David Stern once said his ideal Finals matchup would be the Lakers vs. Lakers. Which, of course. If you want a ratings bonanza, get the franchise with a history of stacking superstars, a penchant for winning titles, and a massive global fanbase — and let it play itself multiple times over a two-week period.
I can only imagine, then, the smile Stern would have on his face if he were commissioner and he got a matchup between these Lakers and Warriors. Two truly global franchises with massive fanbases, the entire back history of Steph Curry vs. LeBron James, and the two largest markets (when accounting for the entire Bay Area) in the U.S. most populous states are playing in a playoff series? And it’s not even the Conference Finals or the Finals, so it will get an outsized number relative to this part of the playoffs too?
Despite the juiciness of all the different storylines around legacy and championship aspirations and rivalry, though, it’s the actual basketball on the court that has me blessing the basketball gods for the gift of this matchup. Because, as they say in boxing, styles make fights; the potential back-and-forth between teams with their respective strengths and weaknesses and the purported answers they can conjure for the different ways they will attack each other offers intrigue comparable to a series that would take place two rounds later.
With that, here are four keys to a series between a set of atypical sixth and seventh seeds...
Anthony Davis’ Defense
We just saw Anthony Davis look like the best defensive player on the court in a matchup with the actual DPOY winner, so expectations for what he can do on that end of the floor are sky high vs. the Warriors. The question, of course, is can he meet or exceed them — and what are the pathways to giving him the best chance to do so.
There will be a lot of opinions about who AD can and should defend this series, with many slotting him onto Kevon Looney in order to allow him to “roam” defensively like he did vs. the Grizzlies. I, however, envision Davis taking on a more important role as the primary defender against Draymond Green whenever both share the floor.
Besides Steph Curry, there is no player as important to the Warriors’ offense than Green — whose ball handling, screen setting, passing, and general decision-making serve as the operating system for the Dubs super-computer offense. So, while AD can surely impact the series a great amount as an away-from-the-action defender lurking from the side to disrupt any given play, putting him on Green ensures his involvement in nearly everything the Warriors will try to do and center him as an ever-present nuisance to their offensive attack.
Be it handoffs, on or off ball screens for their shooters, or simply serving as an active defender versus Green whenever he’s handling the ball and initiating offense as the action whirs around him, I find it best to deploy Davis in the middle of the frame and make the Warriors account for him as much as possible. Further, when Draymond is handling the ball, I expect Davis to operate as both an on and off-ball defender as he sags off Green to entice him to take shots, while simultaneously trying to gum up the Warriors movement-based attack.
There are counters to this type of approach, of course, but that’s the beauty of the playoffs, right? And as the series gets more and more developed, we’ll see both sides tweak how they try to beat each side and use their tendencies against them. But, for now, I want the Lakers best defender in the middle of everything the Warriors are trying to accomplish and that means putting him on Draymond (which, by association, means putting him on Curry).
Draymond Green’s Defense
For all that I said about AD’s defense, Draymond is right there with him in terms of ability to impact and disrupt what the opposing offense does to attack the Warriors. And how the Warriors deploy him is one of the more interesting questions of this matchup. Will the Warriors start him on Davis? On LeBron? Or will they do what Memphis did, putting him on Vanderbilt so he can operate more as a roamer and try to disrupt the Lakers paint-heavy attack as a help defender?
Regardless of how he starts games, we know he’ll fill all of these roles (and more) over the course of the series with Steve Kerr using him as a human fire extinguisher to try to shut off the oxygen of whatever matchup is most troubling to the Warriors offense. Of those, however, his biggest ask will come when defending AD in both isolation and the P&R in the hopes of limiting Davis’ point total and keeping him out of rhythm.
And while it is reductive to say how well he does at this specific job will determine the outcome of the series, it’s not an exaggeration to say that if he’s able to effectively hold AD down as a scorer, it will give the Warriors a pretty significant edge in the battle between both team’s offenses (just as AD doing the same to some of the Draymond/Curry actions would do for the Lakers).
