LeBron James and Stephen Curry are the two superstars who have defined the NBA over the past decade and their head-to-head matchup in the Western Conference semifinals is a gift for basketball fans around the world.
After the Los Angeles Lakers won Game 1 by pounding the paint, the Golden State Warriors responded by blowing out Los Angeles by 27 points Thursday, evening the series. Now the action moves down the coast for what is arguably the single biggest playoff game in Lakerland since Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol lifted L.A. past the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. Game 3 will go a long way to determining the outcome of this star-studded second-round series, but what does each team have to do to win it?
Let’s explore three key factors that will determine the outcome of this game — and potentially the series.
Will the real Anthony Davis please stand up? In Game 1 he looked like prime Shaquille O’Neal. In Game 2, he was outscored by JaMychal Green, who started one game this season before Thursday.
A statistical roller coaster has haunted Davis, so if the Lakers want to oust the defending champions they will need Davis to be the most dominant paint player on both ends of the court.
On offense, Davis sets the tone for the Lakers’ interior aggression, and in Game 1 he was ferocious, attempting nine layups and dunks. That number dropped to just three in Game 2. Just like his legendary teammate, Davis is terrifying as a scorer in the paint, and mostly harmless outside of it.
Out of 187 players who attempted at least 250 jump shots this season, both Davis and James rank in the bottom 10 in efficiency. An average Davis jumper has produced just 0.8 points (James is slightly better at 0.87), so Draymond Green and the Warriors’ savvy defense will be happy to pack the paint and watch the Lakers try to outshoot them. Davis and the Lakers have to resist those tempting jumpers and attack the heart of the scoring area if they want to keep up with Golden State’s sharpshooting offense.
On defense, Davis has been mostly marvelous all postseason. He’s blocked 33 shots, 15 more than any other player. His elite rim protection is the biggest reason why the Lakers have the second-ranked postseason defense. However, a closer look reveals he has some room for improvement as a stopper away from the rim.
In Game 2, the Warriors attacked Davis in pick-and-roll situations effectively, and that’s an understatement.
The Lakers allowed 1.88 points per chance on the 19 screens when Davis was the defender, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That is the worst efficiency allowed in any of the 483 games in which Davis defended at least 15 on-ball screens since player tracking began 10 years ago.
And while Davis’ rim protection has been downright Mutombian this postseason, his 3-point defense has not. The Warriors are 8-of-14 shooting on 3s when Davis has been the closest defender, which brings us to another huge factor in this series.
2. Golden State’s 3-point shooting
Here’s one of the most stunning stats from this young series: The Warriors have scored 126 points on 3s and 96 on 2s.
As you might have heard, Curry and Klay Thompson are good at 3-point shooting. Only one player in NBA history has made more postseason 3s than Thompson, and that’s Curry. Any team that wants to bounce the Splash Bros. from the playoffs needs to contain their long-range buckets. So far, that has not happened. The four players in this series who have made at least five 3s all play for Golden State (Thompson, Curry, Jordan Poole and JaMychal Green).
Lakers coach Darvin Ham deserves credit for building one of the best defenses in the league on the fly. After the Lakers rebuilt their roster at the trade deadline, Los Angeles morphed into a defensive juggernaut. Between the deadline and end of the regular season, the Lakers posted the best defensive rating in the Western Conference. That has extended into the playoffs. But if the Lakers want to see the conference finals, they have to be better at defending the arc, where Golden State has made 21 3s in each of the first two games (by comparison, the Lakers allowed more than 20 3s in a game just once in the entire regular season).
The Warriors’ shooters present far more of a threat from the outside than the Lakers, but it’s Golden State’s defense that’s getting in shooters’ faces. The Warriors defense has logged a “heavy contest rate” of 57.6% through 2 games, while the Lakers have posted a 47.4% rate.
As a defender, no Laker has been closer to more made 3s this series than D’Angelo Russell, who has watched nine of them. Davis isn’t far behind, and he looked too slow or lethargic multiple times in Game 2 when Thompson was firing from downtown. One way for Davis to change the culture of this series would be to block a few 3-point shots; all seven of his blocks so far this series have come inside 10 feet. However, only five of Davis’ 114 blocks this season came on 3-pointers, and only one of those came after Dec. 1.
Still, if the Lakers don’t find some way to limit the Warriors to fewer than 21 3-pointers a game, they’re going to lose this series.
3. LeBron, the Creator
Throughout his incredible 20-year career, LeBron James has made every player around him better. He ranks fourth all time in assists and is the all-time leader in 3-point assists, but James isn’t exactly dropping dimes like we’re used to so far in this series.
When the Lakers won the title in the bubble in 2019-20, James averaged 8.8 assists per game in the playoffs, and those assists generated 22.6 points per game. In this series, James is averaging just 3.5 assists, leading to only 8.0 points per game. His 4.8 assists per game this postseason are tied for his career low (also 4.8 in 2013-14). What happened? Russell happened.
James has been sharing primary playmaking duties with his new teammate, who had more touches and more passes than James in Game 2, and used more than twice as many screens than James. The NBA’s all-time leading scorer is posting the second-lowest usage rate of his playoff career, ahead of only 2010-11, when he was still figuring out how to play alongside Dwyane Wade and infamously disappeared in the last three games of the NBA Finals.
However, even in that series, James averaged 6.8 assists, including a 10-assist game in Miami’s Game 5 loss — four of which were on 3-pointers. Through two games in this series, James has assisted on only one 3-point basket. The Lakers are shooting 1-for-9 on 3s off of James’ passes, which means only 15% of their 59 3-point attempts have been set up by the four-time Finals MVP.
The Lakers don’t have much 3-point shooting to begin with — don’t forget, James famously said “It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team” after the team’s opening-night loss to the Warriors — but if James isn’t creating good looks for the few shooters who can make them, then it’s hard to imagine the King dethroning the defending champions.