Warriors vs. Lakers - nobody wants to see 'em, but everybody's watching
Big names and old rivalry make today's play-in game a must-watch event
The circumstances are weird, but the Golden State Warriors once again find themselves staring directly at LeBron James as the post season arrives. With Stephen Curry and Draymond Green leading a newly forged supporting cast, they’re starting off their playoff journey against James and his Los Angeles Lakers for the first time. This game isn’t a must-win game, but expect both teams to treat it as such.
The winner of this game will advance as the 7th seed and take on the Phoenix Suns on the easier side of the bracket (avoiding the top ranked Utah Jazz and wing-heavy Clippers teams). The loser today will then bump down to what is a must-win: a single elimination game against either the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs for the 8th seed.
On the injury front, the Warriors will be status quo: no Kelly Oubre or Damion Lee, but Eric Paschall is available again. The Lakers have a much more potentially serious concern regarding the high ankle sprain of James, which he re-rolled in the Lakers final game of the season - a game that was just the fourth game played by James since March 21st.
WHO: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers
WHEN: Wednesday, May 19th, 2021 // 7:00(ish) pm PST
A battle between two teams nobody wants to see
This is the game to watch in the NBA’s play-in tournament. The Lakers are defending their title from the bottom of the seeding after dealing with a series of medium-term injuries to their two best players. Golden State meanwhile, is right about where they were expected to be, but it’s an illusionary reality compared to the team that went on a late-season tear after dropping to an eight-man rotation - the same one that just so happens to be their playoff roster.
These teams also boast two of the scariest post-season opponents in existence. Curry is an unstoppable, defense-stretching force on offense. James has been terrorizing rims for a decade and is as close to a final boss as there is in the NBA.
The Lakers find themselves in this position only because James and Anthony Davis have missed so much time - James has only appeared in 45 of the 72 games this season; Davis in just 36 of them. It’s a testament to exactly how stacked this Los Angeles squad is that they’ve done as well as they have without their two stars - primarily due to the team’s top-ranked defense. James is the king of the playoff switch in general, and alongside Davis, they propel this deep Lakers team into the championship favorite that they were when the season started. The odds are very much in favor of a healthy Lakers team.
Coach Steve Kerr is running out of fingers to hold his championship rings. He won five as a player, three as coach of these Warriors. Despite (or perhaps because of) a tough season, his philosophy and personnel have coalesced into a scary Warriors team.
The Warriors have the league’s best net point differential in May, they finished with the NBA’s fifth tightest defense on the year, and they’ve looked like a different team since Wiseman and Oubre’s injuries forced the team fully into win-now mode that relies heavily on heady supporting players like Kevon Looney, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green - as well as newly discovered bench scorer, Jordan Poole.
But really, the Warriors are truly terrifying because of what Curry can do. Or, more accurately, what he has been doing all season. Golden State was an astonishing +13.7 points better (per 100 possessions) with Curry, the highest among any player this season - the second-highest in history since the stat was tracked by Cleaning the Glass.
Stripped of all limitations, Curry’s offense has been eviscerating defenses all season long. In a single game that matters? Curry could detonate - even against the top-ranked Lakers defense.
Strengths and weakness assessment
SWOT analysis is a strategic planning technique used to help a person or organization identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. We are going to apply those principles here today to look at some of the opportunities that exist for both sides to take advantage of.
The battle on the interior
One of the more surprising statistics about the Warriors this season is that the team led the NBA in dunks - though the they aren't playing a traditional center and no one on the roster is known to attack the rim regularly. No player on the team takes more than half of their shots at the rim except Kevon Looney… and yet somehow this team led the league in dunks.
As with most things Golden State, the interior attack starts with Curry’s gravity. Because of the way he collapses the defense, and combined with Kerr’s movement-heavy offense, the Warriors have a deceptively potent rim presence. According to Synergy data, the Warriors get almost 10% of their half court offense from cuts, generating 1.3 points per possession.
Notably, this is exactly where a resurgent Draymond Green could find traction. Though scoring isn’t a frequent weapon, Green’s scoring punch can serve as the “out of nowhere haymaker” blow that could knock an unsuspecting team out - especially in something like tonight’s single elimination game.
