Can you believe it’s been almost five years since the last time Steph Curry and LeBron James faced each other in a seven-game series?
So much has happened since then. The Golden State Warriors dynasty looked like it was on its last legs after Kevin Durant left for the Brooklyn Nets and Klay Thompson was sidelined for two years due to lower leg injuries. But it was rejuvenated by a trade for Andrew Wiggins, the rise of Jordan Poole, and key role-player acquisitions that boosted the team’s depth and provided the core with the requisite supporting cast for a title.
But most of all, it was Curry — entering his mid-thirties — not slowing down one bit and continuing to flash his MVP form, all while entering the pantheon of basketball’s all-time greats on his way to a fourth championship.
Meanwhile, James found his way to the Los Angeles Lakers, who exchanged youth development for win-now pieces which resulted in the acquisition of Anthony Davis. In Davis, James had the perfect partner with which to acquire another championship — his fourth.
Curry and James faced each other once during this five-year period in the postseason: the first edition of the play-in tournament in 2021, in which James edged Curry in a tightly contested affair.
But this upcoming Western Conference Semifinals series will be the first bona-fide playoff series the two will be involved in since the 2018 NBA Finals. It will also be the first non-Finals series between the two.
It seemed as if the NBA’s megastars — who can credit most of their fame (and infamy) to their battles with each other over the last decade — would never meet in a high-stakes playoff environment ever again. The Warriors’ successes has never really coincided with the Lakers’ successes; when one team was considered elite, the other toiled in the doldrums of the West.
The megastars with the top billing aren’t exactly at the absolute prime of their careers. Curry is 35, while James is 38. Curry’s style of play, attention to detail in terms of conditioning, and an emphasis on building functional strength have allowed him to flourish despite a slight decline in quickness and agility compared to his peak form, while James — once the beacon of durability — has accumulated injuries over the years and quite clearly isn’t the same athlete anymore. But his mind continues to be sharp, while the intelligent play that has defined his greatness still remains.
Curry’s core partners in crime are also much older than before. Thompson can still shoot the lights out, but the injuries haven’t allowed him to regain his form as a topnotch perimeter defender. Green is still an elite NBA defender — the league’s best one when locked in and motivated — but his physical and bruising style of play has sapped most of the athleticism he had in his twenties.
James has Davis by his side, who — despite a reputation (slightly overblown) of not being able to stay on the floor due to injuries — can be an all-world destroyer on the defensive end and an elite scoring threat on offense.
The supporting casts are of particular note. The Warriors’ core possess a blend of capable-to-elite wing defense in the form of Wiggins, Gary Payton II, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody. Donte DiVincenzo has emerged as a dependable utility guard, although he struggled in the first round against the Sacramento Kings. Poole has been mired in a season-long quagmire, to the chagrin of Warriors fans everywhere.
After a trade-deadline deal that sent away Russell Westbrook — a controversial figure in Lakers circles — the Lakers’ had completely new faces complementing James and Davis.
D’Angelo Russell was what James needed: someone who could share the ball-handling responsibilities while also being a scoring threat himself. Dennis Schroder also provided auxiliary scoring while being a pest of a defender against opposing primary creators. Malik Beasley was a gunslinging shooter who added a spacing element the Lakers have largely lacked this season.
Jarred Vanderbilt became Davis’ partner in crime on defense, a 6’8” wing with a 7’1” wingspan whose defensive versatility — he can act as a roamer, on-ball defender, and helper — boosted the Lakers’ half-court defense. Rui Hachimura was another wing whose mid-range chops was a welcomed addition to the Lakers’ offensive arsenal.
Before the trade deadline, the Lakers had a 25-30 record, good for only 13th in the Western Conference at the time. After the acquisitions of Russell, Schroder, Vanderbilt, Hachimura, and Beasley, the Lakers posted an 18-9 record that was good enough for a 7-seed regular-season finish and a play-in spot.
In those final 27 games, the Lakers were:
- 15th in offensive rating (115.3)
- 22nd in half-court offensive rating (98.2)
- 9th in transition offensive rating (133.4)
- 3rd in defensive rating (110.9)
- 4th in half-court defensive rating (96.2)
- 7th in transition defensive rating (121.9)
- 8th in net rating (plus-4.4)
Based on the numbers above, the Lakers did not bank heavily on efficient half-court offense, instead preferring to stifle teams defensively in the half court, force misses or turnovers, and win the possession game.
