LeBron James is set to face off with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs for the fifth time, but the first as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers (excluding their wild play-in showdown).
The historical stakes, star power, storylines, and tactical questions are seemingly infinite. In terms of intrigue, the ceiling is the roof.
The Lakers’ greatest strengths are big-game experience from stars, mental fortitude, half-court defense, and LeBron in crunch-time. The Warriors’ greatest strengths are big-game experience from stars, mental fortitude, half-court offense, and Steph in crunch-time. Los Angeles can dominate inside, but the Warriors are superior on the perimeter. Steve Kerr is seasoned, Darvin Ham is not. Both sides are healthy.
“The experience that we have with LeBron and AD, obviously, gives us a good feel because they’ve been there, done that,” said Austin Reaves. “Bron’s obviously played against their core many a time in the Finals, regular season. He’s always locked in, preparing us for what we need to know.”
It’ll be the Lakers and Warriors’ first playoff matchup since 1991. It will be the buzziest second-round series ever. The NBA’s all-time scoring leader with four MVPs and four rings against the NBA’s all-time three-point leader with two MVPs and four rings. The King vs. the shooting king. Sheesh.
The Lakers have won 14 of their last 18 games. Steph is 15-7 against LeBron in the playoffs.
“One of the first things I learned about LeBron when we played him in the Finals was just how smart he was,” Kerr said. “Coming out of timeouts, he knew what we were doing. You take that into account. He knows our team. I do think this team is very different than those teams back then, but we do have some of the same tendencies and he’ll recognize those things.”
Let’s preview this epic clash via five overarching questions.
Key questions for Lakers vs. Warriors
5) Will non-basketball stuff play a role?
LeBron and Draymond Green have come a long way since the infamous nut-punch (weirdly in fashion during the 2023 NBA Playoffs) that likely cost the Warriors a title. LeBron and Draymond are close pals and fellow Klutch clients. They trade wine. Draymond goes on “The Shop” and daps LeBron up mid-game. Green wanted to bail on a road trip to witness LeBron break the scoring record.
LeBron James, who has obviously had many intense moments against Draymond Green, was asked when their relationship shifted to them becoming good friends: pic.twitter.com/DtWBLlsnDR
— Melissa Rohlin (@melissarohlin) May 1, 2023
The Lakers don’t really have enforcers. They prefer to stay above the fray. And yet, their series with the Memphis Grizzlies was defined by pettiness and trash talk — mostly from Memphis’ side … until it was over. Green was suspended for Game 3 vs. the Sacramento Kings for stomping on Domantas Sabonis.
Auxiliary behavior can’t be ruled out as a potential variable for the conference semifinals.
4) Who wins the turnover/transition battle?
The Lakers were bottom-five in the NBA at forcing turnovers. The Warriors cough it up as often as any team (their Game 7 victory over the Kings was the first time this season in which they committed fewer than 10 turnovers). The Dubs ranked 10th in points off turnovers, while the Lakers finished second in transition points. The Warriors were fourth in pace but were a middling transition-scoring team. Both teams own stout half-court defenses (the Lakers are superior), while the Warriors’ half-court offense is far more efficient.
“You can’t allow them to turn you over and get in transition — they’re as touch in transition as anybody is,” said Draymond.
In the past, LeBron has preferred to slow things down and dissect defenses in the playoffs, especially when facing Golden State. But, unlike his Cavs teams, these Lakers rely on running. Los Angeles will need to pounce on sloppiness and create as many easy buckets as possible. Get those 50/50 balls.
3) How will role players, adjustments, and rotations impact the series?
Kerr vs. Ham will be a fascinating matchup. Kerr is a proven master of overseeing a series. Ham was tepid with his Round 1 adjustments — he didn’t hone the rotation until Game 6, when Wenyen Gabriel got extra burn at the expense of Malik Beasley and Troy Brown Jr..
“It’ll be a chess match, as it always is,” said Draymond. “Steve Kerr is great in those. I always trust Steve in a chess match.”
