It’s not Game 7 of the NBA Finals this time around, rather it’s the 7/8 play-in game — a place LeBron and company did not want to be — but it still a game that carries a lot of weight. The winner advances to the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the West and what is seen as a favorable path forward (first up, Chris Paul and his very good but not playoff-tested Suns). The loser has to play one more game for their playoff lives, and — if they win that — would face a Utah team that was best in the NBA this season.
Winning this play-in showdown matters. Here are three things to look for in this most anticipated of play-in games.
1) How is LeBron James’ ankle? How is he moving?
This is the central question to more than this game, it’s at the heart of the Lakers’ dream of repeat titles. Los Angeles is a top-heavy roster that needs LeBron and Anthony Davis playing like two top-five players on the planet. L.A. needs them to be the best duo in the NBA to have a chance.
LeBron was moving well in his two games back at the end of the season, but then tweaked the ankle that sidelined him for 20 games again at the end of the win over the Pelicans.
He will be on the court Thursday, but is he attacking the rim with ferocity, is he moving well on defense, is he chasing down loose balls and making hustle plays? LeBron is reportedly going to be playing with some ankle discomfort all postseason, but how much is it impacting his play.
If he is moving well it’s bad news for Golden State.
These Warriors simply do not have an Andre Iguodala to roll out and defend LeBron well. Draymond Green will be focused on Anthony Davis, and the Warriors do not have a good answer for last year’s Finals MVP. Andrew Wiggins will get a shot, but LeBron has torched him in the past. Kent Bazemore, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Jordan Poole are all overmatched.
LeBron could have a monster game… if he’s moving well.
2) How will the Lakers slow Stephen Curry?
Stephen Curry has looked close to his MVP self of late — he likely will finish top three in the MVP voting — and we have all seen that Curry take over games and dominate despite double teams, overloads, box-and-ones and every other defense imaginable being thrown at him.
A red-hot Curry can win this game for the Warriors — and they likely need that Curry to have a chance.
The Lakers have two things to slow Curry down.
First, make him play defense. As LeBron teams have done against Curry and the Warriors for years, look for the Lakers to drag Curry into pick-and-rolls no matter who he is guarding, trying to force a switch onto LeBron, then attack him. Part of it is that Curry is no match for a driving LeBron, but part of it is just to wear him down physically. Expect the Lakers to go at Curry, both with LeBron and Dennis Schroder.
Second, the Lakers have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has a surprisingly good history defending Curry. As noted by Sam Quinn at CBS Sports, in 16 games since 2013, Curry has averaged 20.1 points per game and shot just 32.6% from 3 against KCP. It may not be smart to bet on that kind of Curry-stopper night again from Caldwell-Pope, but if he can make Curry work and slow him down a little, that may be all the Lakers need.
3) Can the Warriors counter the Lakers’ size advantage?
The Lakers are a huge team. They start a front line of Andre Drummond with Anthony Davis and LeBron, and when they go “small” they still have Davis at the five with players such as Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma on the court. Oh, and don’t forget LeBron is 6’9″ and a runaway freight train when he gets going downhill.
The Warriors want to play small and fast — they thrive in a more chaotic, less structured game — but the Lakers have the talent to just bludgeon them inside. The Warriors are not a strong rebounding team and the Drummond/Davis duo could exploit that weakness for second-chance points.
The Warriors need to crash the boards, plus have Green and their other bigs hitting threes, trying to draw Drummond out of the paint and open up the floor. But even then, the Lakers are just a bigger team.
For the Warriors to win, they are going to have to shoot over the top of all that size and use their speed to throw the Lakers off balance. It’s a tall task.