LeBron James vs Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, a rivalry dating back almost a decade, opens a new chapter Tuesday night in the Bay Area as the Lakers and Warriors battle in the Western Conference Semi Finals.
Though James’ Cavaliers and the Warriors last met in the NBA Finals in 2018, there are still remnants from those four straight finals battles. The dynamic has certainly cooled, with James and Green becoming close friends, and James, Curry and Green even posing for a photo at Green’s wedding this past summer. But for James, in particular, beating the Warriors means something extra. In this series, there are basically 12 Dillon Brookses on the other side. But with a respect level built over the past decade.
The Lakers and Warriors have been on each other’s turf, to some extent, for years. A series between the two has felt inevitable. Golden State has been the glamour franchise of the past decade, having stolen some of Los Angeles’ juice as the league’s most marketable team. James and Curry are the two preeminent stars of the past decade (and longer). They aren’t just battling each other — Curry holds a 3-1 edge head-to-head in the playoffs — but they’re battling to cement their place in the NBA pantheon. This is the league’s dream playoff series.
Both teams can feel good about their chances too, considering styles make fights and these two teams play different brands of basketball.
For the first time in maybe forever LeBron James isn’t being relied on to carry every aspect of his basketball team. And for the first time in the head to head battle, LeBron and Curry are playing on an even playing field. No stacked star power, no injures to speak of. Just straight hoops and history on the line.
Something has to give, so let’s break things down.
Lakers Biggest Question: How to contain Curry?
Fresh off his NBA-record 50-point-performance in Game 7, Curry is obviously atop the Lakers’ defensive game plan. But let’s zoom out for a moment.
The most interesting part of this series is going to be the Lakers’ defense versus the Warriors’ offense. Defending Golden State is a stylistic 180 for Los Angeles after matching up against Memphis for six consecutive games. Golden State’s movement, passing, screening and shooting are eons better than Memphis’. It’s going to make for a considerable adjustment for the Lakers in the first couple of quarters, if not games.
Three of the Warriors’ 15 worst offensive efficiency games this regular season came against the Lakers. All three came after the trade deadline, which is the big demarcation point of the Lakers season, when they turned Russell Westbrook into Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and D’Angelo Russell, remaking their rotation in a sharper way.
With Curry specifically, the Lakers will mix up their looks. Jarred Vanderbilt, Austin Reaves and Dennis Schröder will each spend time as his primary matchup. But defending Curry is a five-person effort. Each defender has to be aware of his whereabouts on the floor at all times.
A sliver of space — and sometimes even less — is all Curry needs to kill you. The Lakers are going to have to alter their drop defense, with their bigs playing higher up and closer to the level of the screen. They might occasionally blitz or trap, but that triggers four-on-three scenarios the Warriors have dominated for years.
When teams start to overplay Curry for his shot, he’ll surprise them and cut backdoor if he senses a defense is unsuspecting.
Each potential Lakers defender on Curry has certain strengths. Vanderbilt is long and athletic, capable of disrupting Curry’s shot creation. Schröder is best at the point of attack. Reaves is most effective chasing Curry around screens and off-ball actions.
Davis will start on Looney, while James will likely guard Green so he can roam. They’ll both sag off the Warriors’ bigs and hang back in the paint, while being mindful of the Warriors’ many counters to exploit that initial coverage. The other three matchups will depend on how the Lakers prioritize Curry, Andrew Wiggins and Thompson. The guess here is the Lakers will start with Vanderbilt on Curry, Reaves on Thompson and D’Angelo Russell on Wiggins.
The Lakers are great at defending the paint because of Davis’ defensive brilliance, James’ help instincts and the collective length and physicality of players like Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura. They’re not as effective in limiting 3s. While the Lakers allowed the second-lowest opponent 3-point percentage this season, there is some noise in that stat, with shooting luck playing a factor. The potentially more important stats for this series: The Lakers allowed the 10th-most opponent 3-pointers made and sixth-most opponent 3-pointers attempted per game.
Conversely, the Warriors ranked first in 3-pointers made and attempted and second in percentage. The Warriors’ propensity for generating 3s — led by Curry — and the Lakers’ vulnerability in giving them up could be a swing factor, especially when factoring in that the Lakers don’t have nearly the same level of 3-point firepower, nor do they take as many.