Whereas the Kings series told the tale of two teams who tried to outscore each other, this series between the Warriors and Lakers could be the complete opposite: that of two teams grappling in the mud in an effort to muck up each other’s attempts at scoring.
Projected starting lineups
|Steph Curry||D'Angelo Russell|
|Klay Thompson||Austin Reaves|
|Andrew Wiggins||LeBron James|
|Draymond Green||Jarred Vanderbilt|
|Kevon Looney||Anthony Davis|
Relevant regular season team stats
|Offensive Rating||115.1 (10th)||113.9 (19th)|
|Half-Court Offensive Rating||101.0 (6th)||98.0 (19th)|
|Defensive Rating||113.4 (14th)||113.2 (12th)|
|Half-Court Defensive Rating||98.3 (18th)||97.0 (9th)|
|Effective Field-Goal Percentage||57.4% (3rd)||54.2% (18th)|
|Pace||102.54 (1st)||101.92 (4th)|
|Assist Percentage||69.1% (1st)||58.9% (20th)|
|Turnover Percentage||15.8% (29th)||13.7% (11th)|
|Free-Throw Attempts Per 100 Possessions||19.5 (30th)||25.9 (1st)|
|Free-Throw Percentage||79.4% (9th)||77.5% (20th)|
|Three-Point-Attempt Rate||47.9% (3rd)||35.1% (26th)|
|Three-Point Percentage||38.5% (2nd)||34.6% (25th)|
|Offensive Rebound Percentage||27.7% (16th)||26.9% (22nd)|
How will the Lakers defend the Warriors?
The Warriors met the Lakers four times during the regular season, which included Opening Night, a game the Warriors handily won. I feel like that game can safely be dismissed in this discussion since the personnel has massively changed since then.
Instead, let’s focus on the other three meetings that followed — all of which occurred after the trade deadline.
They’re still quite imperfect references. The first meeting after the deadline did not have Curry and James, both of whom were nursing injuries. The second meeting still did not have Curry and also did not have Wiggins, while James returned to the Lakers lineup. The third meeting was Curry’s return from a long injury absence, but the Lakers did not have James again and the Warriors still did not have Wiggins.
The Warriors lost all three of those post-deadline meetings. The lineups and rotations that Steve Kerr had to put out there due to injuries and absences aren’t going to be the same in this series — but there are glimpses as to how the Lakers will approach the Warriors’ offense.
One difference between this series and the one against the Kings is the most obvious: the Lakers have much more capable paint and rim protection.
Davis, in particular, was 17th in opponent rim field goal percentage (57.6%) among 51 players who played in a minimum of 49 games and who contested at least four shots at the rim per game, while also averaging two blocks.
In the playoffs, Davis has been a monstrous rim protector. He contests nearly nine shots at the rim per game and is only allowing a rim field goal percentage of 46.2%.
The Warriors’ best lineup — the one that outscored opponents by nearly 22 points per 100 possessions during the regular season and the Kings by 31 points per 100 possessions in the first round — have two bigs who are non-shooting threats. The Lakers have previously used this to their advantage by employing Davis as a roamer of sorts who virtually parks himself near the immediate vicinity of the rim — and therefore, allows him to wall off the inside and make it difficult for the Warriors to touch the paint, let alone get a layup.
Davis being able to roam and virtually make the paint his dominion also allows the Lakers’ off-ball defenders to top-lock (i.e., deny shooters from using screens by obstructing their path toward the screen). The natural counter to a top-lock — which is to cut backdoor — is also made difficult by the fact that Davis is hanging back in the paint, ready to intercept and/or send back any backdoor cutters.
Just look at how Davis (sagging off Green) and Troy Brown Jr. (sagging off Kuminga) are sitting back and crowding the paint, which makes it difficult for Poole to cut backdoor against Austin Reaves’ top-lock:
The Lakers’ default coverage with Davis will most likely be various levels of drop coverage, which does place pressure on the Lakers’ on-ball defenders to navigate and chase the likes of Curry and Thompson around screens in an effort to stay attached. Schroder and Reaves are decent enough at screen navigation and can be pesky and persistent.
