The most anticipated matchup of the NBA’s play-in tournament is here as the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers put on a thriller in their showdown to determine who would lay claim to the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference and who would have to play on Friday night against the Memphis Grizzlies. In the end, it was the defending champions who held on for a 103-100 win.
In the end, it was LeBron James who hit the game-winning 3-pointer to cap off his triple-double and lead Los Angeles to a playoff-clinching victory. The former MVP finished with 22 points to go along with 11 rebounds and 10 assists while Anthony Davis chipped in 25 points and 12 rebounds of his own to help Los Angeles’ cause.
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This game delivered on every level as LeBron James and Stephen Curry came up clutch for their respective teams to bring us to the conclusion we ultimately saw. With the Lakers moving on to face the Phoenix Suns, the Warriors will now have to shift their focus to another game on Friday night to keep their postseason hopes alive. Here are the three biggest takeaways from tonight’s Lakers victory.
1. Identity crisis resolved
The Lakers’ front office put Frank Vogel in a very difficult position this season. Last season’s roster was fairly easy to manage. It was essentially built to surround the superstars with shooting and defense, and that made lineup construction relatively simple. The decisions were usually as basic as “big or small” and “which shooters do we use?” But Rob Pelinka built a roster this season with 13 rotation-caliber players all with disparate skill sets, many of whom are headed for free agency in the offseason. Balancing that group has been a challenge all season. Good players often went weeks without playing. The regular season was largely spent experimenting with different combinations and trying to make sure everyone got the reps that they needed.
But down 13 in a playoff game, the Lakers no longer had time to experiment. They had to settle on their best groups or face elimination Friday, and from the middle of the third quarter onward, they used only seven players. James and Davis were no surprises. Neither were Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Alex Caruso. Those were arguably the three most important role players on last season’s championship team, and when the chips were down, Vogel trusted them again. They delivered, shooting a combined 50 percent from the floor while providing stellar defense and rebounding.
The final slots went to Dennis Schroder and Wes Matthews. The former offered supplementary playmaking. The latter was an extra 3-and-D wing. That combination of seven players, with Davis playing at center, offers every skill that a championship team needs. It combines elite defense and playmaking with just enough shooting to beat any opponent. From the time Vogel settled on that seven to the end of the game, the Lakers outscored the Warriors by 12. A slot might change here or there depending on the matchup, but ultimately, we got a glimpse into who the Lakers are going to rely on when the chips are down. After a year-long identity crisis, they’ve found themselves again.
2. Playoff basketball has arrived
James, Davis and Schroder started this game 4-of-28 from the field. That obviously isn’t the norm, but it’s the sort of thing that can happen in hyper-intense postseason settings. The things that worked all year suddenly get harder. Scoring in the halfcourt, particularly when a single player can’t create shots easily, becomes significantly harder. Teams know in the playoffs that if the Lakers are going to play big, and even when they don’t, their best bet at beating them involves packing the paint and forcing them to shoot.
The Lakers survived last year by… well… making their shots. Rajon Rondo and Markieff Morris shot well above their heads and the Lakers won the championship as a result. In reality, role players tend to get worse in the playoffs, not better. Teams need to be able to generate points in other ways when those shots aren’t falling. On Wednesday, the Lakers went the typical playoff route: they got to the line. They wouldn’t have won this game without their 25 free-throw attempts. The trio of James, Schroder and Davis, the three primary ball-handlers on the team, attempted 19 of them.
The Lakers don’t need to score as much as other contenders because of their defense. They can win ugly games. But winning ugly games means scoring ugly points. That’s what they did against the Warriors. When all else failed, they were able to put their heads down and race to the basket. Good things happened from there, and they put up just enough points to win the game.
3. Role reversal
This game was won on a 3-pointer by James, a somewhat fitting way for him to beat Curry, history’s greatest shooter. This game was a role reversal in more ways than one. Obviously, James and Curry’s postseason meetings exclusively came in the Finals prior to this game. This time around, it came in the first-ever play-in tournament, about as far away from the Finals as it could get.
But really, the true change came in their supporting casts. The first time James played Curry in the Finals, his two best teammates, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were out injured. James fought valiantly, just as Curry did tonight, but couldn’t quite carry his team past the finish line on his own. Their later matchups were somewhat anticlimactic thanks to Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Warriors. James didn’t have the supporting cast to keep up with the greatest team ever.
But this time around, it was Curry carrying the undermanned Warriors team against James’ defending champion roster. He nearly won the game with 37 huge points, but James had Davis supporting him down the stretch. Curry had to generate almost everything by himself. It just goes to show how important context is when debating individual players. When James and Curry faced off in the past, the best team won, not the best player. That’s what tends to happen in most playoff series. Nobody should blame James for his Finals losses to Curry just as no one should blame Curry for his loss to James tonight. In both cases, they just didn’t have enough to keep up with the other.