As for the supporting cast, D’Angelo Russell may be the most important Lakers player not named LeBron or Anthony. Coming off a disastrous play-in game, DLo had an up-and-down Grizzlies series. He had a strong Game 1, a 9-0 fourth-quarter streak in Game 4, and 31 points (within the flow of the game) in Game 6. Besides that, he was rarely the team’s third-best player. The Lakers need Russell’s offense to help them keep pace with the Warriors.
On defense, there isn’t an obvious dude on the Warriors for Russell to check. The Lakers could put him on Andrew Wiggins or Klay Thompson, though their cutting could give him fits (Golden State knows Russell intimately and would lick their chops seeing him on Wiggins). The Lakers could stash him on Draymond or Kevon Looney and let him freelance to cut off driving lanes, but that would require LeBron to expend extra energy guarding Wiggins.
(Remember, it’s a contract year for DLo, and the Lakers are reportedly committed to re-signing him instead of pursuing Kyrie Irving.)
Beyond Russell: Can Reaves help slow Klay/Steph yet remain a high-volume scorer? Can the Lakers keep Looney off the glass? Will Dennis Schroder resemble his regular-season self again? Can Beasley or Brown Jr. find their stroke? Will Rui Hachimura keep it up? Will Jarred Vanderbilt’s defense/rebounding/versatility be an asset or will he get torched by Steph and be a liability on offense?
“They do play a lot of size and length,” said Draymond. “Jarred Vanderbilt’s guarding point guards at 6’9,” noted Draymond. (Vando was only mildly effective on Ja.)
The Lakers got bulldozed by the Grizzlies when AD rested. The Warriors aren’t as imposing inside, especially when Looney sits. Will Ham go small sans Davis, as he did for most of the Grizzlies series?
2) How do the Lakers handle Steph?
Stopping Steph is impossible. He’s indefatigable with a bottomless bag. The Lakers have to at least make him work hard.
Schroder is their premier on-ball defender, except he doesn’t start. Steph and Ja are very different, though they’re similar in size, quickness, and driving prowess. The Lakers will likely deploy the same strategy that was effective enough in Round 1: Start with Vando on Steph, aggressively use length and effort to push him off the arc, and funnel him to AD playing centerfield while various bodies fly in to help. Reaves, excellent at navigating screens, could spend time on Curry, too, though that could tire him out on offense.
“They’re two totally different teams,” said Reaves about the Grizzlies and Warriors. “Ja, (Desmond Bane), (Jaren Jackson Jr.), they like getting in the paint. They score a lot of points in the paint. It’s the complete opposite thing.”
Steph torched the Kings when they went small. The Lakers got roasted going small against Memphis. In general, the Lakers are below average at defending the 3. The Warriors are the best at making them.
1) Will LeBron and AD hold up?
The Lakers like to remind folks that they’ve never lost a playoff series in which LeBron and AD are fully healthy. But how truly healthy are LeBron and AD at the moment?
LeBron is functionally awesome but he’s visibly compromised. He’s been selective with his aggression and velocity as he manages a lingering torn right foot tendon that will likely need offseason surgery. His first-round scoring totals (22 PPG), a 3-point proclivity (19.5% on 6.8 attempts), and frequent concessions in the half-court to Reaves and DLo as he hangs off-ball reflect his choosiness.
AD is playing great while coping with a painful right hip injury. He’s been too passive in previous meetings with Golden State this season. The Lakers need Davis to hunt free throws and own the paint. The Dubs want him to settle for jumpers.
The Lakers, especially LeBron, have looked gassed in recent weeks. LeBron said the short commute and lack of time zone change should negate the every-other-day cadence of the series. We’ll see. Chasing the Warriors around poses a more demanding cardiovascular challenge than anything the Grizzlies did.
“You gotta stay locked in literally all 24 seconds of the shot clock,” described Reaves.
The Warriors will use Looney and Green on AD, and Green and Wiggins on LeBron. Solid options. They’ll try to tire out the Lakers’ stars.
The Lakers should benefit from a few extra days of rest. All the more pressure on them to steal Game 1 at the Chase Center.
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