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The Lakers Must Change to Close Out the Warriors

Los Angeles needs only one win to advance, but running it back won’t get it done against Golden State. Here’s how the Lakers need to adapt in order to finish off the defending champs.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After five competitive, riveting, and plot-driven games between the Warriors and Lakers, we’re now at the precipice of a massive Game 6.

Golden State was trailing 3-1 earlier this week, but it figured a few things out in its Game 4 loss, which it carried over into Wednesday’s Game 5 win. Now, the pressure is on Los Angeles to tweak its game plan, up the intensity, and make enough shots to avoid a Game 7 back in San Francisco. The Lakers have to win only one game, but they may have a tough time doing so without a few strategic counters.

There are several tactical battles worth taking a long look at, but ever since Steve Kerr inserted Gary Payton II into his starting lineup before Game 4—giving Golden State another dynamic four-on-three playmaker, which JaMychal Green is not—this series has been dictated by the Steph Curry pick-and-roll, which is one of the most unstoppable actions in NBA history. Despite having Anthony Davis, Jarred Vanderbilt, and the best defense in these playoffs, the Lakers have had a hard time slowing the pick-and-rolls down.

In Game 5, Davis threw several different looks at Curry. He switched, dropped, and stayed up to touch. Almost none of it worked. The Lakers allowed 1.3 points per direct play when Davis defended a Curry ball screen. That number is a gaping hole in their hull. They probably won’t win the series if it holds.

The first time Davis switched onto Curry, Lonnie Walker IV came over to double, and the Warriors did what they do best: attack in space. As Curry got off the ball, Payton II scurried to the dunker spot and momentarily caught LeBron James’s attention, which led to an off-balance closeout that Andrew Wiggins took advantage of with a blow-by:

Davis started this play on Draymond Green, which did the Warriors a favor. It dragged AD into the action and out of the paint while also encouraging Curry to operate with his best pick-and-roll partner—as opposed to Payton II (who is capable but is not Green) or Wiggins. Getting a switch early in the possession also let Curry scamper around off the ball and forced Davis to chase him on the perimeter.

If the Lakers suddenly embrace a switch-everything scheme, everybody needs to be on the same page, locked in at the point of attack and aware on the weak side. Here’s Austin Reaves fighting over a screen while Davis switches it, opening up a lane so Wiggins can dive into the paint for a layup (Vando is late with his help and then plays the pass to Draymond instead of trying to stop the shot):

And there’s no reason for Davis to switch onto Jordan Poole here, knowing Curry is on the weak side and none of his teammates can protect the rim:

But when it comes to adjustments, there are ways that the Lakers can limit Davis’s involvement in these actions and keep him closer to the paint. In Game 5, they opted not to do that on two of the most telling possessions. In both, the Warriors ran the exact same pick-the-picker action, where Wiggins set down a screen for Green, who came up to run a pick-and-roll with Curry:

The first time they did it, you could see LeBron pointing out the switch with the type of energy that’s reserved for a mid-January game against the Orlando Magic. The Warriors happily got the four-on-three advantage from there, and Wiggins capitalized with an and-1 layup.

Kerr liked what he saw so much that he decided to open the third quarter with the exact same play. This time, you could see Vanderbilt wanted to stay attached to Draymond (which kept Davis on Wiggins and let the Lakers switch him onto Curry). Instead, the Lakers submitted, and Curry burned AD going to his right hand before flicking a finger roll off the glass.

There’s no stopping Curry for an entire game when the ball is in his hands. But in a series with such tight margins, the Lakers have to do a better job performing their coverages with ideal personnel. Here’s what that looks like. Vanderbilt and Davis switch a Curry-Green pick-and-roll; with long arms, quick feet, and help behind them, Golden State’s bread and butter grows moldy.

Los Angeles may never gain the edge in this particular matchup, but it has ways to stop the bleeding, be it with disciplined half-court execution or a slower pace achieved by getting back in transition. The Lakers were gutted in Game 5 by a turbocharged, single-minded Warriors team that ran off everything: turnovers, missed 3s, made free throws, all of it.

