NBA playoffs: Defending champion Warriors are unserious, while Lakers' Anthony Davis comes up clutch
The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers were one home win away from fulfilling their destiny in an unexpected collision course, perhaps the last, between the NBA’s two biggest stars.
All Stephen Curry and LeBron James had to do was take care of business on their respective home courts.
Curry’s Warriors gave the Sacramento Kings life as the Kings dominated the champions on their home floor with a decisive win. But the Lakers treated the evening with the appropriate focus and put the Grizzlies out of their misery with the biggest playoff win of the first round. We are still one win away from either a playoff series with historical implications or one that strikes notes of history from over two decades ago.
Golden State and Sacramento will dance again Sunday afternoon — the Lakers earned the right to wait.
Here are five takeaways from Friday’s games.
The champions are unserious
Perhaps an easy way to see if a reigning champion has lost its edge is watching them squander opportunities to close out a series.
For the Warriors, a champion’s poise has been replaced by an arrogance that’s almost insulting, but if we’ve been watching them all season it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Warriors had everything going for them headed into Game 6: They believed they took the heart from the upstart Kings with a Game 5 win in Sacramento, and did not treat them with the appropriate respect coming into Friday. It was evident from the tip, when the Kings took an early lead and never quite looked back.
It felt reminiscent of the first two games when the Kings ran, and ran, and ran some more. De’Aaron Fox’s injury slowed him down only so much; the injured finger on his shooting hand didn’t stop him from getting wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He kept pushing the pace, in the set offense or after baskets or turnovers, and it kept the Warriors on their heels. If you didn’t know any better, with the way the Warriors approached the game, it wasn’t obvious which team was the playoff-tested bunch versus the novices.
Curry again looked casual, as he did in Game 5 for large stretches, but he wouldn’t be saved by his teammates. Instead, they followed his lead.
Jordan Poole has gotten a lot of slack in a lot of different spaces this season, but he signed a pretty sizable contract in the preseason that says he should be culpable for his role in the Warriors’ success. Instead, he acted like a Harlem Globetrotter for most of the night and his team can’t afford such an approach. Good and heady plays were offset by boneheaded ones, sometimes in the immediate aftermath. He can challenge defenses in ways his teammates can’t, but his shot selection often produces fast-break opportunities for the Kings, which cannot be gifted to them. He was 2 for 11 and Curry, while 9 of 21, had as many turnovers as assists (five).
Winning again in Sacramento might be too much to ask for a proud champion, and given how they played Friday, one wonders if it’ll even be close.
Steve Kerr is rightfully a top-15 coach of all time, but Mike Brown clearly learned from him and has some level of cheat code against his former employer.
Brown took lemons and made applesauce, abandoning some level of conventional wisdom and going small against the team that’s made going small famous. In the second quarter, the Kings went without any level of big man on the floor and the Warriors didn’t know what to do with it. Kerr responded by going with Kevon Looney and Draymond Green, and it didn’t work. Malik Monk, as he did in Game 5, ran wild all over the Warriors defense, scoring 28 with 7 rebounds.
They didn’t let the small things bother them, they weren’t intimidated by the “Warriors” chant whenever Golden State went on a modest run. A lot of that has to be attributed to Brown and his approach to a team that appears to teeter on the edge, but seems to play with a maturity and seriousness befitting of a contender. They weren’t broken by Game 5, although they could’ve been.
Fox again exploited the Warriors defense, regardless of his injury, by pushing the pace and spraying to open shooters. The champions have more to do than just winning on the road again; the champions are in trouble.
Kings’ bigger problem
At some point, we have to give the Kings some credit. Domantas Sabonis will get a lot of end-of-ballot MVP love and rightfully so, but he was all out of sorts in Game 5. Rookie Keegan Murray continues to grow up in this series, not only hitting open shots but playing solid defense and playing mistake-free basketball. But neither was a huge factor throughout.
Murray hit four 3s and scored 15 with 12 rebounds, but shot 29% from the field. Sabonis was just as miserable. And yet, the end-of-bench players were in with five minutes left on the road against a so-called invincible team.
The Warriors’ vaunted five didn’t look so unbeatable and now they’re dinged up and confidence bruised headed into Game 7. The Kings feel confident and ready to get back on their home floor, knowing they have the champions on the ropes. Can they knock them out? Don’t say they can’t.
Fine in the West
Which the Grizzlies are, because they’re home. They didn’t bother to leave Memphis after Game 5, perhaps feeling satisfied in staving off elimination on their home floor. They’ve shown to be more bark than bite, and when things don’t go their way, they don’t even bark anymore.
The second seed in the West went out in embarrassing fashion, and has proven to be an unserious operation. Remember when the Grizzlies felt they were a Ja Morant injury from being real contenders in the West last spring? That was a long time ago. There was no focus, no intent and no execution in Game 6. They’ve shown to be exactly who they are, and the front office has to take a hard look at what they want to be moving forward.
Morant is a franchise player, but he has to comport himself that way. Dillon Brooks is a huge part of their identity, but can they afford to employ such a volatile player who doesn’t seem to know his place in the league or on his team’s hierarchy? Of course, Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke’s injuries will hang heavily in the aftermath. But it’s no excuse for the beatdown they took and the breakdowns they went through in the decisive Game 4 when they squandered a late lead, and subsequently, the series. Game 6 was more a formality than an opportunity for the Grizzlies, and taking the next step isn’t as easy as it appears.
Anthony Davis steps up defensively
How good is Davis? Well, he had two legit lethargic games (by his standards) and played under 30 minutes in this one but still finished with the second-most blocks by a Laker in a playoff series (26) — in six games, no less. He put five on the book in this game, and not just stopping activity at the rim. Davis thwarted Morant’s 15-footer early in the game and it seemed to set a tone for everything later.
Granted, the Grizzlies did the Lakers a favor by not showing up, but Davis showed why he can be a generational defensive player when he wants to be. He probably won’t make an All-Defense team, but he could be the best one remaining in these playoffs — Green notwithstanding.
Who knows if he’s the best player on the Lakers? Of course, James takes up so much oxygen still and can rev it up for short periods when he needs to. But Davis feels like the barometer for this team, as he goes the rest follows.
The travel in the next series won’t be as bad, which is great news for Davis as this series goes along. He has to stay engaged and enraged for the next few weeks. He’s not the Lakers’ only hope, but he’s their best hope to be more than a cute story.
Safe to say, the Lakers are real-life title contenders. And who in their right minds could’ve said that two months ago? Four months ago? Or four weeks ago? It’s all wide open — for everybody.