However, it’s Russell who will be the target of the Warriors’ actions, both on and off the ball. Green and Looney are the foremost experts are making use of the negative space they generate by initiating a bunch of two-man handoff actions such as “Get” and various other give-and-go sequences to test a defender’s ability to keep up.
Russell will most certainly be tested:
As will every other defender tasked with staying in contact with Curry, who has the perfect blend of on-ball manipulation and off-ball chops to take advantage of deep drop coverage and defenders sagging off of handoff hubs.
Which comes into question: Who will guard Curry?
The obvious answer seems to be Schroder, but assuming he comes off the bench, either Reaves or Vanderbilt will have to handle the initial assignment. Reaves is physical, fights over screens, and actually does a decent job of staying in front.
On the other hand, Vanderbilt’s length can annoy Curry and close out his space in ways Reaves can’t. But his trouble will come on screen navigation; Vanderbilt still can’t capably slither his way around screens, shoot gaps, and recover in a timely manner when he falls behind, which will present problems especially if Davis is in drop coverage.
Even if Davis plays drop for a majority of the time, his incredible close-out speed coupled with monstrous length can discourage pull-up attempts in the blink of an eye:
The Warriors have flashed a couple of specific actions that specifically counter drop coverage, both against the Lakers and other teams. They can choose to run ‘55’ action which is their terminology for double-drag screens/double ballscreens. Within that same double-drag family of actions is ‘Oklahoma’ action, which is a double-drag followed by one screener setting a wide or pin-in screen for the other screener, who is typically a shooter.
The Warriors have had ‘Oklahoma’ in their bag for a while now, which is usually something they run for Thompson:
A counter that would totally come out of left field (considering the Warriors shy away from ballscreen-heavy concepts) would be trying out ‘Spain’ pick-and-roll action, which adds the element of a backscreener — typically a shooter — to the classic high ballscreen action. This is a counter to a drop because the big hanging back would find themselves being backscreened, which can either create a downhill lane for the ball-handler or allow the roll man to dive unimpeded.
The Warriors experimented with a heavy dose of ‘Spain’ action against the Milwaukee Bucks. Perhaps now’s a good time to try it out again?
WARRIORS SPAIN PNR THREAD— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) March 12, 2023
By my count, the Warriors ran Spain PnR a total of 11 times last night vs. the Bucks. Safe to say it's the most times they've used it during the Steve Kerr era.
First instance below gets them a corner 3 from JaMychal Green. pic.twitter.com/WKYeOmnQur
If the Warriors can get into a consistent offensive flow — constantly hitting the right notes in terms of their typical handoff actions, split cuts, 5-out ‘Delay’ sets, etc. — and are able to use the Lakers’ drop/cheat-off defense against them, the Lakers will have lots of trouble keeping track of movement shooting and the cuts/opportunistic rim attempts it generates.
But against someone who has a legitimate argument for being the best defender in the world, those are easier said than done.
How will the Lakers attack the Warriors?
While the Lakers aren’t a particularly good half-court offense, they still do have some actions in the half court that aim to get their best players to their preferred spots.
They’ve got the typical ‘HORNS’ actions, wide pindowns, ‘Stagger Away’ (staggered screens for a shooter coming from the corner), and a few actions that are initiated from the high post (‘Elbow’ action). ‘Chicago’/’Zoom’ action (interchangeable terms for what is basically a pindown flowing into a dribble handoff) has also allowed Davis to occasionally act as a handoff hub.
As for high ballscreen coverages, the Warriors may be fine with traditional drop against the likes of Russell and Schroder. If ballscreens are set near the sideline/wing, the Warriors have been employing ‘ICE’/’Weak’ coverage, which involves the on-ball defender jumping out in between the ball-handler and screener in an attempt to deny usage of the screen and force the ball-handler against the sideline (or toward their weak hand, hence ‘Weak’ coverage).
Playing drop has the explicit purpose of keeping screen-and-roll actions strictly two-on-two contests, without the need for anyone else on defense to rotate and help. But the Warriors — by design, apparently — seem to help on drives and rolls from both corners despite having their bigs drop back.
