If the Los Angeles Lakers are to repeat as NBA champions, they will have to become the first title winners to come out of the new play-in tournament.
Yes, despite winning their last five games of the season, the Lakers did not get enough help from the rest of their conference, finishing as the seventh seed and needing an unprecedented playoff run in an unprecedented season to hang up banner number 18.
Before the Lakers can focus on that, however, they have to face a dangerous Golden State Warriors team – winners of their last six – for the right to secure the seventh seed and face the Phoenix Suns in the first round. If they lose, they will have one more chance against the winner of another play-in game between the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs (game will precede the Lakers’ game on Wednesday). The winner of that final match will face the Utah Jazz in the first round.
The Warriors have won eight of their last nine games behind the superstar excellence of Stephen Curry. The point guard has carried a not-so-talented squad to this position, leading to LeBron James telling the media that he would consider his longtime Finals rival to be the league’s MVP this season. On Sunday, Curry scored 46 points to help the Warriors beat the Grizzlies which secured the eighth spot and two opportunities to enter the 2021 Playoffs.
That game gives us a good look at the Warriors’ presumed rotation. Head coach Steve Kerr played just eight players: Curry, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Andrew Wiggins, and Kent Bazemore in the starting lineup with Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, and Mychal Mulder making up the bench reinforcements.
It’s no surprise that Curry is the main source of offense for the Warriors. Of course, he is the greatest shooter of all time, but the point guard can completely shift the Lakers’ defense with his ball-handling, finishing, and shooting threat especially if he’s allowed to run countless pick and rolls. If the Lakers play Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell extended minutes to take advantage of a small Golden State team, the Warriors will force them to guard Curry in space. With either of those three centers out there, that situation would be a disaster waiting to happen.
The Lakers have a trio of guards in Dennis Schröder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso who can theoretically defend Curry better than most players in the NBA. But they need the backline defense to support them and that likely means huge minutes at the five for Anthony Davis. Much like last year’s series against the Blazers and Rockets, the Lakers can up their defensive intensity with more switchable lineups featuring Davis in the middle while still being able to take advantage down low on offense with Davis and LeBron James’ size and strength.
Defensively, it may just come down to the Lakers being able to keep the other Warriors from contributing. Curry going off for 40 points may not matter much if they can shut down Wiggins and Bazemore on the wings and force Green to be a scorer rather than a passer. That’s largely how the Lakers breezed past the Rockets in last year’s playoffs.
While the Warriors are dependent on Curry offensively, they have built a strong team identity on the defensive end. Perhaps surprisingly, Golden State finished the season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league. Their lack of size leads to more switching out on the perimeter, and Green is still immensely productive in defending anyone on the court. The Lakers’ offense has come alive since LeBron returned from injury but that was against two injured teams with not much to play for. The Warriors will pose a completely different challenge for a squad that has had plenty of struggles over the last few months on that end of the floor.
Perhaps that’s a reason to keep Drummond off the floor; a productive offensive rebounder against a small team that forces many misses is a classic tactic. When the Lakers signed Drummond, that is the kind of style they envisioned him excelling in. The Warriors are in the bottom third of the league in defensive rebounding percentage so there is something to exploit there. But for Frank Vogel, it will be a matter of understanding the trade-offs: Give Drummond big minutes to use his rebounding for extra possessions and bully the Warriors down low, or limit his playing time so that Anthony Davis can play almost exclusively as the center, giving the Lakers a much better chance of slowing down Curry and the Warriors’ offense.
The Lakers finally have their full assortment of players back. Based on talent alone, they should comfortably beat the Warriors. But between the need to still ramp up and build chemistry within a team that barely knows each other in this injury-riddled season and the danger of an MVP-caliber superstar playing possibly the best basketball of his career with his back against the wall, it will still be a significant challenge. The Lakers are slowly starting to get their form back across the board, but any number of mistakes could lead to a much more challenging game than necessary.