The story of Game 3 — as it was in Game 1 — is once again going to be focused on the free-throw discrepancy between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers: a plus-20 on attempts for the Lakers (37-17) and a plus-16 on makes (28-12).
There’s no denying that the Lakers were rewarded — but credit must be given to them for forcing the issue and putting the officials in situations where they had to call fouls, which also had the side effect of slowing the game down to a crawl and not allowing the Warriors to get into a consistent rhythm, while also having a psychological effect of sowing frustration.
Slowing the game down to a rock fight and not allowing the Warriors to get into a rhythm is at the top of Warriors’ opponents’ scouting report — and the Lakers followed that assessment to a tee.
The Warriors also did not help themselves by turning the ball over so darn much (the Lakers scored 27 points off of the Warriors’ 19 turnovers). But that’s nothing new for a team that treads the thin line between organized chaos and — *waves hands wildly* — whatever this Game 3 performance was.
But it’s not like the Lakers didn’t do anything different. Seven-game series are battles of teams adjusting to each other’s chess moves. The Warriors were top-locked to death and funneled toward a dominant Anthony Davis defensive performance in Game 1; they responded in Game 2 by starting JaMychal Green — more of a spacing threat compared to Kevon Looney — and put the ball in Steph Curry’s hands in order to let him create firsthand chaos.
That was the overarching tactical shift that allowed the Warriors to blow the Lakers out in Game 2. But the Lakers responded with a blowout of their own in Game 3 — and while one specific tactical change didn’t have as much of an overt effect on tonight’s result, it did play a non-insignificant part in the Warriors’ offensive approach, or lack thereof.
I mentioned in my last article and on Twitter that having Jarred Vanderbilt defend Curry worked wonders in Game 1 because Vanderbilt’s height and length allows him to be a top-locking pest against an off-ball Curry.
But the troubles for him began whenever Curry started possessions with the ball in his hands and received a ballscreen. Vanderbilt isn’t a particularly good screen navigator; he is prone to getting caught in screens. If he does manage to slither past one, there’s just too much limb and torso that he has to carry around before being able to recover in a timely manner.
Something the Dubs had to do more in G2 was push the PnR button. Not only b/c "duh, it's Steph Curry" -- but also b/c they needed to test Vando's screen navigation more.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) May 5, 2023
Felt like the Lakers going to aggressive PnR coverages was partly due to Vando's inability to navigate.
Vanderbilt being unable to navigate screens also had the effect of drawing Davis out further away from the paint. It resulted in several possessions where Curry was able to thread pocket passes to Draymond Green in the short roll, where he sliced and diced the Lakers’ backline defense with layups, dunks, and passing reads to cutters and shooters.
Seeing this, the Lakers responded with a change in defensive assignments. Instead of Vanderbilt guarding Curry, he would shift over to guarding Draymond. Austin Reaves was tasked with defending Curry.
Why would the Lakers do that? Here’s why:
Reaves and Vanderbilt switch the Curry-Draymond screening action — which doesn’t allow the Warriors to generate a short-roll possession and keeps the Lakers out of rotation.
To be fair, the Warriors initially made the correct decision by having Davis’ man — JaMychal — set the screen. But Curry then tries to initiate give-and-go action (‘Get’ action) with Draymond, which allows Reaves and Vanderbilt to simply switch.
Curry tries to isolate, but the spacing on the weak side isn’t ideal, allowing Davis to show help behind Vanderbilt and block the Curry shot attempt.
I felt that after the Warriors saw this one possession, they shied away from Curry on-ball possessions and reverted back to generating off-ball looks for Curry — perhaps with the intention of getting their other players into a rhythm. That took the form of Draymond setting early pindowns and wide screens for Curry.
But Reaves and Vanderbilt switched those too:
In the particular instance above, Draymond sets a pin-in screen for JaMychal after setting the ballscreen for Curry. It was a good look — but JaMychal misses the shot. The same could be said for other shots he took tonight, especially in pick-and-pop situations.
With Davis tasked to guard him, it was up to JaMychal to fade behind the three-point line after setting screens and drill shots the Lakers were more than happy to give him. But that’s the risk of relying on a someone who was out of the rotation for most of the second half of the regular season — shots come and go when it comes to a role player such as him.
Early on in the first half, Davis was content with hanging back in a drop — ranging from the deep version that has him stationed in the paint to a relatively higher one that places him closer to the line but still noncommittal — against ballscreens for Curry and Klay Thompson.
Whether it was a decision by the coaching staff or something that Davis took it upon himself to change, he stopped dropping too far back against ballscreens (and off-ball wide pindowns) and started meeting shooting threats higher — up to the level of the screen.
With Draymond’s foul trouble, the Warriors were forced to count on Looney and JaMychal to be Curry’s screening partners.
Both of those options don’t have the same kind of short-roll potency that Draymond has. Looney is too slow to be a downhill force, while JaMychal’s tendency is to pop instead of roll; if those shots aren’t falling, his effectiveness as a ballscreener for Curry falls to zero.
It seemed as if the Warriors got discouraged too early by shying away from on-ball Curry possessions and letting a few missed shots and turnovers get to them. Pushing the pick-and-roll button for Curry — with or without Draymond on the floor — was always going to be the only surefire option for them to generate a consistent stream of advantages against a Davis-anchored defense.
But it was a night where the Warriors were psychologically and mentally outmatched. The fouls and the turnovers were the highlighted causes, but the tactical shifts the Lakers employed from the start played a huge part, as well.
The Warriors can respond in Game 4 in one of few ways, most of which take the form of lineup changes. They can shelve JaMychal and return Looney to the starting lineup — at the risk of falling into another Game 1 top-lock fest.
They can start Jordan Poole to stay small and keep Draymond at center. The Poole Party lineup played a huge role in the Warriors’ comeback efforts in Game 1, in which they closed the game with a 14-5 run. But the risk of diminishing returns — mostly because of the defensive pitfalls of the lineup — are huge.
Darvin Ham and the Lakers responded with an adjustment to the Warriors’ Game 2 adjustment. Steve Kerr has his work cut out for him this time in order to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole.