The Lakers' recipe, stretched to its limits, saved by a master chef
This is how L.A. wins.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
An Interior After Dinner, Claude Monet
Stellar defense with an offense reliant on two giant stars making magic happen given superior size and skills. This was the L.A. Lakers’ recipe to winning a championship last season. And it was their recipe again to beat the Warriors in an instant-classic play-in game on Wednesday.
Sure, Golden State poked and prodded at that recipe, and the Lakers had to stretch it to its absolute limit. The defense suffocated the Warriors’ middling offense on the whole, with only Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins having strong nights. That the Warriors scored just 100 with Steph getting an efficient 37 is indicative of a total team defense that, while it did sell out on Curry at every chance, didn’t just let other Warriors beat them. Sending bodies at Curry doesn’t have to mean leaving other shooters open if you rotate hard enough and invest in the cause. The Lakers have been invested in defense since the days Frank Vogel and Anthony Davis arrived. That’s never an issue.
The Lakers’ defense saved the game for them in the third quarter by pressuring the ball and darting hands into the passing lanes. That resulted in eight Golden State turnovers, six of them from Draymond Green and Curry. If the Warriors played in the third quarter like they had in the first half, this game would have been a blow-out going in the fourth quarter. There’s a non-zero chance that the Lakers would have preserved LeBron, who was said to be on a minutes limit that everyone seemed to disregard when it mattered, for the second play-in game on Friday. Instead, it was a 2-point game.
The Warriors’ defense is pretty damn good itself, anchored by someone who should be first team All-Defense in Green. The broadcasters shared during the game that per tracking data no human has defended Davis more possessions in the NBA than Green, a fascinating factoid that makes complete sense when you hear it. Green is in A.D.’s brain on that end of the floor, and it wasn’t really until late in the game that Davis found his rhythm and started hitting outside shots with confidence. Defense got the Lakers to the point where the game was in reach, and Davis lingered long enough to make a real offensive difference in the end.
In the first half, Davis was 2/12 from the floor with three turnovers. Green was in his shirt and his head. In the second half, Davis was 8/12 from the floor with zero turnovers. This is what superstar offensive talents can do. Meanwhile, Green was almost as bad on offense as he was good on defense, scoring just 2 points on 0/5 shooting, nearly matching his eight assists with six turnovers. For as many times as he made the Lakers’ defense pay for sending bodies at Steph but using his considerable basketball brain to pick apart the mismatches from there, he forced a pass that had no chance of getting through or dribbled into trouble.
If the Warriors’ recipe for success is similar to that of the Lakers, Steph did his part. Steve Kerr cooked up some side dishes to run Dennis Schroder off the floor late by clearing a side in quasi-transition and letting Curry loose. Vogel eventually responded by pulling Schroder — whose offense is often vital to the L.A. attack — and letting Alex Caruso and Wes Matthews handle the job of harassing Steph. Curry still had 11 points on 4/7 shooting with one turnover in the fourth. He is undefendable. There is nothing any defense can do to ice him. If the Lakers couldn’t do it in a game in which only Wiggins was a consistent threat, no one can do it.
And then there is LeBron.
For someone just returning from injury, his defense was on point. He gets the benefit of no-calls on that end, has his whole career. He takes advantage of that fact by being physical at the rim and when less-than-deft dribblers come within reach. The offense started slow, real slow. In fact, the lack of sizzle from LeBron (6 points on 1/7 shooting in the first half), Davis (5 points on 2/12 shooting at the half) and Schroder (2 points on 1/9 shooting in the first half) was totally alarming. The spacing looked off, there was no rhythm to the attack, there were few easy looks, there looked to be little urgency or trust. It looked like an offense that hasn’t played together much lately!, which of course it hasn’t.
LeBron of course came alive late because this is LeBron, this is a playoff game no matter what the NBA says, this is the bright lights and the attention and it’s Steph Curry and the Warriors on the other side of the ball, this is a chance for another historic feat, to rise from the hated and amazing play-in tournament to the NBA championship maybe, this is legend-making, this is mythology development, this is lore-building and you can’t hit a game-winner if your team is already ahead can you?
LeBron James, claiming he can’t even see after being inadvertantly poked in the eye by Draymond Green, hitting the go-ahead three from 34 feet over Stephen Curry as the shot clock expires with less than a minute to go in a high-pressure game. The perfect ingredient.
The recipe still works. The Warriors are a heckuva team, and should Golden State beat Memphis again on Friday, the two teams we saw in this battle will give the top two West seeds a few nightmares if not a series loss.
If Warriors-Lakers was a hint at what’s in store for the West playoffs, we’re in for an amazing two months. If not, at least we banked one classic already this postseason.
Spurs 96, Grizzlies 100 — This was also a slugfest with Memphis limiting the Spurs to 35% shooting from the floor. San Antonio stayed in it on account of its own defense, protecting the ball, crashing the offensive glass (a rarity for a Popovich team) and some big shots from Rudy Gay. But Memphis held on to win, and it has a shot at revenge against the Warriors on Friday, winner gets the Jazz and loser goes home. Fare thee well, dear Spurs, who have now missed back-to-back postseasons for the first time in literally forever, which is a really long time.
All times Eastern. Just one game in each league, tipping at the same time.
Pacers at Wizards, 8, TNT — winner plays the Sixers in the first round, loser goes home
Storm at Lynx, 8, NBA TV
In a season-closing press conference, Masai Ujiri was extremely open and clear about what will determine whether he signs a new contract with the Raptors this offseason. Is it an exaggeration to say that barring any All-Star caliber players demanding a trade or surprise opt-outs, Ujiri’s decision will be the biggest made in the NBA this summer? I think it’s Bradley Beal 1, the Warriors deciding what to do with the Minnesota pick and James Wiseman 2, Ujiri 3. Maybe I’m overreacting, though.
This docuseries on Ja Morant’s rookie season and everything surrounding it looks interesting.
And finally: this is just amazing. The Utah Jazz committed to giving a full four-year college scholarship to a Utah high student from an unrepresented group for every win this season. And they recruited the players to help share the news with the first 30 recipients. So great.
Be excellent to each other.