SAN FRANCISCO — The Lakers played their best in Game 1. The Warriors did not.
But while Los Angeles holds a 1-0 series lead after a 117-112 win, the Warriors are the team with the upper hand in this series.
How can that be true?
Because there’s nowhere else for the Lakers to go. They were as rested as they will ever be in this every-other-day series and executed their game plan perfectly on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Warriors have ample runway for improvement. They were visibly exhausted throughout the contest, a byproduct of playing two games — including a Game 7 — in the four days before Tuesday’s series opener. They committed stupid fouls. They tried out a bunch of different lineups. They had no answer for the Lakers’ alpha.
And yet, after all of that, Golden State was a wide-open Jordan Poole 3-pointer away from tying Game 1 with 9 seconds to play.
Who is in control: The team with the series lead, or the team that nearly won but knows it can play much better?
Warriors fans should know better than anybody that playoff series are long, and Game 1 — be it at home or on the road — is hardly indicative of the entire operation.
“The first game of the series is a feel-out game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “You can go through tape and you can talk about strategy but you have to feel the game and the personnel.”
The Warriors felt out the Lakers Tuesday.
Los Angeles, as suspected, has one mode.
Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) double team against Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis (3) in the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Full credit to the Lakers for their ruthless execution of that singular game plan. As I wrote before Game 1 — if Anthony Davis wants to be an alpha throughout a possible seven games for the first time in his career, he can singlehandedly win this series. He did just that in Game 1.
But one game isn’t a series.
With an unstoppable, wouldn’t-be-denied Davis (30 points, 23 rebounds) leading the way from the jump, everything fell into place for the Lakers Tuesday. LeBron James was his perfect complement — scoring 22 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. The Lakers’ role players played tight defense and knocked down shots from distance in the third quarter to open up an eight-point lead that swelled to 14 in the final frame.
Now, the Lakers will try to do precisely what they did Tuesday for the remainder of the series. This is a team that has one unquestionably quality kind of smoke.
But these Warriors — flaws and all — contain multitudes.
And while good teams with one kind of smoke can win rounds in the playoffs (see: the 2022 Dallas Mavericks), great teams contend for titles because of their adaptability.
For all the questions about the Warriors this season, the team’s first-round matchup with the Kings was a reminder that Golden State still has several different kinds of smoke.
They might not be as potent as in years past — perhaps even last year’s past — but at least the Dubs aren’t one-trick ponies.
They can play big with Kevon Looney and Draymond Green on the floor. They can go small with just Green at center. They showed Tuesday can go in-between, as JaMychal Green saw rotation minutes and knocked down two 3-pointers off the bench. They still hold Jonathan Kuminga in reserve if they want to try out something different from all that.
The Warriors can also play a slow, half-court game or speed it up and run an opponent off the floor.
They can play inside (Game 7 against the Kings), outside (Game 1 against the Lakers), or in-between (Game 5 against the Kings.)
The Warriors have versatility and can come at you in many ways. Tuesday, more than anything else, was about seeing which of those ways would work.
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and Golden State Warriors guard Jordan Poole (3) look on as the Warriors loss against the Los Angeles Lakers in the last minute of the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
With Davis and James playing like they had the weekend off, it’s fair to say that only a few of the Warriors’ many looks proved effective.
But the 8-point lead Golden State opened at the start of the game was no fluke, and neither was the 14-0 run they made upon my laptop re-entering my backpack at the halfway mark of the fourth quarter. (It was no coincidence, people…)
Even though Steph Curry was moving slowly — it’s tiring going for 50 in a road Game 7 — and proved hesitant to drive to the basket until such attacks were vital, Kerr thought the Dubs had the upper hand in energy late.
“I thought we were the fresher team down the stretch. You saw the run we made,” Kerr said. “They decided to play their guys in the fourth quarter, and I understood that decision — they have had more rest and were thinking, push the envelope. [But] I thought in the last four minutes we were the team with energy. Just couldn’t quite get over the hump and our guys made an incredible comeback to tie it and they made a couple plays at the end.”
Curry thought the Warriors had the upper hand, tactically, too.
“They know they want to take away our 3s, even though we got 50 of them up,” he said.
And both Looney and Green — the two men tasked with stopping Davis — thought they gave him too much quarter.
“I think we had a lot of silly fouls,” Looney said.
“We fouled too much,” Green said. “I think there were some cheap ones that we kind of gave away, some in transition that we took, away from the ball when we were defending that we can take away. We’ll do better.”
Meanwhile, the Lakers were talking about retiring Davis’ jersey after Game 1.
And no, that’s not a lame columnist trope. James literally said it:
“The Lakers franchise over the years, over the course of their existence, has always had dominant big men, dominant guys that have been a force at the rim,” James said. “That’s why their jerseys are in the rafters. A.D. will be up there when he’s done playing. The No. 3 will be up in the rafters.”
Now, the Warriors are in a hole in this series. Game 2 will be crucial. Golden State’s top players have been around long enough to know they are entitled to nothing in this series.
But they took the Lakers’ best shot in Game 1.
And they didn’t come away all that impressed.
That speaks volumes to me.