Fending off the advance of time is an impossible feat. The Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors both spent their first-round series successfully keeping the sand in their hourglasses from pouring out. Both the Warriors and LeBron James have aged gracefully over the years, but in the next round, they’ll have to outlast each other. The last time James was on a playoff stage against Golden State, his Cavs were being swept in the 2018 Finals. Of the rotation players on that team, half of them have moved onto jobs in the media, work in front offices, filtered out of the league, or became fixtures on the bench. Essentially, they aged out of the league.
Amazingly, James is still a component of L.A.’s two-headed monster. At 38, he’s been sapped of much of his lightning quickness. Now, he relies more heavily on a brain that sees the floor at the fastest next-gen Intel Core processor speeds and physicality that is unmatched among perimeter players.
Meanwhile, Golden State’s trio is attempting to author the coda on their dynastic run. Steph Curry still unwraps defenses through his constant motion and the synergy he, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green have accumulated after years of pretzeling in and out of screens. They read and react better than any team in league history. When they’re executing precisely, the amount of mental energy devoted to keeping Golden State’s shooters in front of them can be draining for defenders.
Their movement and egalitarian offense is antithetical to the Cavs, Heat, and Lakers teams built on LeBron-centric offenses and physical defenses. On his own, James is a trusted institution like Meet the Press or The Bible. In a six-game series first-round series, James went Old Testament on the Memphis Grizzlies after Dillon Brooks’ prodded James over his age.
Going toe-to-toe against the Warriors Big 3 is the most helpless James has consistently appeared in two decades. Curry has burnished the greatest resume for a player under 6-foot-5 in NBA history. Relative to his fellow all-time greats including James, Curry was a late bloomer. Between his style of play and the lessened mileage, on his body after missing most of the first THREE years of his career. At 35, he didn’t appear to miss a step this season.
Thompson has muzzled his critics, myself included, who questioned whether he was beginning to deteriorate before our very eyes. Two years after tearing his ACL and rupturing an Achilles, he was Golden State’s most reliable starter, appearing in 69 games and draining a career-high 301 triples.
Even Kevon Looney has begun to gel into the Big 3. All-Star heights are probably out of reach, but he’s a waystation offensively. He and Green exist to connect the dots in Golden State’s exotic offensive sets. Looney specializes in cleaning the glass for the fastest-paced team left in the playoffs. In Game 7, Looney amassed 21 rebounds, his third game of 20 more.
Looney is their linchpin in the post, and a reliable switching defender, but will have his hands full with Anthony Davis and a more physical frontcourt in the conference semis.
Much like the aforementioned 2018 Cavs squad, the Lakers have gelled into an amorphous group of loose pieces accumulated in the final weeks of the season into a solid contender and the NBA’s top defensive squad.
In retrospect, the significance of 2016’s triumphant 3-1 comeback over Golden State has ballooned since then. Davis will take on the Kyrie Irving role in this go-round and replace his finesse perimeter machinations with an imposing unicorn. Against Memphis, Davis’ defensive dragnet dwarfed the Defensive Player of the Year, Jaren Jackson Jr.’s impact
The Warriors historically have had James’ numbers. But the Warriors’ under-25 talents are what may drag them down from their starter’s astronomical heights. Jordan Poole has been the pride of their youth movement and was shuffled into the starting lineup against the Kings.
A Steph, Klay, Dray-LeBron rematch almost never happened again. After breaking the all-time scoring record, it appeared he’d never play another game this season, much less have it in him to propel the Lakers through a play-in and a first-round upset. Golden State’s aging starters have done just enough to overcome their bungling bench of neophytes. Against one of the most porous defensive units in the league, Poole averaged a mediocre 12 points, on a frustrating 34 percent shooting from the field. Jonathan Kuminga was a non-factor, who played only 37 minutes in seven games.
Steph Curry’s 50 points rescued the Warriors on the road in a Game 7 and James’ heroics against Memphis have brought them to this juncture. The youth will have their moment, but the old heads are about to have their day.
Long live the Washed Kings.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex