Well, it’s here. Just as no one predicted when the season kicked off in December, the play-in tournament will feature a game between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, teams who have combined for four of the last six NBA titles, with their faces of the franchise combining for five of the last six championships.
If the Warriors win, they book a trip to the first-round of the playoffs, where they’ll face the Phoenix Suns. If they lose, they’ll play a second play-in game on Friday against the winner of the game between the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies.
Who: Golden State Warriors (39-33) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (42-30)
When: 7:00 p.m. PT
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, California
TV: ESPN (available on fuboTV)
Projected starting lineups:
Warriors: Stephen Curry, Kent Bazemore, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney
Lakers: Dennis Schröder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond
Warriors: Beat the Grizzlies 113-101 — 5-0 in their last 5 games
Lakers: Beat the 110-98 — 5-0 in their last 5 games
Team ratings (garbage-time adjusted, per Cleaning The Glass):
Warriors: 111.0 offense (21st), 110.6 defense (5th), +0.4 net (15th)
Lakers: 110.8 offense (23rd), 108.0 defense (2nd), +2.8 net (8th)
Damion Lee — OUT
Kelly Oubre Jr. — OUT
James Wiseman — OUT
Klay Thompson — OUT
LeBron James — PROBABLE
Anthony Davis: QUESTIONABLE
Do we really need a story here? It’s Steph Curry vs. LeBron James. It’s Draymond Green vs. LeBron James. It’s the Warriors vs. the defending champions. It’s win and you’re in, lose and you’re on the brink of elimination.
The Warriors may have had their sights set higher than the play-in tournament, and the Lakers may have had their sights set much higher than the play-in tournament, but here they both are. The stakes don’t get much higher in first games of the postseason than this.
Both teams know what they’re fighting for. Both teams will bring it.
Players to watch
Warrior to watch: Stephen Curry.
The Warriors finished the season 37-26 in games that Curry played in. He scored 40 or more points on 11 occasions, and the Warriors went 9-2 in those games.
Against a team sporting LeBron James, Curry has a very good chance to be the best player on the court. Not many people can say that — now, or ever. Nikola Jokić will win MVP, and he deserves to. But I would posit that, as the postseason gets started, Curry is the best player alive.
The Warriors may be underdogs, but they have a few ways to win this game. The clearest path, by far, lies in Curry doing Curry things.
Laker to watch: LeBron James.
I’m not going to get cute with these picks. Sure, Dennis Schröder and Andre Drummond could swing the game, as could Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins and Juan Toscano-Anderson. But let’s keep it real. This game revolves around four players: Curry and James first and foremost, and two others that we’ll get to in a second. You know who they are.
Just as Curry is one of the only players in the world with a good chance of outplaying James on any given night, James is one of the only players in the world with a good chance of outplaying Curry. And if you wanted to make the claim that it is James, not Curry who is currently the best player alive, I’m not going to waste any energy arguing with you.
James was considered an MVP favorite by many before he suffered an injury that derailed his and the Lakers seasons. He only played 45 games, but he averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game, with rejuvenated defense that, on more than one occasion, drew the highest of praises from Steve Kerr.
Just as Curry can single-handedly win a game, so too can James.
Matchup to watch: Draymond Green vs. Anthony Davis.
Curry and James may be 1A, but Green and Davis are a helluva 1B, and their matchup just might determine the game. Can Draymond keep AD from exploding on offense? Davis is averaging 21.8 points per game, but his efficiency has not been great this year, as his true-shooting percentage is 55.6% — for reference, league average is 57.2%, and Andrew Wiggins is 56.8%.
But we all know that Davis can erupt on any given night, and Green will be the primary person tasked with keeping that from happening. On the other end of things, Davis remains one of the league’s elite defenders, capable of protecting the rim and switching onto smaller players. Can Dray get out in transition and limit AD’s defensive impact? Can he be aggressive enough offensively that Davis isn’t able to just spend all of his defensive time focused on Curry? And can he help keep Davis — who is having a slightly lackluster year rebounding — off the glass?
The answers to those questions could decide who wins.
Keys to victory
- Steph Curry store 40+ points and control the game
- Make being the smaller team an advantage instead of a disadvantage, either by pushing in transition or being defensively aggressive
- Players not named Steph Curry make a lot of threes
- Disciplined defense on LeBron James and Anthony Davis — don’t foul, and don’t get eaten alive by the pick and roll
It’s a winnable game, Dubs. And what a win it would be.