Better command of the offensive glass will help, along with more trips to the free throw line and fewer turnovers. A bit of that is beyond the Lakers’ control. But sprinting back on defense, stopping the ball (while it’s understandable to worry about Klay Thompson streaking up the sideline, coast-to-coast layups will always be worse), balancing the floor better, and having patient shot selection are all achievable goals in Game 6.

On offense, the Lakers have some tough choices to make, including one that has to do with their starting lineup, which is generating a feeble 103.6 points per 100 possessions in this series. If any change is considered, it will likely involve Vanderbilt, an important part of their defensive identity who’s also played fewer minutes than Rui Hachimura. Vando has been in the starting lineup since Valentine’s Day, but before that, as a member of the Jazz, he was benched by a coaching staff looking to open up its offense.

Darvin Ham has some options. He can roll with Game 4 superhero Lonnie Walker IV, go small with Dennis Schröder (arguably L.A.’s third-best player in this series), or dust off the streaky Malik Beasley. All give the Lakers a punch that Vanderbilt can’t while better complementing the Lakers’ two superstars. Let’s say it’s Schröder, who has the best on/off numbers on the team right now. The Lakers could live with these defensive matchups, with Davis on Wiggins, D’Angelo Russell on Payton II, LeBron on Draymond, Reaves on Steph, and Schröder on Thompson.

A lineup adaptation is something LeBron may need. It’s easier to accentuate this version of him when he’s surrounded by players who can space, pass, drive, and make plays on their own. L.A. has been outscored by 4.8 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the court—with a very bad offense—and its net rating is plus-14.6 when he’s on the bench. This does not mean James should take a permanent seat or that the Lakers are better without him. But it does signal that some stuff isn’t working. We already talked about some defensive problems—late rotations, lazy closeouts—earlier in this piece, but LeBron hasn’t been able to take over with the ball.

The Warriors aren’t doubling him in the post. They aren’t showing the type of defensive help he used to see in isolation, either. It’s jarring. (Just speculating here, but there’s a decent chance Golden State told the league office to keep an eye on LeBron’s post-ups before he was called for violating the Mark Jackson rule in the first quarter of Game 5.)

He’s averaging only 4.8 assists per game, and the level of matchup hunting that he helped popularize against this exact team in multiple NBA Finals is not what it used to be. This doesn’t make the action fruitless, though, particularly when he gets a switch and is able to assert his will via bully ball:

But the Warriors were ready for it in Game 5. Instead of switching, Curry showed and recovered, forcing LeBron into tough, taxing shots. LeBron shouldn’t abandon the strategy, but he may be better served attacking someone like Poole, who would easily be the worst defender in this matchup if D’Angelo Russell wasn’t also here.

For all the talk about James pacing himself, it’d make sense to harness his strengths against Golden State’s weakest link as often as possible. James has targeted Poole only twice in this entire series. Those plays yielded five points, and when you watch them, it’s easy to see how much meat is on the bone:

Another option: Assuming he’s good to go, the Lakers can look for Davis more, particularly when Golden State is small and Green is guarding him. (Putting Draymond in foul trouble is a sure path to victory.) The Lakers can run AD off wide pin-downs. They can establish him on the block with a cross screen. They can give it to him at the top of the key and invert a pick-and-roll. There are so many different ways for this guy to punish a defense that has no one-on-one answer for an entire game. A 23.8 usage rate doesn’t cut it.

The Lakers are sitting pretty, up 3-2 with an opportunity to win at home and reach the conference finals. But they’re also minus-four in the series, against a proud defending champion that’s found its footing and embraced a style of play that can carry it through the next two games. It feels silly to call closing out Golden State an uphill battle, but if the Lakers have the same lethargic approach to Game 6 as they did to Game 5—and if they let the Warriors dictate matchups and pace—that’s exactly what it will look like.