Lakers operating with an ‘appropriate fear’ against Stephen Curry and the Warriors
Golden State Warriors guard Kent Bazemore could describe what was ahead for him, his team and his opponent Wednesday night.
“Bright lights,” he said.
It’s Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. It’s LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It’s Steve Kerr’s three coaching titles against Frank Vogel, who won the last one. It’s the Bay and L.A.
And the stakes are almost as high as possible — a win putting you in the playoffs; a loss knocking you to the edge of falling out of them.
We can ignore the technicalities of the NBA’s play-in tournament for a moment, the fact that these two teams are operating with a safety net. The loser of Wednesday’s game at Staples Center will have one more shot Friday to win their way into the first round of the playoffs.
But the randomness of this conceit, a single-game series between two of the league’s most recognizable faces and best players, is a dangerous situation, even if the Lakers are favored. The NBA might not have a better knockout puncher than Stephen Curry, a one-man scoring machine who is open even when he’s perfectly defended.
The NBA released the Game 1 schedule for the first round of playoffs, with the Clippers playing Dallas on Saturday and Lakers aiming for a Sunday start.
“He’s capable of winning by himself if he wants to,” Dennis Schroder said of Curry.
“We have appropriate fear,” added Kyle Kuzma.
But even with the Lakers in the precarious position of being in the play-in tournament, they’re still comfortable with their standing.
The goal within the organization all season was two-fold — enter the postseason healthy and win as many games as possible along the way. The Lakers mostly have appeared to accomplish the primary objective — James was a full participant in practice Tuesday after tweaking his bothersome ankle Sunday.
He’ll be fine to play Wednesday, Vogel said. Same goes for Davis, his groin and shoulder both OK after some late-season soreness. And while Schroder said he’s still dealing with some conditioning issues after missing 10 days because of the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, he’s still confident he’ll be able to bring adequate energy and intensity.
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If the Lakers are presenting as a team with guarded confidence, the Warriors are enjoying life as a slight underdog. While confident that they’re good enough to win, Curry said he hoped the one-game format would be an advantage for the Warriors.
They’ll be without several key players — Klay Thompson hasn’t played all season and rookie center James Wiseman, versatile wing Kelly Oubre Jr. and Damion Lee all have been absent down the stretch. But in their absences the Warriors have reinvented, adding more shooting around Curry and Draymond Green, one of the NBA’s premiere defenders.
And they’ve closed the season on a tear, playing with a freedom from a total lack of expectations by winning six straight and eight of their last nine.
“You’re not in a position where if you lose, everyone says your season is a failure,” Kerr said Tuesday.
The Lakers are very much in that position, two losses from their title defense technically falling short of the playoffs.
It’s why Vogel said the team will treat Wednesday’s game without restrictions, possibly extending minutes and shrinking rotations.
“The simplest way to put it is we’re coaching to win — whatever we need to do to win this game, that’s what we’re going to do,” Vogel said.
Beating the Warriors starts, at minimum, with trying to slow Curry.
“We anticipate they’re going to throw the kitchen sink at Steph,” Kerr said.
But it’s not like he hasn’t seen that before. Since April 1, Curry has torched opposing defenses, averaging 37.1 points with eight games of at least 40 points.
The Lakers will host Golden State on Wednesday in the NBA play-in tournament with the seventh seed on the line. The first and only order of business is slowing down Stephen Curry, whom LeBron James praised as worthy of winning the MVP award.
“He’s the best shooter who has ever played this game. So, any shot, whatever comes from half court on, it’s a good shot for him,” Schroder said. “At the end of the day, you got to make it as hard as possible and be into him and limit his threes. So, stick to our game plan, like I said, and do that 110%, got to lock in for 48 minutes, everybody.
“Every possession counts. It’s almost like the playoffs — or it is the playoffs — so we got to be locked in.”
You can forgive the confusion. Wednesday’s game is weird. It’s an elimination game that actually isn’t (the loser plays Friday against the winner of Memphis-San Antonio). It’s a Game 7 and a Game 1 all at once. And it’s a postseason game that comes before the playoffs.
But one thing is clear. The lights are bright. The stage is set. And the stars will be there for the biggest game on the NBA schedule so far this season.
“Our team is capable of doing big things,” Schroder said. “But now it’s go time and we need to show it.”
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