Draymond remains elite at both individual post defense and in how he navigates drop coverages in the P&R, both of which are the actions most used to get AD going on offense. AD, then, will need to buck those trends and find ways to score regardless of how well Draymond defends him (and will need to score even more effectively when he’s not — which is a point for a different post).
The biggest key for AD will be to do his work early and fight to establish position and get to better attacking spots on the floor before he makes his catch. Once Davis has the ball, Draymond will crowd him and get underneath AD’s center of gravity to knock him off balance and bother his shot as much from down low as he does up high. AD must counteract this by getting more shots with two feet in the paint where he can more easily finish over the top, rather than have to do a lot of work after already making the catch to get to those preferred spots on the floor.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster
The Warriors are the ultimate small-ball team and are at their best when they’re able to leverage their superior shooting to spread teams out and create the sort of driving lanes and gaps to the offensive glass where defenses simply can’t cover all the ground needed to get stops.
This has worked as well as it has over the years, because few teams have both the size and dexterity to play on the perimeter — while also clogging up those lanes, protecting the rim, and then keeping the crashing Warriors off the offensive glass. Can the Lakers be the team that bucks that trend? They have the personnel to give it a go.
I already mentioned AD, but LeBron is critical here too. LeBron’s offense will be of major importance this series, but it’s arguable his defense will matter just as much — if not more. Can LeBron make those critical rotations from the perimeter to the paint, back to the perimeter, and then to the defensive glass effectively? Can he closeout to a shooter and then not get beat on straight line drives, and then settle in as a rebounder? Can he play as a backline helper behind AD at the point of attack, switch when necessary, and then contest shots without surrendering drives?
Beyond LeBron, these same principles will be true for Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura, not to mention Wenyen Gabriel as a backup to AD. But, in those five frontcourt players, the Lakers have enough size, length, and athleticism to not only be a great defensive team, but the type of squad that can then turn defensive stops into transition baskets. Then they can be the bully-ball team in the half-court that has multiple players who can play in the post, drive to and finish in the paint, and attack the offensive glass.
If there’s one area the Warriors can be susceptible it’s in these areas of strength and athleticism, particularly from players with a baseline level of skill who can check multiple boxes in the dribble, pass, shoot triumvirate. And if these players have a high-basketball IQ too, there’s a great chance they won’t also be out-schemed or outsmarted by a game and seasoned Warriors team.
Of course, much of this will depend on Darvin Ham’s rotation and what he values in this series.
How Much Does LeBron Have Left?
I’ve always said that I will never be early on doubting LeBron James. He will get the benefit of the doubt from me for as long as possible, and he’ll probably need to fail in spectacular fashion more than once before I really change my position on him being able to get the job done when all the chips are down.
That said, this Warriors series will test him in more ways that the Grizzlies series didn’t — and will do so on both sides of the ball. In Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and, in smaller doses, Kevon Looney, the Warriors have smart and versatile defenders who will test LeBron’s ability to drive all the way to the rim and finish, and also the trust he has in his jumpshot. They’ll also give him a harder time in the post than many other teams can and have enough smart team defenders to shrink his passing windows.
And then, on defense, they will test his physical and mental endurance more than most any other team. Few, if any, players have as much experience playing against the Curry-era Warriors in high-leverage games than LeBron. He knows and understands their systems, what they want to get to offensively, and all the wrinkles they deploy to fool and wrong step opponents in the ways that give them the sliver of space they use to get off their jump shots. Knowing all of this and being able to consistently be in the right positions physically to impact it are different things, however. If LeBron, like we expect AD to, can be that difference-maker on defense, it will go a long way towards getting the stops the team needs.
And then, on the other end, it will be on him to simply prove that he has another high-level offensive series against a top defense in him. Like I said earlier, I’ll believe he doesn’t when an entire series ends and he wasn’t able to do it, and no sooner than that. The Warriors, though, are going to make him earn it.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.