After one of the greatest first-round NBA playoff matchups in recent memory between the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings (and another wildly entertaining one between the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies), the second Western Conference semifinals matchup is officially solidified.
It’ll start on TNT from the Chase Center in San Francisco on Tuesday night. Where it’ll end, no one knows, but we’ll do our best with a Warriors-Lakers prediction here. And regardless of which way it goes, we as neutrals want at least six games out of this.
For the fifth time, LeBron James and Stephen Curry will face off in a best-of-seven playoff series. But this time, the two legends are doing so from different playing fields. James is now donning the Purple and Gold. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr’s Splash Brothers-led Warriors finally seem beatable, especially after being pushed to their limits in a seven-game series against the Kings.
To prepare for this West Coast showdown, here are five storylines worth monitoring heading into this Western Conference Semifinals matchup.
(Sidebar: Stick around until the very end to see what our playoff projection model thinks of this series.)
1. Is Anthony Davis Back?
After years of battling nagging injuries, Anthony Davis has finally started to look like his old self again this season. Among all players that graced the hardwood in 2022-23, Davis was seventh (+3.5) in our catch-all one-number DRIP metric and fourth (+1.9) in the defensive version of the statistic (D-DRIP).
His defense during their first-round clash against Memphis was the closest he has been to his illustrious Bubble form since 2020. For the series, he averaged a whopping 4.3 blocks per game and helped hold the Grizzlies to 48.1 points in the paint per 100 possessions after they averaged 57.2 points in the paint per 100 in the regular season.
However, the Warriors are not the Grizzlies. Against Memphis, Davis was able to take advantage of the Grizzlies’ lack of shooting (23rd in 3-point percentage this season) by sagging off his assignments and staying close to the paint. This enabled him to use his giant stature and shot-blocking instincts to deter and alter shots around the rim.
The Warriors’ perimeter-based, movement-heavy offense will force him to venture outside of the restricted area more frequently. In 2020, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem, given how agile Davis was before all the injuries. But now, after what the last couple of years have done to his body, it is less certain that he can constantly handle that type of physical strain.
Will Golden State be able to exploit Davis by bringing him out to the perimeter? Does Los Angeles have a counter that can help keep Davis near the paint?
2. A Pair of Old Kings
It’s hard to believe this given how well they’ve played this year, but James and Curry are getting old. Heading into these playoffs, the two stars’ birth certificates read 38 and 35 years of age, respectively.
With James, his age started to show at times in the first round against Memphis. He still averaged 22.2 PPG on a respectable 58.3% True Shooting (right around the league average for the regular season). But look a little closer, and you’ll see that in that series, he had the second-highest frequency of his shots come from behind the arc (38.3%) in his postseason career. This indicates that James is now attacking less and settling for more jumpers (a telltale sign of slowing down).
Curry on the other hand, is coming off a god-tier 50-point performance to close out Sacramento. That’s the highest number of points scored in a Game 7 in NBA history. The kicker to that is that he had to play 39.1 minutes per game during the series. We say “had to” because the Warriors did not look great without him on the floor (as has been the case for most of the season). The team was a +8.2 per 100 possessions when he was on the floor against Sacramento but a -27 per 100 when he was off it.
How much, if at all, do either of these guys show their age during this series? And if that does happen, how detrimental is it to their teams?
3. Return of the Vanderbilt
We talked last week about how Rui Hachimura was more valuable to the Lakers against the Grizzlies than Jarred Vanderbilt and how it is common for non-star players’ impact to drastically change based on the landscape of a specific series.
Well, consider this series an opportunity for Vanderbilt to re-introduce himself to the national stage. After only averaging 19.8 MPG against the Grizzlies, this Warriors team feels like a better matchup for his strengths.
We mentioned Golden State touting a fast-paced motion-centric offense. Vanderbilt excels in these chaotic, high-octane environments. He’s a great off-ball defender and arguably one of the best transition defenders in basketball. Plus, since the Warriors aren’t a great interior-scoring team, the Lakers could get away with playing Vanderbilt at the center position in spurts if spacing ever becomes a concern (we’ll get back to this in a bit).
On top of that, it’s likely that he’s the only player on the roster with the requisite motor to battle Kevon Looney on the glass. If you didn’t hear, this man Looney averaged 5.3 offensive rebounds per game in the first round, including a 10 offensive rebound game to close out the series.
4. Are There Any More Poole Parties?
After receiving a 4-year, 140-million dollar extension before the start of the season, Jordan Poole has had an up-and-down season. Unfortunately, one of those down periods came during the seven-game series against Sacramento. In 22.9 minutes per game, Poole averaged a mere 12.0 points and 3.0 assists on 46.6% true shooting (that ranks 98th out of the 106 players who averaged at least 20 MPG) with per 100 plus-minus of -3.9.
That’s not the end of the world as it pertains to his long-term trajectory. Growth is not linear. Regression is part of the process. But as it involves this series, Golden State’s going to need Poole to figure his way out of this slump – fast.
We mentioned the massive load Curry has been forced to carry so far this postseason. That’s largely because Poole hasn’t been able to keep the team afloat for short periods without him the same way he was able to last year. During the 2021-22 Playoffs, Poole averaged 17 points and 3.8 assists on 65.4% true shooting with a per 100 plus-minus of +3.1.
Simply put, the Warriors are going to need this version of Poole to resurface, if they want to avoid tiring Curry out completely.
5. My Weakness is Less Damaging than Yours
Many times, a postseason series can come down to whichever team is able to make their weakness less damaging than their opponent’s fatal flaw.
In this series, each offense has something the other team will attempt to expose. The Lakers are one of the best interior-scoring teams in basketball. They finished sixth in the regular season in points in the paint per game (54.5). However, like the Grizzlies, 3-point shooting is not something they excel at. For the season, they finished 24th in 3-point makes (10.8), 26th in 3-point attempts (31.2), and 25th in 3-point percentage (34.6%). Knowing this, Golden State is going to try to pack the paint and dare the Lakers to hit enough threes to beat them.
Meanwhile, the Warriors are a great 3-point shooting team (duh). They finished 1st in 3-point makes (16.6), 1st in 3-point attempts (43.2), and 2nd in 3-point accuracy (38.5%) this regular season. But, as we said, they aren’t a great paint-scoring team, ranking 28th in points in the paint per game in the regular season (44.9). So, the Lakers will likely try to play lineups with more speed and spacing (and less interior size) until Golden State can prove that they deserve their respect in the paint.
Who can overcome their biggest offensive weakness first? If neither team does, what does that mean for the series? More than any storyline we’ve spotlighted, this one may be the most important of them all.
What Does the Data Say?
Based on the moneyline, it looks like the defending-champion Warriors (-225) are the betting favorites over the Lakers (+185). But what is our model’s prediction for who will advance to the conference finals?
This model calculates each team’s chances of making it to the semifinals, conference finals, NBA Finals and winning the title outright, based on 5,000 simulations of the playoffs.
Our head-to-head NBA picks incorporate our adjusted team ratings (including overall adjusted team rating, adjusted offensive rating and adjusted defensive rating), account for recency bias (so, it gives more weight to teams that enter the second round playing well rather than those who stumbled through the first round) and for how well teams performed against other good teams (because in the playoffs you typically have to beat them).
Here are the model’s projections in real time. These will updated throughout the series: