Lakers vs. Warriors was billed as LeBron James versus Stephen Curry. But in reality those two haven't had much of anything to do with one another through the first three games of the series, which Los Angeles now leads 2-1 after a 127-97 victory over Golden State on Saturday.
This has been, and will continue to be, a series of adjustments, which is to say the most pivotal matchup, so far at least, has been on the sideline. In Game 1, Warriors coach Steve Kerr started his traditional five-man lineup with Kevon Looney and Draymond Green, two non-shooters, as the double bigs, and deployed Stephen Curry mainly off-ball.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham, without the threat of Curry running pick-and-roll to draw Anthony Davis to the perimeter, sat back and watched Davis completely control the paint and decimate the slow-footed Looney on the other end, while the Lakers' defense squeezed Golden State's spatially challenged offense.
In Game 2, Kerr put the ball in Curry's hands to start possessions, running more pick and roll to draw Davis up, force Curry double teams, and unlock the 4-on-3 advantages that Golden State has made so much hay with over the years.
The strategy was made even more effective by Kerr starting JaMychal Green instead of Looney. That put four shooters on the floor rather than three, and the extra threat was too much for L.A. to account for as it was in constant rotation after Curry got the ball moving. It worked wonders. Curry only needed 12 shots to score 20 points, while racking up 12 assists as everyone got open looks all over the court.
With Looney out of the starting lineup, Kerr also put Draymond Green on Davis in Game 2, and Davis, not coincidentally, had just 11 points and seven rebounds. He was basically a non-factor. Davis said afterward that he got all the same shots that he did in Game 1, but that wasn't true. Green defended the hell out of him.
It was three huge adjustments from Kerr: Playing Curry on ball, starting JaMychal and deploying Draymond on Davis. It worked wonders. Golden State rolled. Series tied.
In Game 3, knowing Kerr was going to stick with what worked in Game 2, Ham tweaked his Davis defensive matchup, assigning his superstar big man to cover JaMychal Green instead of Draymond Green, who was accounted for by Jarred Vanderbilt.
What did that accomplish? Well, now when Draymond comes to screen for Curry, the Lakers just switch the action with Vanderbilt, who had been Curry's primary defender for much of the series. So now, instead of the Warriors being able to screen Vanderbilt off Curry, they're bringing Vanderbilt to Curry if they choose to use Draymond as the screener, which they want to do. See below:
Here it is in video form early in the game. Steph involves AD in the screen by asking JMG to come up, but he's nowhere near the dynamic roller Draymond is. Dray comes for the hand off but they can switch this with Vando, and AD ends up blocking Curry by roaming off JMG. pic.twitter.com/f7iSXQGfnZ— Raj C. (@RajChipalu) May 7, 2023
If that's Davis covering Green, it's also Davis who has to come out on the perimeter and guard Curry, which he can't do, and it has the double-whammy impact of also eliminating Davis as a rim protector.
So why don't the Warriors just send whoever Davis is covering -- in the case of Game 3, JaMychal Green to start -- to set the screen for Curry, forcing Davis into the action? Well, maybe that will become one of Kerr's Game 4 adjustments. But for Game 3, Kerr didn't trust JaMychal to be the quarterback of the offense once Curry gives the ball up. He wants Draymond in that role. The Lakers want Vanderbilt on Curry and Davis in the paint. Ham effectively started possessions with Austin Reaves on Curry on the bet that Vanderbilt, after switching, would finish on him.
Ham bet right, and it threw everything off for the Warriors. As you saw in the clip above, Davis once again wreaked havoc as a rim protector and overall defender without having to worry about being involved in the Curry pick and rolls. Davis was everywhere. The Curry pick-and-roll threat was relatively neutralized. Round 3 goes to Ham as the Lakers roll.
So now we look ahead to Game 4. Specifically, what will Kerr come up with to draw Davis out of the paint and reignite the Curry-led offense? One, he could isolate Curry on Reaves and just let him go one on one. Reaves is a good defender, but that would likely force Vanderbilt back onto Curry. But then you still have the problem of who screens for Curry as going isolation on Vando all game long isn't as tasty an option. They still need to get AD back on Draymond.
To me, whether Kerr wants to isolate Curry or run pick and roll, he has to start a true fourth shooter who will adequately space the floor -- not a sort of big guy, like JaMychal, who can sort of shoot. A real shooter. A small one that Davis cannot guard. I'm thinking Jordan Poole.
It's true, Poole has been horrific over the last two games of this series, and he was pretty awful against the Kings in the first round, too. His defense is appalling. His shot selection and drunken dribbling frenzies are infuriating. But he's a threat. The Lakers have to cover him out to 25 feet at least. The floor gets spread. It worked against the Kings.
And again, most importantly, the Lakers can't hide Davis on Poole the way they can JaMychal. Guarding Poole would pull Davis totally out of the paint. Besides, he's just not going to be chasing a little pest like Poole around. He's not going to guard Wiggins or Klay, either. And obviously not Steph.
It would force Ham to put Davis back on Draymond, who can then go back to his conventional two-man games with Curry. Now Davis is back in the same predicament as Game 2: Come out of the paint and deter Curry from pulling up off the ball screen, or sag back and allow Curry to fire nukes into your season. If the Lakers decide to full double Curry, then Draymond breaks them down off the short roll, as he's been doing for the past decade.
Kerr could also consider starting Donte DiVincenzo or even Moses Moody instead of Poole. Either, for the most part, would accomplish the same thing as starting Poole in terms of serving as a fourth floor-spacer and forcing Davis back into guarding Draymond.
But starting Poole could have the added benefit of getting the best out of him personally. He plays better with the starters, and the bottom line is the Warriors likely need the best of Poole, at least for a few games, to win this series.
Will Ham preempt this potential Kerr adjustment with one of this own? I'm not sure what he could do. Some kind of pre-switch or peel strategy to maybe get Davis off Draymond before he has to mess with the Curry actions.
But those mechanisms demand their own kinds of rotations; getting the Lakers into rotation, one way or another, is Golden State's goal. Also, there are a lot of mistakes to be made with that many pre-action moving parts, to the extent that they're even possible on a spaced floor with an instinctive screener like Draymond.
Davis wants to lay off Green from the start, which allows Green to run into dribble-handoffs with any of Golden State's shooters. The rub, of course, is the Warriors become incredibly small. Andrew Wiggins would be their tallest starter at 6-foot-7. Davis would potentially kill them on the offensive glass. Green could end up in major foul trouble, as he did in Game 3. Then again, that stuff didn't happen in Game 2.
It would be a risk to go that small against Davis if he decides to get into bully mode, but to me, it's one that Kerr has to take. Just as the Lakers have to take away Curry's shooting and shot creation to whatever extent they can, the Warriors have to neutralize Davis to whatever extent they can.
Allowing Davis to cover JaMychal Green, which is an effective license to cover everyone else, is inviting him to dominate in the same way drop-coverage invites Curry to dominate. Kerr has to make a move here. And I think starting Poole in Game 4 is the most logical one.