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Warriors need to ask the correct questions — and find the right answers — against a top-locking and sagging Lakers defense

Lakers went in with a plan and executed it to near perfection.

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors - Game One Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This isn’t the Sacramento Kings anymore — that is, for sure, quite clear.

The number one difference — the most obvious one — is that Anthony Davis is a far superior player than Domantas Sabonis. Davis not only presents more of a dynamic offensive threat for the Golden State Warriors; he is a premier defender who changes the flow and tenor of an opponent’s half-court offense with his mere presence.

Davis finished with 30 points, 23 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks on 11-of-19 shooting and 66.6% TS. The amazing thing about his performance was his ability to maintain a high level of offensive production while providing elite anchoring on defense.

I wrote this in my series preview about the challenge Davis presents as a paint presence and rim protector:

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.

To be completely honest, anyone with a passable knowledge of how these two teams operate could’ve seen this gameplan by the Los Angeles Lakers coming. With the Warriors banking on a lineup that outscored opponents by nearly 22 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and the Kings by 31 points per 100 possessions in the first round, Steve Kerr — whose tendency to throw out lineups and personnel he deems dependable occasionally border on stubbornness — opted to start the two-big lineup of Kevon Looney and Draymond Green.

While no one can doubt that having Looney and Green on the floor adds more defense, rebounding (Looney had another 20-plus rebound game, his fourth of the playoffs), and stability, there are things the Warriors would be naturally giving up with both of them on the floor.

The most obvious commodity they’d be eschewing with such a lineup: spacing.

The Warriors have survived — thrived, even — with two-big lineups where none of them have ever been considered stretch threats. This has gone well against the natural direction of the NBA, where bigs who can stretch the floor are at a premium and having more than one non-shooter on the floor is too much of an offensive sacrifice.

For years, the Warriors have bucked the trend because having Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the team allows them to get away with it. But we might be seeing the bona-fide death of two non-shooting-big lineups in these playoffs.

Even the Looney-Green pairing had its shaky moments in the Kings series. In the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers failed to be effective with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley sharing the floor.

Kerr started Game 1 of this series with Looney and Green together. He may be forced to reduce their minutes as a duo — or outright abandon opening with it.

The Warriors simply have a much harder time getting into their typical motion flow if Davis is allowed to park himself in the paint, wait for audacious drives, and discourage them from taking the shot or blocking any attempts that come his way. He’s allowed to do this since the man he’s guarding — either Looney or Green — aren’t threats the further they are from the paint.

The one possession that stuck to me — and is perhaps the most indicative of the Lakers’ approach on defense — was this:

Pay close attention to how the Lakers were guarding Curry, Thompson, Looney, and Green:

Austin Reaves and Jarred Vanderbilt attach themselves to Thompson and Curry, respectively. Davis stays in the paint with Looney handling the ball (remember, the defensive three-second rule doesn’t apply if a defender is in the paint and is considered guarding the ball-handler, something that Looney and Green themselves have used to their advantage).

LeBron James is the low man on the weak side ‘guarding’ Green — but in reality, is showing help, cheating off, and ‘two-nining’ (a term for when an off-ball defender stays in the paint for as long as possible before stepping out and back in to reset the timer).

They eventually find Curry, but Vanderbilt chases him, funnels toward Davis, and blocks Curry’s shot attempt from behind.

A huge question going into this series was the Lakers’ approach to defending Curry — including the identity of his primary defender. The answer was Vanderbilt, whose 6’8” height and 7’1” wingspan was a natural foil to Curry, who depends on space creation to get his shots off.

In other words: the more space Curry has, the more dangerous he becomes. Vanderbilt made sure to take away as much space as possible, direct Curry toward the trees, and crowd his passing lanes toward release valves as much as possible:

The Davis and Vanderbilt duo has been a defensive gold mine for the Lakers in these playoffs. In seven games and 136 minutes, the Lakers have held the Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies to a combined 102.8 points per 100 possessions with this pairing on the floor — better than the Cavaliers’ league-leading defense during the regular season.

So, what can Kerr and the Warriors do to adjust? The obvious answer is to simply let Curry handle the ball more, run Vanderbilt around screens as much as possible, and test his ability to navigate them and the Lakers’ propensity for playing Davis in high drop coverage.

I get Kerr wanting to save that trump card as much as possible in order to preserve Curry and not tire him out, while also not giving the Lakers multiple chances to adjust to the coverage. Playing the long game is a proven strategy, but the Warriors can’t afford to cough up two losses at home against a Lakers squad that is more suited to pick at their weaknesses.

Drop-beating concepts should be on the table for the Warriors. This is what I wrote about one particular counter to drop coverage in the series preview:

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?

Kerr drew up a ‘Spain’ pick-and-roll set out of a timeout that put Vanderbilt’s screen navigation to the test. All things considered, Vanderbilt did a good job closing out, but the space created by the Spain action was enough for Curry to drill a three:

The Warriors never really asked Vanderbilt enough of this one particular question: Can you navigate screens and keep up with Curry for prolonged periods?

They asked that question in spurts using high ball-screen action against Davis’ drop:

And on quick-hitting ‘Get’ action, which involves Curry pitching to Green, chasing his pass, and getting the ball back on handoff action, which forces Vanderbilt to have to follow him around one or multiple screens:

The Warriors took away that valuable data point that hopefully will be useful in Game 2, while also considering the viability of a two-big lineup in this series. Will Kerr start small right away? Or at least, will he reduce the Looney-Green duo’s minutes? Will he put Green on Davis out of the gates?

Will the Warriors count on more Curry on-ball actions to help create looks and advantages born out of Davis being forced to step up higher and away from the paint?

Those are the salient tactical questions that must be asked of Kerr and the Warriors heading into a must-win Game 2.

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