With San Antonio up 3-2 in the NBA Finals, it is time to embrace this fact: Through five games, Danny Green is the 2013 Finals MVP.
It is remarkable that Green, who averaged 10.9 points per game this year season, could somehow be the MVP of a series that features Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade—five sure-fire Hall of Famers. But so far, it is happening.
An unheralded second round pick who averaged less than 10 points at college, has been cut three times as a pro and totalled 81 points in his first two NBA seasons, Green has led the Spurs in scoring for the series with 90 points in five games.
He has shot an unfathomable 66 percent on threes, making a Finals-record 25 of them:
Green has refined his role as a spot-up shooter and long-armed wing defender over the last two years. He finished the 2012-13 regular season as the 7th best three-point shooter in the league, at 42.9 percent, and he was the Spurs’ go-to defender against Steph Curry in their second round series versus Golden State.
Yet no one could have seen this coming.
Crucially, Green has been the Spurs’ stand-out player in two of their three wins, scoring 27 points in Game 3 when a limited Parker scored only 6, and finishing with 24 in Game 5. Beyond the numbers, however, Green has been phenomenal defensively. This is the untold story amid the widespread celebration of his success.
He has defended Heat fast breaks brilliantly, somehow mastering the art of derailing a full-speed LeBron James without fouling, and correctly anticipating Wade-to-LeBron lob passes when LeBron is running the wing. Green’s defense has led to more botched LeBron dunks and layups in transition than this observer has ever witnessed over a five-game stretch. The importance of this cannot be ignored; emphatic fast break scoring is central to the Heat’s identity. Meanwhile in the half court Green has been effective at goading Wade into taking low percentage jumpshots and chasing Ray Allen around screens.
Green’s success is a product of the Spurs’ system, which consistently manages to hone in on, and then maximize the specific but limited talents of marginal NBA players. In many ways, Green winning Finals MVP would serve as the ultimate confirmation of the brilliance of the Spurs’ management and coaching staff.
Make no mistake: Tony Parker, who authored the Spurs’ Game 1 win with a vintage 4th quarter, carries far greater responsibility than does Green. The San Antonio offense runs though him and revolves around his ability to take defenders off the dribble and finish in the paint, both out of the pick-and-roll and in isolation sets. In this series he has burned everyone individually from Mario Chalmers to LeBron James. In Game 5, he bullied Norris Cole for buckets like THIS, THIS, and THIS. He is a constant threat to whom the entire Heat defense must pay close attention at all times—help defenders at the ready.
Green is a mere role player: a catch-and-shoot gunner operating in Popovich’s brilliant system, where crisp ball movement and corner threes are encouraged and missed shots will not land you in the doghouse. Indeed, it is the perfect habitat for Green. He should not be punished for this though when it comes to deciding Finals MVP honors. It is possible for a role player to play his role so well that he becomes a team’s MVP, at least over a six or seven game stretch. With his team-leading scoring and first-rate defense, Green is doing exactly that.
How unprecedented is Green’s success?
He would be the first non-superstar to win the award since Chauncey Billups in 2004 (who upped his scoring average from 16 to 21 ppg over five games against the Lakers), and the only second round to win it other than Dennis Johnson in 1979 (who was already an All-Star and All-Defensive first teamer by that time). Danny Green would be the most unlikely Finals MVP of all time. No one outside of his immediate family could have ever thought it possible.
This discussion is, of course, at high risk of being rendered moot very shortly. If LeBron James rediscovers his game in Miami, the Heat will most likely win this series in 7. But nobody will ever be able to take this away from Green: through five games, he’s the 2013 Finals MVP.