Every good playoff series reaches a strategic endgame. This grimy, defense first, sometimes strange series between Western Conference titans appeared to approach that point down the stretch of the Los Angeles Lakers Game 4 win over the Golden State Warriors — and, fittingly, that endgame involved a prolonged reunion between the intergalactic superstars who have circled each other on the biggest stages for a decade: Stephen Curry and LeBron James.

Over and over, for various tactical reasons linked to the endgame lineups each team chose, they found themselves matched up against each other again on both ends: Curry testing LeBron’s defense on switches, LeBron (with Lonnie Walker IV as his improbable tag-team partner) hunting down Curry on the pick-and-roll like old times.

So much of the past and present collided on this possession:

What a wonderful callback to LeBron’s iconic, sneering block on Curry in the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ romp over the Warriors in Game 6 of the 2016 Finals — perhaps less explosive and a little gentler, the two all-timers now either in or entering the graybeard phases of their careers. (That 2016 game ended with Curry tossing his mouthpiece into the Cleveland crowd and getting ejected. You probably remember how that series ended.)

Curry spent the first half of Game 4 tearing apart the Lakers on pick-and-rolls targeting Anthony Davis — who began the game guarding Gary Payton II, the latest winner of Golden State’s starting five roulette. Remarkably, no single Golden State lineup has appeared in all four games of this series, per NBA.com. Their most-used group — the version of the starting five with JaMychal Green that lasted all of two games — has logged only 24 minutes. The Lakers’ starting five has played 55 minutes in the series — though that group is minus-5.

The Lakers slotting Davis onto Payton II was a predictable counter. In Game 3, Darvin Ham shifted Davis off of Draymond Green and onto JaMychal Green. Jarred Vanderbilt toggled onto Draymond Green, with Austin Reaves shifting to Curry. The idea was to switch the Curry-Draymond Green two-man ballet and allow Davis to hang off JaMychal Green — lording over the paint, as he did in the Lakers’ Game 1 win.

If the Warriors in Game 3 wanted to rope Davis into the pick-and-roll, well, they’d have to use JaMychal Green — a nonthreat rolling into open space (if he rolls at all; Green prefers to pop for 3s, and the Lakers are unconcerned about him shooting non-corner 3s.)

Payton isn’t Draymond Green, but he’s a canny playmaker. He is the Warriors’ best option defending D’Angelo Russell, allowing Curry to chill on Vanderbilt. The tweak made sense.

Curry tested Davis with an endless pile of Payton pick-and-rolls — and then with Kevon Looney, when Looney replaced Draymond Green. Those plays don’t target Davis so much as drag him from the basket, unlocking the paint and the rim.

Curry was brilliant until missing two open shots and committing a bizarre turnover in the last 90 seconds. He single-handedly broke the Lakers defense, rifling pocket passes, burrowing inside with hesitation dribbles that freed up his screeners for layups, turning the corner at times on Davis, firing jumpers when they were there. It was a reminder that, yes, Curry is and always has been a point guard even though he often acts and moves like a shooting guard and cedes playmaking to Green. Like most pantheon players, he contains ingredients of several player archetypes — forming something new, revolutionary, generational.

Curry ran 48 pick-and-rolls in Game 4, his highest total this season — and tied for his high in any game since 2017, per Second Spectrum. The Warriors scored 1.175 points per possession out of those plays — a fat number, more than enough to win in a series in which the defenses have dictated terms.

That’s another fun subplot here.

For all the glamor names and euphoric skill moves, both of these teams formed their identities around defense. The Warriors stamped themselves a serious team with a landmark 2012 trade flipping Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut — giving Curry the reins on offense and adding a tentpole in the middle on defense. Green is the best overall defender of the 3-point era. In their dynastic years, the Warriors were consistently among the very best defensive teams.

The Lakers won their 2020 title behind a huge, bruising defense — with Davis at the center of it, and Frank Vogel, a defense-first coach, demanding that defense and physicality become the Lakers’ bedrocks.

Curry was so dominant in the first half going at Davis, so artful, it left you wondering what tricks the Lakers could use to keep Davis out of the pick-and-roll — and nearer the paint. No matter where they might put Davis in man-to-man defense, Curry could simply call his man up for a pick. Might the Lakers resort to gimmicks — attempting to pre-switch Davis out of the play if they saw it coming, and have another Laker rush to take his man on the way to Curry?

On the broadcast, Stan Van Gundy suggested Davis perhaps all-out blitz Curry — an idea we toyed with on the Lowe Post podcast after Game 2, the notion being that a giant, long-limbed human flying at Curry might at least make that initial pocket pass to Davis’ man dicier and put the Warriors on their heels. Was a box-and-one, Nick Nurse-style, too outrageous? The Warriors have counters for all those counters. Davis stayed on Payton and kept defending the same way.

So why on that fourth-quarter pick-and-roll — ending in the LeBron block — is Curry going at LeBron and not Davis? It’s an interesting question with implications for both teams in this must-have Game 5 for the Warriors. Lose tonight and all the questions about the lifespan of the dynasty kick into high gear. Could this really be it?

The Warriors finished Game 4 with a small-ball lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Moses Moody, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green — their starters, with Moody swapped in for Payton II. That tweak took the Warriors from two non-shooters to one — Green. If Green screened for Curry, he’d be rolling into wide-open space with shooters all around.

This lineup type always loomed as Golden State’s endgame against Davis; it was just unclear if the Warriors had any variant of it they trusted. Starting Payton II was a signal that perhaps they didn’t. No one really stepped into the Otto Porter Jr. void as the bigger wing shooter to round out Green-at-center groups. Donte DiVincenzo is a bit undersized with a streaky jumper; that group has played five minutes in four games.

Jonathan Kuminga is nailed to the bench — somewhat surprising, but that’s where we are. Perhaps the story of the series with the biggest long-term consequence for Golden State is the evaporation of Jordan Poole. He has cracked double-digit scoring once in the Warriors’ past six games. Poole has 11 points and seven turnovers total since Game 1, when the once-hyped Poole Party small group sprinted to a comeback. It was a little maddening watching the Warriors with Curry rolling in Game 4 deviate into split actions and other beautiful game stuff with Poole as a central character:

Poole is a glaring liability on defense. He seems to be somehow getting worse.

If Golden State bows out and wants to preserve its foundational Curry-Green-Thompson trio while minimizing its tax bill (and the new roster-building consequences that come with it), exploring Poole trades is the common sense way to do it. Unfortunately, the other 29 teams are watching this series. In the meantime, the Warriors likely need one solid Poole game to rally here.

If Looney is over his illness, the Warriors could also lean more on their new-old-maybe-new-again starting five — with Draymond Green and Looney together. The Warriors have separated their two core bigs — both in this round and against the Sacramento Kings — because two dialed-in defenses demanded superior spacing. Still: That group has logged only 13 minutes this entire series, and sometimes you have to put your best guys on the floor (at least for a bit!) and count on them to make it work.

Against the Moody group in Game 4, the Lakers had Davis on Wiggins — with LeBron seizing the Draymond Green assignment. Davis had been guarding Wiggins for most of the second half; the Warriors at first responded with Curry-Wiggins pick-and-rolls — again to draw Davis out. The Lakers anticipated that; they would rather force Wiggins into a playmaking role than either Green or even Payton II.

But with Payton II on the bench and the floor spaced, the Warriors decided to park Wiggins on the wing — taking Davis with him — and go back to their bread-and-butter Curry-Draymond Green two-man game.

You can get the logic. Davis is on the sidelines — guarding a real shooter at the arc, not as free to rove and wreak havoc. Curry on that play above at first dusts LeBron and appears to have a clean path to the rim — or a kickout to Moody in the left corner with Reaves abandoning Moody to protect the basket; LeBron just makes a great play.

Here’s Curry making that corner kickout to DiVincenzo out of another Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll (this one at half court, always a good tweak) against LeBron — with Davis making a long, last-minute rotation from Wiggins high on the wing:

Davis is a presence but can’t manipulate the action in the same way stuck high on the floor against Wiggins. Here’s how the same Curry-Draymond Green action — also targeting LeBron — looks when Davis is on Payton II instead of Wiggins:

With Davis on Wiggins, it was worth exploring whether the Warriors could almost play Davis out of the action. It’s also a way to test LeBron — to try and tire him out. If the Lakers switch, can LeBron in minute 40 contain the jitterbug Curry one-on-one? If the Lakers drop back in traditional pick-and-roll defense, can LeBron take away both Curry and Draymond Green — and maintain dominion over the paint with Davis off to the side?

Here’s another attempt at it, and you see how Davis can lunge his way into Curry’s airspace — and maybe into his head:

From the Lakers’ perspective, you wonder: Should they just keep it simpler and put Davis back on Draymond Green against these shooting-heavy groups with Green at center? How effective can Davis be as a rover if he can’t rove as much? Might it be better to just put their best defender at the center of the action — even if it takes him further from the basket and exposes him to the occasional switch against Curry? (Davis, of course, enveloped Curry on a switch on the most important possession of the game, but that is not something any big man wants to do very often.)

It’s an interesting cost-benefit analysis. The answer is probably “some of both,” but the Warriors will surely press the issue again tonight.

Even if the Lakers keep Davis on Wiggins, they could potentially shift LeBron off of Draymond Green — and onto Moody (or DiVincenzo if he’s in the Moody slot.) That’s easier to do with Walker on the floor in Russell’s place — as was the case in crunch time of Game 4. The Lakers preferred hiding Russell on Moody, restricting their options. Walker in Games 3 and 4 took the primary assignment on Draymond Green in stretches. That could be one way of easing LeBron’s burden.

The Warriors could probably hunt Russell more than they are. They could try more Curry-Thompson pick-and-rolls to put Russell in motion and to see if they can get him into switches against Curry. They also found some traction running Thompson off pin downs from whoever LeBron or Davis is guarding — knowing Thompson might get separation from Russell and that Davis and LeBron want to stay home. If Russell is on Wiggins, they could look to post up Wiggins some.

On the other end, LeBron engaged his bully-ball gear — to the degree age and any lingering impact from his foot injury might allow — by targeting Curry on the pick-and-roll as both ball handler and screener. It was curious how easily the Warriors surrendered the Curry-on-LeBron switch. Curry and the core holdovers — coaches and players — have hundreds of reps hedging and rotating their way out of that predicament. They didn’t forget those principles. They were obviously ready to face this element of LeBron. Are they just not as worried about the mismatch all these years later — or less worried about LeBron bulldozing Curry than about getting into rotations?

(Walker, to his credit, set some nice screens, including some on which he seemed to surprise the Warriors by flipping sides at the last second.) `

LeBron could pull that lever in part because the Lakers limited Vanderbilt to 11 minutes — stocking the floor with as much shooting as possible around LeBron and Davis. It’s easier for LeBron (and anyone else) to plow into the paint if there aren’t a bunch of bodies cluttering it.

Both half-court defenses have been so good, the best source of points has been in transition. The Warriors roared ahead in the third quarter of Game 4 when the Lakers were lax getting back and matching up. The Lakers rebounded thanks in part to run outs and 16 more Warriors turnovers.

The Lakers are winning this series on the margins. They are No. 1 among second-round teams in free throw rate; the Warriors are last. The Warriors have attempted 51 free throws in four games. The Lakers have attempted 52 more than that. The Lakers are No. 1 in turnover rate on offense; the Warriors are last.

It is hard to imagine any team with LeBron and Davis losing three straight games when they can smell the conference finals. The Warriors have Games 5 and (if necessary) 7 at home, but the penalty for going down 3-1 is losing all margin of error against one mega outlier performance from an opposing star — or one outlier dud from your main guy.

The Warriors are champions. They have the talent and the confidence to give this a real run. If the fourth quarter of Game 4 foreshadowed how big chunks of the rest of this series will go — if both teams have landed upon their optimal rotation choices for this matchup — then Game 5 should be a frantic and tense battle — with Curry and LeBron, once more, going head to head at center stage.

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