The Los Angeles Lakers are, miraculously, one win away from eliminating the Golden State Warriors in five games and becoming the first team of the 2023 NBA Playoffs to advance to the conference semifinals.
The Lakers have been firing on all cylinders for weeks. They’re 14-4 since LeBron James returned to the starting lineup. They haven’t lost consecutive ballgames since mid-March and haven’t lost at Crypto.com Arena since March 29. To quote Darvin Ham’s favorite mantra, their energy, effort, and urgency have been, dare I say, championship-caliber.
Closing out the defending champs — and, who knows, maybe ending the Warriors Dynasty — on the road won’t be easy. On the flip side, beating LeBron and Anthony Davis three times in a row feels like an impossibly tall order for the Dubs, even with two of those games at the Chase Center.
As a franchise, the Warriors are 1-14 in series in which they trail 1-3, though they did successfully come back against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016.
It hasn’t been the cleanest series for either team, but the chess match has been tantalizing to follow. Ahead of Wednesday night’s Game 5, let’s dissect a few reasons why the Lakers are on the precipice of the Western Conference finals.
Why the Lakers are up 3-1 on the Warriors
3) The Others
Already in these playoffs, Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Dennis Schroder, Austin Reaves, and Lonnie Walker IV have helped lead the Lakers to wins. As I wrote about after Lonnie’s 15-point fourth quarter in Game “IV”, the contributions from the Lakers’ “others” is a result of savvy front-office moves, quality player development, and the selfless culture established by LeBron, AD, and Darvin Ham.
"I'm a role player at the end of the day and I got to do what I got to do for my team to win. All the little things, playing great defense, rebounding, taking charges, whatever it may be."
Lonnie Walker IV on embracing his role with the Lakers.
(via @michaelcorvoNBA) pic.twitter.com/3ATwojzOEN
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 9, 2023
The reliability of the role players has allowed LeBron to conserve energy and lighten the load on his injured foot. There’s no way the Lakers would be on the verge of the final four if they were dependent on 35+ point nights from the 38-year-old. (The roster being fully available except Mo Bamba has been clutch, too.)
By contrast, the struggles of the Warriors’ supporting cast have hampered and juggled Kerr’s rotation.
If the Lakers win the 2023 NBA championship — they’re now co-favorites — their culture and depth will be as integral as their superstars.
2) “Warm and fuzzy” defense
The Lakers boasted the NBA’s second-best defensive rating (110.3) after the trade deadline. They own the top defensive rating in the playoffs (105.3). LeBron said they’re “arguably the best defensive team in the league,” but I’m not sure it’s up for debate.
The Warriors have been inconsistent with their pick-and-roll deployment. In the Lakers’ Game 1 win, it wasn’t much of a factor. In Game 2, Golden State pulled Davis out of the paint and forced him to hedge onto Curry, leading to a steady stream of 4-on-3 opportunities. In Game 3, things reverted back. Davis ignored JaMychal Green and gobbled up everything in the paint.
In Game 4, Kerr tried to recreate the Game 2 advantages via double-screens and using Gary Payton II in place of Green. The Warriors ran 24 pick-and-rolls in the first half. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted, Curry himself ran 48 pick-and-rolls, tied for his most in a game since 2017. The Warriors scored 1.175 points per possession on those plays. But, the Lakers eventually started pre-switching and moved Davis onto Andrew Wiggins. For whatever reason, the Warriors only went to the pick-and-roll six times after halftime.
In crunch-time, Los Angeles’ defensive execution was simply sharper than Golden State’s. In perhaps the most pivotal moment of the game, Davis aptly hung with Curry, forcing a tough 18-footer.
Anthony Davis danced with Curry on an island for 9 seconds man
It is absolutely ridiculous that a 6’11 AD can flip his hips in this manner to re-direct in a nanosecond to stay attached against one of the best ballhandlers the game has ever seen
Watching it in slow-mo is art pic.twitter.com/OiaPL2JSIM
— LAbound (@LAbound2) May 9, 2023
On the next Warriors, possession, the Lakers perfectly defended the “Hammer” action (named after their head coach).
The Warriors ran the "hammer" play in the final moments of Game 4.
The play was designed for Darvin Ham back in the day and the Lakers were ready for it 🔨🤯
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 9, 2023
This was cool
Lebron has a beautiful basketball mind pic.twitter.com/011Ip0km8s
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) May 9, 2023
A lot of the credit goes to AD, who’s been an all-world defensive game-wrecker in the playoffs, regardless of his how his scoring fluctuates. Davis — who didn’t make an all-defense team (he was listed at forward for some reason) and whom only one active player voted as the best defender in the NBA — has been far and away the most dominant defensive force in these playoffs. The Lakers’ collective commitment on that end has been impressive all season, but it feels like a lineup of four Joes off the street with a dialed-in Davis could get consistent stops.
The Warriors’ sloppiness has killed them, too, in part due to the Lakers’ top-notch effort and hustle. The Lakers have 15 fewer turnovers than the Warriors, who finished 29th in turnover rate during the regular season.
“I just think the relentlessness, man, brings a smile to my face, makes me feel fuzzy and warm,” Darvin Ham said after Game 4. He even compared the Lakers’ defense to the ring-winning 2003-04 Pistons he played for — one of the best defensive teams of all-time.
“Just being around Ben (Wallace), ‘Sheed (Wallace), Chauncey (Billups), Rip (Hamilton), Tayshaun (Prince), Mike James, Lindsey Hunter, all these guys. Elden Campbell, Corliss (Williamson), Mehmet (Okur) — all those guys were totally focused on that end of the floor,” said Ham. “It really wasn’t pretty most nights, but we figured out a way. And a lot of it was due to our getting stops … So that’s one of the first things I wanted to check the box off of (as Lakers head coach): competitiveness, us being together, and us being accountable. And it all starts on the defensive (end).”
1) Free throws discrepancy vs. three-point advantage
The Lakers have a massive edge in free throw shooting. That’s to be expected, considering the Lakers’ led the NBA in FTA per game while the Warriors finished last. The Lakers excel when playing downhill and pounding the paint. The Warriors fouled the third-most often in the regular season. The Lakers have shot 103 freebies in the second round, compared to 51 by the Warriors. Draymond Green found himself in crippling foul trouble in Games 1 and 3.
The free-throw discrepancy has allowed the Lakers to weather the Warriors’ unsurprising three-point advantage, with the exception of back-to-back 40-point quarters in the middle of Game 2. In Game 1, the Warriors made 15 more triples, yet the Lakers scratched out a road thanks to 23 more free throw attempts. In Game 3, the Lakers hit two more threes, resulting in a 30-point win (critically enabling Ham to rest LeBron and AD for the fourth quarter). In Game 4, the Lakers shot 6-of-25 from deep but the Warriors were just 12-for-41, including a 3-for-14 showing from Curry (LeBron spending the fourth quarter physically pounding Steph on switches was a factor). Meanwhile, the Lakers converted 11 more free throws.
The Warriors’ shot selection hasn’t helped them either. At the end of Game 4, Klay Thompson jacked up two atrocious deep triples that never had a chance and left Steve Kerr visibly apoplectic. Jordan Poole’s nightmarish series — 8.0 PPG, .353/.316/.667 — can’t be overlooked, either.