After overhauling their roster at the deadline — and starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors no less — the new-look Lakers finished the season with 18 wins in 27 games and the NBA’s third-best defensive rating during that span. Still, it was hard to know if they’d be any good when the games really counted, if they could even get there.
Well, they’re here now, and with five wins in seven games after a 117-112 win over the Warriors to open the Western Conference Semifinals, they look pretty good.
Here are three takeaways from the series-opening victory in San Fransisco.
Styles make fights
Like a hypothetical fight between Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, the Lakers’ bludgeoning was too much for the Warriors’ dance, with L.A. landing one too many body blows for Golden State to stand and fight.
Despite outscoring the Lakers on threes by more than a three-to-one margin (six makes compared to 21), the Lakers nearly doubled up the Warriors in the paint, 54 to 28. Exacerbating the disparity in the inside-outside battle, the Lakers took 29 attempts from the charity stripe compared to just six for the Warriors.
The Lakers were the league’s third-best foul-drawing team during the regular season and fouled the least often, while the Warriors got to the line less often than 28 teams and fouled their opponents more often than average. With the Lakers landing the first blow with both teams playing to their strengths, the Warriors will need to find a way to get the Lakers off-balance to have a chance here.
Still, the Lakers rode their best players hard to close, asking AD to play the whole second half after 20 first half minutes, along with 40 minutes from LeBron and 39 from Austin Reaves. On the other side of things, no Warrior played more than Curry’s 39. After a game, the Warriors probably have just a little bit more juice in the tank to lean on going into Thursday’s Game 2, but they’re also coming off of a seven-game series, and only closed out the Kings as recently as Sunday. Still, the Lakers looked like the more battered team down the stretch, and with only one day off for some much-needed rest, the whole team might need to channel their inner LeBron and burn another seven figures just this week to be prepared to win again.
Earlier this season, after a 30-20 performance in a regular season win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Lakers head coach Darvin Ham publicized the nickname he said he’d given Anthony Davis earlier in the season, “Wilt Davis.”
Although he’s already won as many championships as the other Lakers big man, AD had a long way to go to measure up to the four-time MVP. But while his career accolades of course still pale in comparison to the preeminent regular season big of his era, tonight, Davis flashed all of the talent that makes the high praise from Ham seem completely sensible.
Anthony Davis is the 4th Laker ever to have a 30-20 game in the playoffs. Others? Elgin, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) May 3, 2023
In a game where the Warriors had it going from deep (39.6%) — especially Jordan Poole, who was 6-11 on threes, coming off of a series against the Kings where he made just over a quarter of them (25.7%) — AD shut off their water inside, blocking four shots and altering many, many more. Further, despite Kevon Looney’s continued dominance inside with 23 rebounds (after a series where he pulled down a score of boards three times), AD matched him with 23 of his own.
Offensively, AD was almost as good as he was on the other end, leading all scorers with an even 30 points on 19 shots, mostly guarded by Looney. When the Warriors went small, pulling him out of the paint and throwing Draymond on him, they had more success, but it was too little, too infrequently to alter the outcome.
If AD continues to dominate the interior the way he did tonight, especially with the Lakers swiping homecourt advantage, they might be headed into the Conference Finals with greater ease than it took them to get past the Grizzlies.
Everything but the kitchen sink
Despite holding a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and closing confidently, the Lakers nearly let this one slip, as the Warriors were able to mount a 14-0 fourth-quarter run behind some potent offense with Kevon Looney out of the game.
Stephen Curry drilled a trio of seemingly impossible threes, but didn’t get enough help late to close the door.
STEPH TIES IT— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 3, 2023
WARRIORS ON A 14-0 RUN pic.twitter.com/1K268X2Cbf
Even with his late-game heroics, Curry finished as a minus-1 and made only 10 of his 24 shots, despite hitting six of 13 threes. In addition to Davis’ superlative rim protection preventing Curry from getting any of the clean looks he got in the last game he played — one in which he dropped a 50-burger — the Lakers threw every different pitch in their arsenal at Curry to slow him down.
Jarred Vanderbilt looked up to the task of guarding Curry one-on-one, as he was the first Laker to earn the matchup against the Warriors’ franchise icon, but struggled to chase him around screens. And like an off-speed to complement the Lakers’ hardest fastball, Austin Reaves also acquitted himself well as a chaser, but isn’t quite the physical force that Vando is. The Lakers can also match Curry’s speed with Dennis Schroder, using him just as they did against Ja Morant, giving the team a broader variety of impediments than most to jam up the engine of the Warriors’ offense.
We’ll have to wait and see if Steve Kerr can tweak things to get his offensive dynamo going, but for now, the Lakers look well-equipped to prevent him from going completely berserk.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.