SAN FRANCISCO – One of Kevon Looney’s last possessions of the night came with just over eight minutes remaining. He summed up the problem the now-injured Warriors were facing by going from the undersized Kings to the towering Lakers, whom they just beat 117-112 in Game 1 to steal the home court advantage.
LeBron James guarding Draymond Green. Jared Vanderbilt is on Steph Curry. Anthony Davis is located in Looney. Vanderbilt and James are both 6-foot-8. Davis is one of the league’s elite guards. They are all located within an eight-foot radius of Curry as he cuts to the baseline. Vanderbilt and Davis double Curry, closing the rim. James breaks up with Greene, and another looms in the mix.
It forces Carrie to be delivered to Looney outside the restricted area. Against Kings, it’s possible that Lonnie snuck through that. But Davis is a different kind of deterrent. He takes one step towards Lonnie and forces a hesitant amplification. That gives Vanderbilt the opportunity to jump in and hit the Looney dual-clutch combo to the perimeter—one of the Lakers’ 10 blocks. The Kings averaged just 4.3 against them in seven games.
The game went into a timeout at the 6:39 mark, two minutes after the above possession. The Lakers were ahead 10. Steve Kerr, needing a shake-up, went for one of his more radical lineup choices, Curry, Jordan Paul, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Green’s five-man squad. Wiggins, at 6-foot-7, is the tallest of the five.
“We needed to score,” Kerr said. “We were down ten. A lot of times we make a lineup decision based on time and result. Time and result dictate that we need that spacing. So we went with that smaller lineup.”
it worked. The Warriors went on a 14-4 run over the next five minutes, turning a 108-98 score into a 112-112 tie. The added shooter opened up the floor and created better looks, like the ones below.
Vanderbilt still has Curry 25 feet from the hoop. Thompson sets up a high screen from protection to protection. Thompson guard Austin Reeves can’t afford to double. Curry beats Vanderbilt by dribbling. Dennis Schroeder stays tied to Paul in one corner. James is pulled just enough towards Wiggins in the other corner to keep him out of the paint.
This leaves Curry with a ramp step towards Davis, ignoring Green and still as a deterrent. But Green has tricks. He shutout Davis with a screen back. Curry runs past to throw the ball and 1. With the big one on the ground, everything is more open for Curry to attack.
To survive the mini-mode against one of the biggest teams in the league, Curry said, “We have to rebound.” This mostly fell on Wiggins, who was active on the glass down the stretch, and Green, who hit a Schroeder lob to Davis for a stop under the rim against Davis during that late overscore. Both stations fired warriors on Fastbreak and led to 3s.
Here it is, the second of those three. Green Davis deters, eliminates bounce, and pumps the Warriors into the kind of rhythm they need to play this series. Laker’s splattered defense crumbles in the paint and Paul – a lone replacement in this smaller environment – is left wide open for the 3 wing.
The Warriors adjustment and sprinting forced Darvin Hamm and the Lakers to counter-adjust. He went away from Vanderbilt and back to D’Angelo Russell. This gives the warriors a blinking target. On Carey 3 that hooked up the game, they went straight to it.
Russell opens the possession with Paul guarding. The Warriors set Poole on a screen to Curry, forcing the substitution. Then Carrie takes Russell through one of his favorite car-wash moves—the drive, driveway to Green, and go—and Russell gets temporarily lost during the go-and-go portion. Curry glances to connect with 1:37 left.
The Lakers pulled ahead and won the last 90 seconds of the game, 5-0. Three of those five points came at the free throw line. They live there. The Lakers have averaged the most free throws per game this season. The Warriors had an average of the fewest free throws. The disparity was huge in Game 1 – 29 to 6 in attempts – but different styles dictate those numbers. The Warriors pounded (taking 28 more 3 seconds in Game 1) while the Lakers pressed on in the paint.
“It’s no surprise,” Kerr said. “But (the free-throw number) is a huge discrepancy and we need to get that down.”
Thompson, Kerr, Green, Curry, and Looney all mentioned the need to pore on tape during the day to formulate a necessary game plan. The film would tell them that a smaller lineup was more effective. Which generates a popular but increasingly difficult choice for Kerr.
Their traditional starting two-team of Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green and Looney dominated the Kings series. They were over 23 together in the deciding game 7 and +44 overall. But in the first game against the Lakers, despite a 10-2 opening spurt, the score was a cumulative -5 all together. Davis had four of the Lakers’ ten blocks. He changed many other looks. With Looney and Green on the floor together, it is crushed.
Carrie paused: “You just have to.” “Obviously this coach is making the calls and making the decisions about how the game goes and flows. If we can recover, the smallness is in our favour. There are probably three or four possessions where you can see we stalled, got the rebound, got the push. , and one of them was open. That’s kind of how we like to play. If it’s traditional and the way they play, we just have to be a little more orderly in terms of overall spacing. (We need to) respect how they are trying to protect us and where on the ground they are trying to push us and just make the right readings. My shot was blocked, I think three or four times trying to clear small buoys.”
Here’s one of those floats Curry banned. Both Looney and Gren are on the floor. Davis is several feet from Looney, sitting in the paint, so Carrie knows he can’t take her over the edge. James, separated from Green, is waiting in the rear. The spacing is blocked. He goes to the rushing pontoon. Vanderbilt beats it away.
In seasons past, the Warriors always found the easy push-button solution. Kerr routinely sits in the starting position and goes to the green at five. But grabbing a Looney—Kerr’s pastime—is more difficult than ever. It has emerged as an elite offensive and stabilizing force. He grabbed another 23 rebounds in Game 1, giving him four 20-rebound nights in his first eight playoff games.
“I think it’s always been an advantage for us (to become juniors),” Green said. “But we’re not just cutting Kevon Looney out of the lineup. He’s been amazing. It’s not on him. If anything, it’s on me.”
The spacing improved against the Kings when Green left the starting lineup and they separated Green and Looney. But Kerr returned to the big lineup to close out the series because he trusted him more And Because Paul struggled so hard against Sacramento.
It is another key. It would be easier for Kerr to connect with the big formations if they got Poole who appeared in the first game. He scored 21 points and made 6 3s, taking (mostly) controlled shots against Lakers drop coverage.
“This is going to be a series going his way,” Green said. “Depending on how they guard, he’ll get some good looks.”
The Lakers have taken home-court advantage, creating a Sooner situation for the Warriors starting Thursday night. Series-defining moments lie ahead, and in them, Kerr has an emerging question: big or small?
(Photo: Lakers’ Anthony Davis taking out Golden State’s Draymond Green in the fourth quarter: Cary Edmondson/USA Today)