On the other side, the Lakers look exactly like a team that would lead the league in dunks. In contrast to the Warriors profile, the Lakers have six players that attempt at least 50% of their total shots at the rim; a list that includes heavy rotation minutes players like Montrezl Harrell, Andre Drummond, and Talen Horten-Tucker. As a team, Los Angeles gets around 42% of their total points in the restricted area, and as Sam Amick noted on a recent podcast, the one full strength meeting between these two teams in January resulted in 58 points in the paint for the Lakers.
Both teams attack the paint in different ways. The Warriors by slicing into openings created by a scrambling defense, and the Lakers with a bevy of post-focused players. The matchup specifics are just as enticing, where Green and Looney will try to hold against the Lakers broad spectrum assault. The Lakers, for their part will be forced to prove their defensive discipline that earned them the spot atop the defensive ratings. Once Curry and Green start pulling apart the seams, recovering against the Warriors’ cutters will be of paramount importance.
Don’t even get me started on the rebounding battle.
Who can get their offense going?
Both of these teams are elite because of their defense. It was a principle that coach Kerr was prioritizing before the season even began, and it’s what helped the Lakers survive the absences of Davis and James.
The ugly flip side of today’s matchup is that neither squad feature an offense that is necessarily humming. Looking at just the post All Star break numbers, the Warriors offense is ranked 17th, the Lakers offense is ranked 25th during that span. Eww. And again, both of these are going to be trying to score on the 1st- and 5th-ranked defense, respectively.
This could get ugly.
Now consider that both of these teams have two of the smartest players to ever appear in the NBA. Both of whom are intimately familiar with their main opponents. James has spent more high profile time trying to figure out this Warriors scheme, and Green is a student of the game with a photographic memory. So expect both offenses to struggle. The real question is how to find success.
The Warriors have been training for this all season. Heck, probably longer. Curry is accustomed to a lot of defensive attention (and he’s going to get a lot of it!), and Green will be the outlet. This has been the team’s modus operandi since before Kerr arrived.
One player to watch in this chess match for the Warriors is going to be Juan Toscano-Anderson. Much like Andre Iguodala, a large part of JTA’s on-court success is simply knowing where to be and tending to make the right reads. If the Lakers do as expected and overload trying to stop Green and Curry, Toscano-Anderson may be a hidden solution for the Warriors.
JTA is third on the team in assist percentage (a measure of teammate's shots assisted while the player is on the court) behind only Draymond Green, who assists on 34.8% (100th percentile rank) and Stephen Curry’s 28.1%; Juan Toscano-Andersons 17.3% puts him above all but 12% of players at his position.
And then there’s a question of how much the Lakers are really going to be able to do to stop Curry. Sure, Curry turned in a historic year, but let’s not also forget the scorching tear he is on right now. Over the last 21 games of the season, the two-time MVP averaged 36.7 points (on 49.7% from the field and 43.8% from deep) and helped carry Golden State to a 14-7 record over that closing stretch. Yes, the Lakers defense is excellent, but even so, Curry could still break it… Or at least bend it to the point where the Warriors supporting cast can.
The Lakers offense is a bit more stodgy. They score just 0.957 points per possession from their half court offense, which ranks 23rd in the league. If I were them though, I’d worry less about scoring efficiency and more about fouls. Without a traditional center, the Warriors are going to have to make some compromises in coverage. With Looney and Green taking care of the post, and Wiggins on LeBron, the Lakers are going to demand enough attention to limit Green’s ability to play free safety against the Los Angeles offense. So this could result in James on the perimeter being able to easily switch onto a high foul rate player like Bazemore, or attack Curry in isolation. If Bazemore gets in foul trouble, or really any of those aforementioned players, there just aren’t many backup options for the Warriors.
Call me a homer, but I really like the Warriors’ chances tonight. Let’s call this a win with a low score: 106-103. I know the odds say that the Lakers win, but I've got a real Han Solo attitude about odds right now. Curry and Green are as good as they've ever been, and they've won meaningful games with less.
Don’t let the Lakers out in transition. It’s by far their best offensive weapon (outside of LeSwitch - which is presumably flipped on for this game, assuming the ankle holds up).
If the Warriors’ supporting scorers get hot, it’s going to be hard for the Lakers to keep pace. Poole, JTA, or even Green could bust this game wide open if they can manage an unexpected scoring burst.
It’s the playoffs! Let’s go!