If corner shooters aren’t knockdown specialists, they can get away with help from those points of the floor. But it’s still highly risky, especially against a crafty pick-and-roll passer in Russell, who can recognize ‘single tag’ situations (the weak-side corner defender coming over to ‘tag’ the roll man to help the dropping big) and kick out a pass to the corner shooter left open.
The Lakers were a middling team in terms of pick-and-roll ball-handler frequency (16.9% of possessions) and efficiency (0.88 points per possession, 24th). The frequency of pick-and-roll possessions finished by the roll man (6.6%, sixth) was much higher relative to the rest of the regular season field, with efficiency (1.27 PPP) that was only bested by the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks. This makes a ton of sense considering the presence of Davis, who is an elite lob threat and finisher on pick-and-rolls.
One pick-and-roll variant, in particular, was a Lakers favorite: double-drag action, which by definition are two staggered ballscreens set by trailing players. Double-drag is also an interchangeable term with double ballscreens, which are pretty much the same except without the element of the screeners trailing behind in transition.
Double-drag is a simple but effective action that may force the Warriors to pick between several poisons, including the ‘single tag’ situation mentioned above.
1. Double Drag— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) April 2, 2023
The Lakers have used this more than any set this season, and that has continued post-ASB trades.
Check out a full series breakdown here: https://t.co/fx4Jc6D3yi pic.twitter.com/M8hMHxCuoI
Double-drag is commonly run with two shooters on the corners, which provides the spacing element and opens the lane for a drive from the ball-handler or a dive from the roll man. But if a corner is emptied — something the Lakers like to do — defenders are put in a tough spot trying to defend the action: Do you stick to the ball-handler? Or do you hang back and prevent the dump or lob to the roller?
Which was a dilemma the Memphis Grizzlies had to constantly face during their first round series against the Lakers:
If you’re Ja Morant here, you’re in a bit of a pickle. You can’t help on the Davis roll since Reaves, the first screener, is a spacing threat. That leaves Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman against Russell and Davis with no help from the empty corner.
The possession above is one the Warriors will most probably highlight on film sessions, where the emphasis must be on timely screen navigation and help from the weak-side low man so that the dropping defender can capably play the middle ground (something that Green excels at, even without help). Help at the ‘nail’ (the area approximating the middle of the free-throw line) is something the Warriors like to do to slow middle penetration, although that leaves them vulnerable to shooters on the wing or ‘stampede’ cuts from James.
If pick-and-roll actions involve James and Davis, the Warriors will most likely switch, with Wiggins on Davis and Looney or Green on James. This is a matchup that is favorable for both James and Davis, but more so for Davis, who can get his on either block against anyone especially against shorter wings who can’t match him in size and strength.
However, unlike Domantas Sabonis, Davis is more of a finesse operator rather than relying on brute force, which allows him to be more of a dynamic scorer. Davis can choose to post up and employ a variety spins, turnaround fades, and jump hooks that are effective due to an unholy combination of length and touch.
Davis can either go straight up into a low-post isolation, or off of an action the Lakers like the run for him that involves a ‘Wedge’ screen, which is a screen angled diagonally set by a guard near the high-post/elbow area that either forces a switch or gets Davis into good post position:
Another action the Lakers to run for Davis: ‘Thunder’ screens, which are downscreens set at or near the block for Davis to curl into the paint. These are typically set by a guard, which makes it difficult for teams since a switch is out of the question, while fighting over the screen is an unusual situation for Davis’ defenders since they are bigs.
But even without the aid of actions and half-court sets, Davis’ ability to put the ball on the floor, face up, and score in a variety of ways is going to be tough for the Warriors to handle.
Finally, something important that must be mentioned. The Lakers led the league in free-throw attempts per 100 possessions, while the Warriors were dead last in that category while also sending opponents to the free-throw line at a high rate (opponents garnered 24.4 free-throws per 100 possessions against them — 23rd).
If the Warriors find themselves in foul trouble early on and facing a free-throw disparity, the mountain they’ll have to climb is going to much, much steeper.
Who will round out the rotation?
Unlike the first round where Kerr had to rely on a much shorter rotation than what was expected, he will most probably extend his rotation especially in terms of defending James.
