10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Lakers -5.5, Over/Under: 218.5
If the National Basketball Association was looking for a way to promote their Play-In Tournament, then there is no better way to do so than with tonight’s palpable matchup featuring the (8 Seed) Golden State Warriors making the short trip south to battle the (7 Seed) Los Angeles Lakers, from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. The winner of this particular matchup will move on to face the (2 Seed) Phoenix Suns this weekend, while the loser will get one final chance to advance to the postseason in a decisive meeting between the winner of the West’s other Play-In, the (10 Seed) San Antonio Spurs and the (9 Seed) Memphis Grizzlies. After witnessing their five-year dynasty come to an end in crushing fashion, the Warriors (39-33, 8th in Western Conference) are on the precipice of returning to the Playoffs following a brief hiatus, and their path to this point has been nothing short of remarkable. Coming off a dreadful 15-win campaign last season, Golden State was dealt a MAJOR blow when (All-NBA Guard) Klay Thompson suffered a ruptured Achilles in a pickup game shortly before the preseason began, robbing him of a second consecutive season with the franchise, further depriving them of one of the finest shooters in NBA history. Armed with a largely unproven supporting cast, the pressure fell to (two-time MVP) Steph Curry (32.0 PTS, 48.2% FG, 42.1% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.2 STL, 26.3 PER) to carry his team through what was sure to be an arduous season, and we shutter to think where they would have ended up had it not been for the league’s leading scorer. Simply put, the seven-time All-Star was nothing short of spectacular in 2020-2021, sitting atop the Association in scoring with a career-high 32.0 points per game, becoming the only player apart from (Hall of Famer) Michael Jordan to do so after the age of thirty-two. With opposing defenses throwing waves of defenders at him and devising a multitude of of stratagems to slow him down, Curry continued to prove that he is the most LETHAL sniper in the history of the sport, leading the league in three-pointers (337) for the fifth time in his career. How impressive has he been this season in that regard you ask? Well, the 33-year old has a remarkable TWENTY-TWO games with ten or more made threes (seventeen more than the next closest player, which just so happens to be Thompson), and seven of them have come this year, with five coming in the last six weeks alone. And over that period the Warriors have improved greatly, winning all but five of their final twenty games of the Regular Season, with (Head Coach) Steve Kerr employing a style of play far more reminiscent of the earlier days of his tenure with the franchise, when the supporting cast thrived off of the spacing that Curry’s shooting created. Over this span, the Dubs are averaging a healthy 118.3 points per game on 48.8% shooting, including 39.7% from beyond the arc, along with 28.7 assists in comparison to committing 14.9 turnovers. Surprisingly, their play on the defensive end has picked up as well, yielding just 109.0 points on 44.2% shooting, including 33.2% from downtown, while relinquishing 22.7 assists and forcing 13.7 turnovers. Ironically, this turn in form has coincided with the season-ending injury of (Rookie Center) James Wiseman (11.5 PTS, 51.9% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.9 BLK, 13.1 PER), who quite frankly struggled to find his place within Kerr’s system, particularly on the defensive end. With a revitalized (2016-2017 Defensive Player of the Year) Draymond Green (7.0 PTS, 44.7% FG, 27.0% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.8 BLK, 13.3 PER) leading the charge, the Warriors are back to switching everything defensively, exhibiting far better communication that earlier in the season. Fittingly, the defending champion Lakers are standing in their way, or more particularly LeBron James (more on him shortly); James and the Warriors met in FOUR consecutive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2018, with his Cleveland Cavaliers pulling the greatest upset in Finals history in rallying back from a 3-1 deficit to best a Golden State side that won an NBA record SEVENTY-THREE games during the Regular Season. Curry and James have combined to win SIX MVP awards with at least one of their respective teams appearing in every Finals since 2011. The Warriors lost two of their three meetings with Los Angeles this season, rallying back from a 14-point deficit in the Fourth Quarter for a 115-113 victory in their first encounter, before getting embarrassed in the following two matchups by a combined FIFTY-SEVEN points. In those three meetings Curry has been forced to work for everything against the Lakers’ relentless defense, averaging 23.0 points on 42.3% shooting, including 34.6% from three, all of which are well below his standards for the season. However, what Kerr’s charges have going for them is that they’ve really developed excellent chemistry over the last month, and while their opponent has been missing so many pieces down the stretch due to injury they have been locked into a postseason state of mind for weeks now, with momentum clearly in their favor.