With Curry, it’s not just about his points, his 3s, even his assists. It’s about the chain reaction of his presence. The threat of Curry’s shooting bends a defense until it breaks. Then, the Warriors capitalize with layups, cuts and open catch-and-shoot 3s.
It’s impossible to stop Curry, but the Lakers have the personnel to somewhat slow him down. If they can do so four times in seven games, they’ll have a reasonable chance to win the series. If not, the Lakers could find themselves in shootouts they’re incapable of winning.
Warriors Biggest Question: Are Green and Looney capable of defending Davis one on one?
In Looney and Green, the Warriors have two defenders they’ll feel comfortable using to hang with Davis one-on-one in the post and in isolations. Golden State will show Davis a crowd on the backline, with two or three defenders ready in the paint in case he drives. But Looney and Green, like Xavier Tillman in the Grizzlies series, have low centers of gravity and strong base to bang with Davis.
Davis went off for 39 points in the most recent matchup, hitting 14 of his 25 shots with James sidelined due to injury. But the Warriors limited Davis to a combined 25 points on 8-of-24 shooting in the two other matchups after the trade deadline, with Green and Looney both disrupting him at times.
Golden State tends to turn Davis into a jump shooter. In their four matchups, the Warriors limited him to 40 percent shooting in the paint outside of the restricted area and 33.3 percent on midrange jumpers.
Green has historically been the best Davis defender in the NBA, though Davis scored 24 points on 9-for-19 shooting (47.4 percent) in this regular season, according to NBA.com. Looney was technically the more effective defender in the 2022-23 regular season, limiting Davis to 35 points on 14-of-32 shooting (43.8 percent), per NBA.com.
Davis can shoot over the top of Green and Looney, since he has the size advantage over either. He was at his best in the regular season matchups when finishing in the pick-and-roll and when he had space to face up and take them off the dribble.
Davis can’t be passive, as he was during the matchup on Feb. 23. In that game, he only attempted five shots, his fewest in a game this season. With James seemingly still not at 100 percent after his foot injury, the Lakers will need Davis to be even better and more consistent offensively than he was against Memphis. A dominant Davis could make this a short series in Los Angeles’ favor.
Lakers X-Factor: Lakers backcourt
When facing off against arguably the greatest backcourt in NBA history, your backcourt most hold its own both offensively and more importantly defensively.
This will be the most challenging series the Lakers guards will play all postseason even if they advance.
There isn’t a clear player for Russell to guard in this series. He shouldn’t defend Curry — at least not with Vanderbilt, Reaves and Schröder available. Thompson and Wiggins are big and strong enough to post Russell up and simply turn and shoot over him, even if that outcome is better than some of the alternatives with the Warriors offense. Matching Russell up with Looney or Green would allow the Lakers to be nimble in dribble-handoff actions, switching Russell onto Curry, Thompson and Jordan Poole in a pinch, but those two bigs would obliterate Russell on the offense glass.
Russell will likely start against Thompson or Wiggins, depending on which Warrior second option the Lakers fear more.
That will open up the Warriors to target Russell with screens, post-ups and off-ball actions. Golden State has a track record of playing defensive liabilities off of the floor. Russell isn’t quite at that level — he’s held up fairly well in the Lakers’ elite defensive infrastructure — but he can certainly be exploited, especially by the Warriors’ perimeter trio.
On the other end, Russell is the Lakers’ streakiest shooter. When he’s hot, his ceiling is high, as he showed in Game 6 against the Grizzlies. In the case that one of these games turns into a shootout, the Lakers are going to need Russell to match Curry or Thompson, if only briefly. The Lakers are going to need Russell locked in defensively to keep himself on the floor and bolster their offense. If he’s unplayable, that shifts pressure onto either Reaves or Schröder to provide more offensively than they typically do.
This is the type of series that will go a long way in determining Russell’s next contract and value in free agency.
As for Reaves, he emerged as arguably the 3rd best player on the team. His combo guard skills allows LeBron to pace himself throughout the game, which will be vital going forward. Reaves will have to match the output of either Thompson or Poole in every game this series.
