Draymond Green’s defensive effort on Anthony Davis and other X-factors that will shape Warriors-Lakers Game 3
The Lakers achieved the goal they’d set out when they traveled to the Bay Area, winning Game 1 of their second-round series with the Warriors to take home-court advantage back to Los Angeles with them this weekend. Golden State got what it wanted Thursday, too — whatever it wanted, honestly, especially in the second and third quarters — in a 27-point blowout that knotted the series at one game apiece, putting the onus on Darvin Ham and Co. to tilt the balance back in their favor in the friendly confines of, um, Crypto.com Arena. (Really rolls off the tongue.)
After watching, rewatching, reading and thinking, here are three questions at the top of my mind heading into Saturday’s Game 3:
How does AD parry Draymond’s thrust?
Anthony Davis cast a titanic shadow over Game 1, dominating the run of play on both ends of the court — 30 points on 19 shots, 23 rebounds, five assists and four blocks, with only one turnover and two fouls in 44 minutes of work (we’ll get back to that) — to stake L.A. to a 1-0 lead. Changing the Warriors’ fortunes would require changing the degree to which Davis bossed the game. That process started with changing the way they defended him.
In Game 1, Kevon Looney — fresh off a phenomenal performance against Domantas Sabonis in Golden State’s opening-round victory over the Kings — got the bulk of the AD assignment. Davis looked extremely comfortable in that matchup, scoring 17 points on 8-for-11 shooting with four assists, no turnovers, and one shooting foul drawn, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. In Game 2, though — with Looney under the weather and out of the starting lineup, and with Golden State in need of more force to keep Davis from making his presence felt — Steve Kerr’s search for defensive answers led him to the same place he’s turned for a decade: Draymond Green.
“Draymond was brilliant,” the Warriors coach told reporters after the game. “He’s our engine, and we decided to put him on Davis tonight.”
It made plenty of sense, considering how successful that alignment had been in the past.
Prior to Thursday, Green had guarded Davis more than 600 times in the half-court since the 2017-18 season, limiting the star big man to 161 points on 145 shot attempts, or 1.11 points per shot, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Against the league at large, Davis has averaged 1.34 points per shot in that same span. Green had also held Davis to an effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the fact that a 3-pointer is worth more than a 2-pointer) of 45.9% on those matchups — 3.5 percentage points below what AD would’ve been expected to shoot, based on factors like the location of the shooter and defender at the time of the shot, and 5.6 percentage points below Davis’ eFG% against everybody else.
Past performance does not necessarily guarantee future results. It did pretty much lay out the state of play Thursday, though: Davis scored just six points on seven shot attempts with Green guarding him, dishing just one assist while committing two turnovers, and generally looking far less comfortable far more frequently than he had at the start of the series.
Anthony Davis dominated Game 1; he barely made a dent in Game 2. If you're looking for a succinct explanation, "Draymond Green" is a pretty good place to start. pic.twitter.com/ZzOgbE1T0I
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) May 5, 2023
As promised, Green ratcheted up his physicality, bodying up Davis from the opening tip and refusing to let him get to his spots cleanly. To any spots, really. Whether Davis was moving to the block to look for a post catch, rumbling into the paint to jostle for rebounding position, or coming up to the perimeter to set a screen, Green clung close, making sure at every turn that the eight-time All-Star knew he was in for a long night. One downstream benefit of giving Draymond the assignment is that it also involves him in any AD-related action; suddenly, every time Austin Reaves or D’Angelo Russell comes off, they’re staring straight down the barrel of the former Defensive Player of the Year.
Golden State’s wings played a key role. They kept their hands in the passing lane to prevent pocket passes on Davis’ rolls and stunted toward him whenever he got on the move, helping ensure that every catch came in traffic. When the ball actually made its way to Davis, there was Green, ready to stop his forward momentum and influence him into floaters, pull-ups and half-hooks. No layups, no dunks: Only three of Davis’ 11 field-goal attempts came within 6 feet of the rim.
By the third quarter, Davis had become something of an afterthought, stationed primarily in the corner but without L.A. running any of the pet sets where he comes out of the corner, takes a pindown and flows into a catch at the elbow that allows him to attack downhill. He’d been reduced to a spectator … which, in turn, allowed Draymond to resume playing more of the roaming free safety role he occupies when not locked in possession-by-possession combat with an elite threat. Camping out in the corner, when combined with Draymond’s attentive and aggressive box-outs, also reduced the threat of AD pouncing on second-chance opportunities; he grabbed just one offensive rebound Thursday after averaging three per game against Memphis and hauling in four in Game 1.
