NBA play-in

Warriors gave Lakers a scare, but could not get over the hump

Joe Viray
Warriors gave Lakers a scare, but could not get over the hump

HEARTBREAKER. Steph Curry and the Warriors fumble against the Lakers in the play-in round.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

The kind of verve the Warriors showed early in the game was infectious, so a loss like this to the Lakers certainly stings

The first half against the Los Angeles Lakers went as well as the Golden State Warriors could have hoped for.

Draymond Green was in playoff mode, flying around and marshaling the defense that finished fifth in defensive rating in the regular season. With the Lakers starting Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis was slotted in his preferred power forward position. Naturally, that meant Green – who usually starts games at the 4 – was assigned to cover Davis.

Green is all too familiar with Davis’ tendencies, having guarded him in previous playoff matchups when Davis was with the New Orleans Pelicans. Despite the massive size difference – Green is around 6-feet-6-inches in shoes, while Davis towers over him at 6-feet-10 inches – Green’s combination of savvy and excellent positioning has historically given Davis fits.

Look no further than this possession in the first half:

Green is quite cognizant of the danger Davis presents. You can almost feel him compute all the possibilities in his mind – if Davis tries to bulldoze his way inside, Green is ready to keep up with him by using his wide stance and low center of gravity. If Davis decides to pull up, Green can use his long arms to contest and obscure as much of Davis’ vision as possible.

The second option comes to fruition, and Green forces the miss.

Also consider this defensive possession from Green:

Green does it again. He displays strength and enough fortitude to nullify the size disadvantage against Davis. Not allowing himself to be bullied, Green forces Davis middle, and eventually makes him cough up his dribble. With nowhere left to go, Davis passes out of the murky situation, only to turn the ball over.

Such mastery over an individual matchup extended to the Warriors’ overall defensive effort against the Lakers in the first half. In their first game in two years that involved high-stakes basketball – an environment that requires extensive game planning, practice, and film study – the Warriors initially seemed like they were going to pass with flying colors.

“The prep leading into the game, the film study, walkthroughs, practice, and levels of focus and intensity were amazing,” Stephen Curry said after the game. “Been almost two years since the finals that we were here and [played] a game that had those consequences. It’s what you live for, what you worked so hard for. It brings out the best in you in terms of your competitiveness and energy.”

The kind of defensive verve the Warriors showed in the initial stages of the game – the kind that had Green’s imprint all over it – was infectious. It extended to Andrew Wiggins, who was given the assignment to guard LeBron James.

Wiggins had shown all season long that he could be counted on to hold his own against the toughest wings in the league. But James – even a version coming off an extensive ankle injury – was by no means your typical NBA wing.

Wiggins didn’t care.

Rarely is James bested on both ends of the floor. But Wiggins manages to do just that – he doesn’t allow himself to get bullied by James’ strength in the low post, and when James is forced to fade away for a shot, Wiggins uses his length to deny him forcefully. He then goes on to hit a pull-up corner three on the other end – right in James’ face.

Wiggins was consistently in front of James:

Wiggins moves his feet and keeps up with James, just enough to funnel him toward Juan Toscano-Anderson, who comes over from the weak side to block the shot. Wiggins then makes life difficult for James in the low post – a possession that accentuates the strides Wiggins has made as a defender.

Wiggins and Green have been the Warriors’ two defensive keystones throughout the season, the two faces of a defense that has made it difficult for teams to put the ball in the hoop – as evidenced by the fact that the Warriors kept opponents’ effective field goal percentage (eFG%) to 52.6%, which was the fourth-best mark in the regular season.

For a Lakers offense ranked 24th in efficiency, it was crucial for their two best offensive players to get it going. The Warriors were well aware of that fact, and knew they had to put the clamps on the Lakers’ duo. 

The Warriors outdid themselves against the Lakers in the first half, keeping them to an eFG% of 38.9%. They contested shots, forced misses, and made the Lakers bleed for their points, especially in the paint.

In particular, Green’s exceptional pick-and-roll defense was on full display.

Peep at Green’s dynamic defense in the clips above. He is an expert at staying perfectly in between the ball-handler and the roll-man. He never strays too far toward one extreme – he doesn’t feel the need to step up and stop the ball-handler, and he also doesn’t feel the need to stick close to the roller to prevent a drop pass or a lob.

Green stifles Davis yet again, and with a perfect stunt toward Dennis Schroder, lures him into a pocket pass that Green easily intercepts.