Meanwhile, when the NBA devised this Play-In Tournament they couldn’t have fathomed that it would be including the reigning champion Lakers (42-30, 7th in Western Conference), though we seriously doubt that they’re complaining about it. After securing the franchise’s seventeenth Larry O’Brien Trophy (matching the Boston Celtics for most in NBA history), Los Angeles spent the (condensed) offseason reloading, as they got younger in a number of areas, with the additions of (sparkplug Guard) Dennis Schroder (15.4 PTS, 43.7% FG, 33.5% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 13.8 PER) and (2019-2020 Sixth Man of the Year) Montrezl Harrell (13.5 PTS, 62.2% FG, 6.2 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 07 BLK, 22.7 PER). (Head Coach) Frank Vogel’s charges would get pick up where they left off, winning twenty-one of their first twenty-nine games before everything changed when (All-NBA Forward) Anthony Davis (21.8 PTS, 49.1% FG, 26.0% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.6 BLK, 22.1 PER) suffered a calf injury that would go on to sideline him for the next THIRTY games. And if that wasn’t bad enough, (four-time MVP) LeBron James (25.0 PTS, 51.3% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 7.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 24.2 PER) would also suffer a major injury, with a high ankle sprain costing the 36-year old to miss twenty-six of twenty-eight games of his own. Needless to say, for a team that is built around of two of the five greatest players in the league, this was a HUGE issue, though credit must go to the rest of the supporting cast along with Vogel and his Coaching Staff, for rather than simply throw in the proverbial towel, this team managed to tread water until their stars returned; the Lakers went a respectable 7-8 without both James and Davis on the hardwood this season, and found a way to still finish with the league’s top defense this season despite missing both pillars for such an extended period of time. On the year, Los Angeles has relegated opponents to 106.8 points per game (2nd Overall) on 46.0% shooting from the field (6th Overall), including 52.4% shooting from within the arc (9th Overall) and 35.2% beyond it (4th Overall), while forcing 15.2 turnovers (4th Overall) and keeping their opponents off of the free-throw line with a mere 20.5 attempts allowed a night (8th Overall). While James and Davis were sidelined, the club continued to find ways to better themselves, acquiring (towering Center) Andre Drummond (11.9 PTS, 53.1% FG, 10.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.0 BLK, 17.9 PER) via contract buyout, bringing even more size and length to a rotation that already had it in spades. Granted, this was an interesting acquisition for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there was a serious train of thought that the Lakers missed the size and physicality that the tandem of Dwight Howard/JaVale MaGee brought in a complementary role opposite Davis. With that said, the 27-year old hasn’t had the opportunity to feature much alongside Davis, with only a few combinations of lineups logging barely fifty minutes of action together thus far. Second, Drummond’s presence relegates (veteran Center) Marc Gasol (5.0 PTS, 45.4% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.1 BK, 12.2 PER) further down the bench, while taking minutes away from the aforementioned Harrell, whom due to spacing issues cannot play alongside the seven-footer. With that said, the four-time rebounding champion should allow them to dominate the glass on both ends of the court, and with James and Schroder (who spent two lengthy periods mired in the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols) back on the court, he will see plenty of action in the Pick & Roll. At this point though, the time for learning to play with one another is over, and Vogel & Co will have to live with the fact that this group, which looks great on paper, has realistically only had a few games to build the requisite chemistry to make a lengthy postseason run. Los Angeles finished the Regular Season on a five-game winning streak, averaging 116.0 points on 48.4% shooting, including 38.0% from beyond the arc, with 27.6 assists in comparison to committing just 12.8 turnovers, while limiting the opposition to just 108.8 points on 48.3% shooting. From James’ perspective, meeting Curry and the Warriors along the way should feel appropriate, for as we touched upon earlier, he has quite a bit of history with them; LeBron would likely have at least two more titles if not for the Warriors, and Golden State would argue that if not for their injury situation last year then he may not have earned his fourth championship ring. If this group remains healthy then there is no reason to believe that they won’t make a deep run in these Playoffs, no matter how difficult the road is.