The version of Davis the Lakers got in Game 1 can win them this series. The version they got in Game 2, though, leaves them without the requisite firepower to go toe-to-toe with the defending champs.
Davis, as you might expect, didn’t see it that way.
"I took all the same shots I took in Game 1. I just missed them," he said after the game. "Elbow jumpers. Pocket passes to the floater. Same exact looks. Didn't shoot no shot that I didn't shoot in Game 1. Just missed them. That's all."
If the Lakers can’t ensure that he’s getting those same exact looks off harried catches and with Green permanently planted in his face, though, then I’m guessing the Warriors will happily take their chances with that shot diet.
Pace-and-space or ground-and-pound?
When word began to circulate before tip that Kerr had chosen to downsize to start Game 2, it made sense to me. The Warriors didn’t crack a point per possession with the traditional Looney/Draymond two-big look in Game 1, so why not get another shooter on the floor to try to decongest the offense? Especially considering how much Golden State finally got unstuck during a fourth quarter that saw Kerr damn the torpedoes with the “Poole Party” lineup that had so much success last postseason. (It was less effective in small doses this season.)
The specifics actually wound up differing a bit. Golden State would stay “big,” but with versatile floor-spacer JaMychal Green, not a guard, joining Draymond up front and would do so perhaps as much for physical reasons as for tactical ones. The gist, though, remained the same. The Warriors needed something that might make it harder for Davis to lord over the paint the way he did in Game 1, when he helped limit them to just 35 shot attempts in the lane and a scant 28 points in the paint. Sure, JaMychal Green had logged fewer than 800 minutes during the regular season and barely played against Sacramento in Round 1, but he shot 37.8% from 3-point land this season; maybe he could help?
It worked like a charm, both in terms of JaMychal Green’s individual production — a postseason-career-high-tying 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including 3-for-6 from long distance, in 13 minutes — and in the overall effect of Golden State mothballing two-big lineups.
Whether Kerr was leaning toward that adjustment or not, Looney’s illness confirmed the course, and it paid off handsomely. The only non-shooters that Kerr played through the first three quarters were Draymond Green and Looney … and they shared the court for all of one minute. Gary Payton II, who played 12 minutes in Game 1, didn’t get into Game 2 until that garbage-time fourth quarter, while Moses Moody, who played just six minutes in the opener, checked in midway through the first Thursday and made a real impact, with seven points, four rebounds, two assists and some strong defense through the first three quarters.
Kerr leaned longer on Moody and Donte DiVincenzo, entrusted Andrew Wiggins with the tall task of rebounding at the 4 in small-ball lineups and, most importantly, put the ball in the hands of Stephen Curry. It was a bet that, if Golden State fielded lineups featuring only one legitimate player who wasn’t a legitimate shooting threat — and if that non-shooter, either Draymond or Looney, was a plus frontcourt playmaker adept at getting shooters open — the Lakers wouldn’t be able to clog the paint, shut off the interior and tilt the math to the point where seemingly no amount of Warrior triples would be enough.
It was a pretty good bet.
“It was hard for us to guard four shooters,” Lakers forward Rui Hachimura said after the game.
Especially when all that shooting comes attached to a clear game plan to push the pace at every opportunity: off defensive rebounds, off made shots, off turnovers, whenever. The Warriors’ average offensive possession was about a half-second quicker in Game 2 than in Game 1, according to Inpredictable, and their commitment to hunting early offense — whether manufacturing transition chances or just getting into their actions earlier in the shot clock and with more punch in the half-court — at times left the Lakers scrambling to match up and out of sorts. That can be a recipe for disaster against an array of capable shooters, to say nothing of historic snipers like Curry and Klay Thompson, who drilled eight of his 11 long-range tries.
That's twice now that Klay has come off the screen, seen AD not all the way up, and just pulled it. And then Wiggins pops it on the trail 3 with AD two steps back. It's *really* hard to get out there on all of these.