Poole (who has been struggling and really needs to avoid being outplayed by the likes of Reaves and Schroder in this series) is going to be the backup ball-handler, shot creator, and decision maker behind Curry, although his decision making hasn’t been all that good lately.
DiVincenzo struggled in the first round with his shooting, although he did make an impact in certain spots through hustle rebounds and defensive effort. The Lakers present less of a threat in terms of guard play, but DiVincenzo will still be needed as a secondary ball-handler and point-of-attack defender.
Gary Payton II is a given considering his elite ball pressure and ability to act as a virtual big on offense through screen setting and dunker-spot relocations. The Lakers will definitely cheat off of him to crowd the paint — and while Payton is no Green or Looney in terms of being a handoff hub, he can moonlight as one if the situation calls for it.
Moses Moody had valuable minutes in the first round and deserves to prove he belongs on the court this series.
The interesting addition to this rotation is Kuminga, who did not see minutes toward the tail end of the Kings series. He was lost in the fast-paced nature of series and was unable to keep up with the Kings’ blazing guard play, while also not showing the requisite effort on the boards to justify his minutes — which is probably why Kerr nailed him to the bench.
This series should prove to be more of Kuminga’s forte, especially when he’s tasked to defend James in spurts. Wiggins will handle the majority of the defensive reps, but Kuminga will most certainly be called upon to act as a stopgap measure for when Wiggins need to rest. Kuminga profiles as someone who can at least annoy this version of James, who isn’t as spry and athletic but still has the size and brawn to power his way toward the rim on drives and post-ups.
But the concern with Kuminga in this series isn’t on defense — it’s on the other end of the floor, where the Lakers have previously shown an outright disdain for guarding him on the perimeter:
If Kuminga’s to stay on the floor, he must make himself useful on offense: as a handoff hub, screener, and advantage creator through rim pressure and cuts.
My prediction of who will round out the rotation:
- Jordan Poole
- Donte DiVincenzo
- Gary Payton II
- Moses Moody
- Jonathan Kuminga
X-factors: Kevon Looney and Draymond Green
Looney and Green will handle the Davis assignment in this series — Looney in traditional lineups, Green in small-ball lineups.
Green has had success in the past in trying to contain Davis, with an extensive knowledge bank of his tendencies and preferred spots. But what separates the elite from the very good is how they manage to find ways to score despite the presence of a good defender and good team defense. Davis certainly fits that bill.
Looney will have to adjust from defending a non-shooting threat such as Sabonis to someone with a more diverse scoring skill set. Davis has a floater/push shot in his arsenal and can knock down mid-range jumpers. His three-point shot has declined since the bubble (from 33% on 3.5 attempts in the 2019-2020 season to 26% on 1.3 attempts this season), so if he decides to shoot those, the Warriors will be more than happy to live with the result.
Looney may also have a harder time getting himself in position to get rebounds since he will be making more of a concerted effort to defend in one-on-one situations. If the Lakers zero in on that fact, the Warriors will have to gang rebound to prevent the other Lakers from crashing the offensive boards.
I expect this series to be much different — and in several ways, much tougher — than the Kings series. Even if the Warriors aren’t facing a younger team trying to outrun them on every single possession, they will be faced with a team that’s bigger, more physical, and presents more of a frontcourt challenge.
Davis has been playing like a possessed man on defense and has a legitimate argument for the best defender in the world, which Green probably has something to say about. James can still be the LeBron of old when the moment calls for it, and the motivation of besting his most storied rival in Curry could be enough for him to forget that he’s 38-years old for a prolonged stretch.
It’s also tough to bet against the Warriors core of Curry, Green, and Thompson, who have not lost a series when all three are healthy and present. They also have a streak going of 28 consecutive playoff series with at least one win on the road, so there’s that. If the pattern continues, they’ll win one game in Los Angeles — which is enough for them to win the series if they manage to protect home court.
This isn’t going to be easy for the Warriors. But it’s tough to bet against them. As Thompson once said, I won’t stop believing this core’s ability to win games until someone knocks them off for good.
I won’t stop believing now.
Warriors in 7
As of this writing, the Warriors are 4.5-point favorites to win Game 1, with the total being 228. I actually think it may be much closer than that, with the game being a low-scoring affair due to two teams trying to stifle each other on offense. Do you think the Warriors will win Game 1? I think they will.
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