. I wasn’t making shots. But I feel like I competed on the defensive end, crashed the glass.”

Kerr also replaced Looney with Brandin Podziemski to open the third quarter, leaning smaller. Looney only played 11 minutes. He was a minus-13. Podziemski was excellent, finishing with 20 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, changing the game with a variety of hustle plays, including an offensive rebound off a free throw that led to a 3 and a charge taken against Devin Booker to give Booker his fourth foul early in the third quarter.

But the most seismic rotation choice from Kerr on Tuesday night in Phoenix was a late-game benching of Klay Thompson. Thompson missed eight of his 10 shots and seven of his eight 3s while Chris Paul (15 points, 11 assists) and Moses Moody (12 points, four rebounds) emerged as more productive backcourt options. Kerr closed with Curry, Paul, Podziemski, Kuminga and Dario Šarić.

“I just felt like tonight I had to play the guys who were playing the best,” Kerr said. “I’ve been really patient in trying to get everyone organized, give guys freedom and space. But tonight did not feel like a night to have a lot of patience.”

As Green later pointed out, this is the first time Thompson has been forced to make this type of sacrifice. When healthy over all these dynasty years, Thompson has always started and closed. This was the first time he’s been planted on the bench in crunch time.

Thompson didn’t love it. He circled during the timeout in frustration after learning of the decision, yelled toward the huddle a few times and smacked what seemed to be a cup rack to the ground behind the bench. Curry came over to calm him at one point during the timeout. Thompson stewed for much of the fourth quarter and had this exchange with reporters postgame.

One of the stories of the night is that you didn’t close.

“Yeah,” Thompson said. “It’s pretty strange. Pretty strange.”

How did you feel about it?

“I don’t know man,” Thompson said. “I don’t really have no feelings toward it.

Was it frustrating?

“Of course it frustrates me,” Thompson said. “You think I’m gonna just chill? I’m freaking competitive man. At the end of the day, I’m one of the most competitive people to put this uniform on. I can say that with confidence too. But whatever. I guess I didn’t bring it tonight. I deserved it.”

Were you given an explanation in the moment?

“Nope,” Thompson said. “Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Whatever. I deserved to be benched tonight. I played like crap.”

You were visibly upset on the bench.

“If you’ve ever played basketball before, you know what you’re capable of,” Thompson said. “You always want to be out there competing. That’s just facts. Whatever though. It happens. I deserved to be benched. I’ve been playing like crap. Twenty games in. I haven’t caught a good rhythm. But give credit to our bench. They played awesome. Young guys are stepping up.”

What do you think about some of the rotation decisions Steve has right now?

“I trust Steve,” Thompson said. “I trust Steve now and I forever will.”

Steve Kerr on leaving Klay, Wiggins and Looney on the bench to close the game: “I just felt like tonight I had to play the guys who were playing the best. I’ve been really patient…Tonight did not feel like a night to have a lot of patience.” pic.twitter.com/E21U80cIQ2

— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) December 13, 2023

Curry said he expects Thompson to be upset while sitting in crunchtime and reiterated that they’ll need everyone moving forward. But it’s clear a breaking point has finally been reached and Kerr is now more willing to green light the more uncomfortable rotation choices regardless of the personal implications.

“I don’t think Klay’s ever had to deal with that,” Green said. “Your first time dealing with that is different. Your reaction, you never know how you’re going to react to something like that until you go through it. That’s foreign territory for Klay. I don’t think anyone is mad he’s upset about it.”

“These are tough nights,” Kerr said. “But this is the NBA.

“It’s a really difficult league. It’s a dream job, but it’s also incredibly difficult. You get booed, benched, traded, injured, cut. It’s not easy. Every season is filled with ups and downs, moments where you really struggle individually. We’re all human. Every player goes through stuff.”

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(Photo of Klay Thompson: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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