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) May 5, 2023
And then, because AD's gotten burned a few times by not being out far enough, he jumps out at Klay on the catch ... and gets pump-faked out of the play, one-side dribble, splash. They have so many ways to make you wrong. https://t.co/LQZN0vZaJZ
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) May 5, 2023
“These guys, they shoot the ball at an alarming rate, and their clip in which they make them is also alarming if you have to try to defend it,” Ham told reporters after the game. “Many times in transition or different actions, you tend to have a late switch or early switch. You get cross-matched. No one guy is going to stop Steph Curry or Klay Thompson. It’s going to take an entire defensive unit.”
And potentially an entirely reconfigured approach. You have to take away something. In Game 1, the Lakers were able to aggressively ignore Golden State’s non-shooters enough to take away pretty much everything on the interior. Kerr putting more shooting on the floor in Game 2 neutralized that plan; after shooting 14-for-35 (40%) in the lane in Game 1, the Warriors went 21-for-37 (56.8%) in the paint in the competitive portion of Game 2.
If the Lakers can’t rely on being able to sag off non-shooters, then how do they defend Golden State? It starts on offense: More paint attacks and more aggression on the offensive glass to extend possessions and generate free throws will make it harder for the Warriors to crank up the heat and go on scoring jags like the 13-2 second-quarter run that gave them a double-digit lead, or the 14-4 spurt early in the third to push the advantage up near 20.
More efficient offense is only a start, though. Slowing down these Warriors means perpetually nailing the back-and-forth of stepping out to contest their shooters and getting back to protect the rim, again and again, over and over, for 48 minutes. It’s exhausting; it has broken opponent after opponent over the years. It’s up to a Lakers team that’s been elite defensively since shuffling its roster at the trade deadline to find the answers that prove they’re the exception to nearly a decade of Golden State rule.
"We're still the best defensive team in the league, if not one of them," James told reporters after the game. "So that doesn't change. That's what we hang our hats on. ... That doesn't stop no matter who we're playing against."
Who’s in it for the long haul?
Ironically, going down by 30 entering the fourth quarter might’ve been the best thing that could’ve happened to the Lakers, if for no other reason than it led Ham to wave the white flag during the between-quarters commercial break.
Turning the entire fourth quarter into a garbage-time production helmed by “Wait, He’s Back in the League?” Tristan Thompson and featuring extended run for Max Christie and Shaquille Harrison meant that L.A.’s starters could take a load off. That’s especially important for Davis, who’d played 40-plus minutes only three times this season prior to Round 2 before logging 44 in Game 1 and 34 through the first three quarters of Game 2 — playing 77 of the first 84 minutes of this series.
Man, they gotta get AD a Mophie charger or Tesla battery back. It’s dammit time when he sits. This is why Ham played him 44 mins last game. Would rather have him out there on fumes than deal with what comes with him out.
— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) May 5, 2023
That workload is as understandable as it is eyebrow-raising. Throughout this postseason, Davis has shown that he is both the Lakers’ most dangerous offensive weapon and the linchpin of their defense. L.A. is plus-48 in the 295 minutes AD’s played in the playoffs and has been outscored by 25 in the 94 minutes he’s sat. Ham’s leaning on AD to be a constant force because he has to; this is the formula the Lakers have ridden, and it’s been successful thus far.
How well can a behemoth like AD hold up under that kind of workload, though, against an opponent whose counterpunch is downsizing and forcing you to run wind sprints? How much juice will LeBron — 38 years old, with an NBA-record amount of mileage on his body and a torn tendon in his right foot — have if he too continues to log high-30s/low-40s minute totals at this pace? It felt notable that, after James came out on fire to start Game 2, with 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the first quarter, he scored just nine points on 10 shots in the second and third, and seemed to offer little defensive resistance as the Warriors ramped up and ran away with the win.
"We have to manage their loads throughout the regular season in order for us to push them a little further during this time of year," Ham told reporters after Game 1. "Postseason, everything is at its peak. You have to pare down your rotation, and you got to push the big dogs. Your big dogs got to be there early and often."
The Lakers’ big dogs were there in Game 1; two days later, they barely got off the porch. In a series that will feature only one rest day between games the rest of the way, how many more times they can marshal enough energy and effort to stay stride-for-stride with the Warriors could go a long way toward determining who moves on to the Western Conference finals, and who starts a long, hard summer much earlier than they wanted.