SAN FRANCISCO — One of Kevon Looney’s last possessions of the night came with just over eight minutes to play. That sums up the problems the whipped Warriors now face going from the undersized Kings personnel to the hulking Lakers, who just beat them 117-112 in Game 1 to steal home-court advantage.
LeBron James guards Draymond Green. Jarred Vanderbilt is on Steph Curry. Anthony Davis is on Looney. Vanderbilt and James are both 6ft 8in tall. Davis is one of the elite rim protectors in the league. All are within about eight feet of Curry as he passes to the baseline. Vanderbilt and Davis double Curry, walling the edge. James is detached from Green, who looms into the mix.
This forces Curry to be dropped off at Looney just outside the restricted area. Against the Kings, it’s possible Looney could have slipped through. But Davis is a different kind of deterrent. He takes a step towards Looney and forces a hesitant fake push-up. That gives Vanderbilt the chance to jump over and hit Looney’s double clutch on the perimeter — one of the Lakers’ 10 blocks. The Kings only averaged 4.3 against them in seven games.
The game entered a timeout at 6:39, two minutes after the above possession. The Lakers were up 10. Steve Kerr, who needed a jolt, went to one of his more radical roster picks, the Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and the five-man group green men. Wiggins, at 6ft 7in, is the tallest of the five.
“We had to score,” Kerr said. “We were ten less. Often we make the composition decision based on time and score. Time and score dictated that we needed that spacing. So we went with this smaller range.
It worked. The Warriors went 14-4 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 seen below.
Vanderbilt is still on Curry 25 feet from the hoop. Thompson sets up a high screen guard to guard. Austin Reaves, Thompson’s keeper, can’t double up. Curry beats Vanderbilt from the dribble. Dennis Schröder remains attached to Poole in a corner. James is pulled enough towards Wiggins in the other corner to keep him out of the paint.
This leaves Curry with a downhill step towards Davis, ignoring Green and still remaining a deterrent. But Green has tricks. He seals Davis with a back screen. Curry passes in front for a lay-up and-1. With a big on the ground, everything is more open for Curry to attack.
To survive in miniature mode against one of the biggest teams in the league, as Curry said after the game: “We have to bounce back.” That mostly fell to Wiggins, who was active on the glass on the stretch, and Green, who smashed a lob from Schröder on Davis to stop under the rim against Davis on that late push. Both saves fired the Warriors on the fastbreak and led to 3s.
Here’s the second of those 3. Green deters Davis, pushes the rebound away and zooms the Warriors into the kind of tempo they need this series played at. A scattered Laker defense crumbles into the paint and leaves Poole – Looney’s replacement in this smaller environment – wide open for a wing 3.
The Warriors’ adjustment and quick run forced Darvin Ham and the Lakers to counter-adjust. He left Vanderbilt and returned to D’Angelo Russell. This gives warriors a flashing target. On the Curry 3 that tied the game, they went straight for him.
Russell opens possession by guarding Poole. The Warriors ask Poole to screen Curry, forcing the change. Curry then takes Russell on one of his favorite car wash moves – the ride, the switch to Green, the move – and Russell gets temporarily lost during the switch and relocate part. Curry peeks in to tie with 1:37 remaining.
The Lakers powered up and won the final 90 seconds of the game with a decisive 5-0 run. Three of those five points came on the free throw line. They live there. The Lakers have averaged the most free throws per game this season. The Warriors average the fewest free throws. The disparity was huge in Game 1 – 29 on 6 attempts – but the different styles dictate those numbers. The Warriors bomb (they took 28 more 3s in Game 1) while the Lakers pressure the paint.
“It’s no surprise,” Kerr said. “But (the number of free throws) is a huge disparity and we have to reduce that.”
Thompson, Kerr, Green, Curry and Looney all mentioned leaning into the tape during the day to come up with a necessary game plan. The movie will tell them that the smaller range was more efficient. This generates a common but increasingly difficult choice for Kerr to make.
Their traditional two-big starting lineup of Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green and Looney dominated the Kings series. They were a plus-23 overall in the deciding Game 7 and plus-44 overall. But in Game 1 against the Lakers, despite an opening 10-2 push, they were a minus-5 overall. Davis had four of the Lakers’ 10 blocks. He modified several other looks. With Looney and Green on the ground together, he was crushed.
“You just have to do it,” Curry trailed off. “Obviously it’s the coach who makes decisions and makes decisions about how the game goes and how it goes. If we can bounce back, going small is to our advantage. There’s probably three, four possessions where you you can see we had a save, we had the rebound, we had the push, someone was open. That’s how we like to play. If it’s traditional and the way they play us, we just need to be more organized in terms of overall spacing. (We have to) respect how they try to protect us and where they try to push us to the ground and do the right readings. I think my shot got blocked three or four times trying to get the little floats out.
Here’s one of those floats that Curry had blocked. Looney and Green are both on the ground. Davis is several yards away from Looney, sitting in the paint, so Curry knows he can’t take him to the edge. James, detached from Green, waits in the back. The spacing is obstructed. It goes to the hasty float. Vanderbilt hits him.
In past seasons, the Warriors have always found the solution an easy button to press. Kerr regularly establishes his starting center and goes to Green at the five. But benching Looney — a Kerr hobby — is harder than ever. He became an elite offensive rebounder and stabilizing force. He had 23 more rebounds in Game 1, giving him four 20-rebound nights in the first eight playoff games.
“I think it’s always been an advantage for us (to go small),” Green said. “But we’re not just taking Kevon Looney out of training. He was amazing. It’s not about 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 went back to training the big two to close out the series because he trusts him the most. And because Poole struggled so much against Sacramento.
Which is another key. It will be easier for Kerr to compose unique rosters if they get the Poole who showed up in Game 1. He scored 21 points and made six 3s, taking (mostly) controlled shots against Lakers drop coverage.
“It will be a series that will go its own way,” Green said. “Based on how well they keep, he’s going to look great.”
The Lakers snatched home-court advantage, creating a dire situation for the Warriors starting Thursday night. Defining moments for the series are ahead, and in them Kerr has an emerging question: big or small?
(Photo of Lakers’ Anthony Davis boxing Golden State’s Draymond Green in the fourth quarter: Cary Edmondson/USA Today)