Schröder may see more playing time in this series than he did in round one for one reason, his annoying pesky defense on Curry and Poole. If he can be effective in his minutes the Lakers can feel good about their chances.
Warriors X-Factor: Kevon Looney
Looney is going to be a problem in this series. His offensive rebounding, screening and dribble-handoff capabilities are key ingredients to the Warriors’ offensive attack.
He’s often an afterthought for opposing defenses — teams have to give something up — which he uses to his advantage. It’s demoralizing to play 20 seconds of stellar defense, force a Warriors miss and watch as Looney corrals an offensive board to kick out to Curry, Thompson or Poole for an uncontested 3 that swings the momentum of a game.
Looney just had three 20-rebound games in the Kings series. If Davis is rotating to put out fires on the perimeter, Looney will feast on the interior and make the Lakers pay for leaving him. The Lakers’ guards and wings have their work cut out for them wrestling Looney inside.
If not, Looney may turn this series on its head like he did in Sacramento.
Deciding X-Factor: Transition defense vs offense
The Warriors have a much better offense than the Lakers do. They have better shooting and ball movement. They have more firepower. But one of their few weaknesses is their longstanding proclivity for turnovers. Golden State ranked 29th in turnover percentage in the regular season. The Lakers need to exploit that. The problem, however, is that Los Angeles ranked 29th in opponent turnover percentage this season and only jumped up to 27th after the trade deadline.
Both teams like to play fast, ranking in the top four in pace in the regular season. But that doesn’t always translate to transition play in the playoffs. The Lakers were fourth in the regular season in fast-break points and are first in the postseason. The Warriors were 13th in the regular season and are 15th in the playoffs.
One major difference between the Warriors and Grizzlies is Golden State’s tendency to shoot 3s in transition. The Lakers did a great job defending the paint in transition, can they do the same while also accounting for the pull up 3?
The transition points will likely decide each game in this series.
The Lakers need to find a way to negate the Warriors’ half-court advantage by generating easier looks off misses and turnovers. If the transition points are close to even, or in Golden State’s favor, the Lakers might not be able to score enough consistently.
Prediction: Lakers in 6
The Lakers won the season series 3-1, with all three of their wins coming after the trade deadline with their current group. But James missed two games. Curry and Wiggins missed two games. The Lakers’ new core wasn’t available in the first matchup. That alters the dynamic of those matchups, to some extent.
Unlike the last round, the Lakers don’t enter this series with the best player on the floor. James and Davis can each be the best player on a given night, or for the entirety of the series. But Curry is that guy until proven otherwise, based on his 2022-23 regular season and dominant opening-round performance vs. Sacramento.
As ridiculous as it sounds, there is a lot on the line in the James-Curry rivalry. As noted above, Curry holds the playoff edge 3-1. (One could say 3-2, depending on how the Play-In Tournament is counted.) But Curry also had a clear advantage in each of his three series wins. In 2015, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving sat out for all but one game. In 2017 and 2018, he had Kevin Durant as a teammate, making the Warriors nearly unbeatable when healthy. Nonetheless, a fourth win for Curry bolsters his all-time standing, while a James win renders his 2-3 deficit less substantial – even with one series victory coming outside of the NBA Finals. When two top-12, if not top-10 players of all time are facing off, the victor matters.
For as much of an adjustment as this will be for the Lakers going from the Grizzlies to the Warriors, the Warriors must deal with similar sticker shock in going from the fast-paced Sacramento Kings to the bigger Lakers.
The Warriors enter the series as favorites, but the Lakers are going to challenge them physically in ways the Kings could not. L.A. has two superstars with postseason pedigrees and previous success in the playoffs against the Warriors. James knows them as well as anyone. This series is a coin flip and feels more likely than not to go seven games.
But the Lakers were better in the head-to-head matchups, have posted the better record since the trade deadline and have two of the series’ three best players, even if they’re probably second and third. Despite lacking home-court advantage, the Lakers should have the slightest of edges.
If this went 7 games in either direction I wouldn’t be shocked. But I think the Lakers steal home court by splitting the first two games on the road, then close it out in LA in Game 6.
Lakers in 6.