The Warriors held the Lakers to an offensive rating of 87.2 in the first half, and did just enough offensively to take a 13-point lead.

As expected, the Lakers were intent on letting anyone else on the Warriors’ not named Stephen Curry shoot. The onus was on Curry’s supporting cast to take advantage of the Lakers sticking to Curry like their lives depended on it.

Even if the stick-to-Curry-at-all-costs game plan was the best course of action, the Lakers were almost made to pay because of it.

The Lakers defense was laser-focused on actions involving Curry. A platoon was assigned to guard him on strong-side actions, virtually leaving shooters on the weak side open – a fact that Kent Bazemore and Toscano-Anderson took advantage of, as seen above. Secondary actions involving Green as the release valve on short rolls were unlocked, as seen from Green’s pass to a cutting Mychal Mulder for the dunk.

Of course, Curry’s inevitable nature meant that even the Lakers defense – the stingiest in the league – couldn’t fully keep him on a tight leash.

Curry scored 15 at the half, with every member of the Warriors’ eight-man rotation putting in points. It was as close to an ideal half the Warriors achieved against the defending champions. The game plan that was concocted against the Lakers – keeping James and Davis limited – had worked, to the surprise of everyone who expected a more dominant Laker performance.

And then, as the second half began, it slowly began to fall apart.

The Warriors had five turnovers in the first half. That number ballooned to 20 at the end of the night. The Lakers aren’t a team to be turning the ball over against – James is too smart to let such mistakes go unpunished. Davis can only be held down for so long – give him opportunities to get back into the game, and he will do so.

Give this Lakers defense chances to capitalize on fumbles, and they will make sure to translate those into 29 points off turnovers. Turnovers and fouling – the Warriors were in the penalty at the 9:17 mark of the third quarter – allowed the Lakers to go on a 35-24 third-quarter run to close the gap.

The Warriors fought to keep their advantage – Curry was brought in earlier than usual in the fourth quarter and made big shots – but the Warriors could not veer away from their turnover habit. James and Davis – both of whom combined to score 11 points on 3-of-19 shooting from the field – woke up like sleeping giants, smelling the blood and eventually going for the kill.

James finished with a triple-double: 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. Davis put up a double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds. As the game progressed, Davis was eventually shifted to the center position, a move that paid off on switches and pick-and-rolls, even when defended by Green. 

The supporting cast did just enough – Schroder and Wesley Matthews drilling big shots, as well as excellent defense being displayed by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso.

Caruso, in particular, forced a turnover on Curry that led to free throws for Davis:

Instead of a possible five or six-point cushion, the turnover by Curry gave the Lakers an extra possession, leading to free throws for Davis due to the Warriors being too slow to get back on defense.

Such mistakes came back to haunt the Warriors. With the game tied at 100-all – and despite what seemed like perfect defense to force a highly inefficient shot that could’ve been turned to a game-winning possession on the other end – James hit the shot that finally put the Warriors down for good.

The Warriors could not have played the possession any better. James tries to force the switch onto Curry, but Curry hedges and recovers to prevent it from happening. The Lakers resort to a Caldwell-Pope screen-and-slip that is neutralized due to weak-side rotation from Green. Caldwell-Pope manages to find James on the kick-out.

With a 30-foot flick of a wrist from LeBron James, the Warriors’ chances at an upset collapsed. 

There were plenty of positives the Warriors should take from this game: Curry’s 37 points on an efficient 12-of-23 from the field, 6-of-9 on threes, and 69.8% true shooting – which meant the Warriors could count on their superstar when push comes to shove. Wiggins was a two-way stalwart, holding his own against James and finishing with 21 points on 10-of-18 shooting.

Draymond Green was as dominant on defense as he’s ever been, making Davis’ a living hell for most of the game. Green was near perfect on his help-side rotations and contests, and was as vocal as ever, keeping his troops on defense focused and ready to execute the defensive game plan.

But a loss like this stings. The Warriors had every chance to put the Lakers behind them, and instead must now look forward to another matchup with a dangerous Memphis Grizzlies team hungry for revenge.

The onus is on head coach Steve Kerr, as well as Curry, Green, and Kevon Looney – playoff veterans who have experienced both sides of the playoff emotional spectrum – to keep their young squad emotionally ready for the upcoming task at hand.

“This is what the playoffs are all about,” Kerr said. “Every game is hugely emotional, and you just have to respond one way or the other, whether you’re coming from a win or you’re coming off a loss.

“It’s all about leaving that one behind and getting ready for the next one.” –