NBA Playoffs: Defending champion Warriors insatiable as Lakers’ Anthony Davis emerges

Sacramento's Malik Monk reacts after making a basket next to Golden State's Stephen Curry in Game 6 of their NBA playoff series at the Chase Center in San Francisco on April 28, 2023 at the Chase Center in San Francisco.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers were a home win away from fulfilling their destiny in an unexpected, perhaps final, collision course between the NBA’s two biggest stars.

All Stephen Curry and LeBron James had to do was attend to business at their respective home fields.

The Curry’s Warriors gave life to the Sacramento Kings as the Kings dominated the champions on their home court with a decisive win. But the Lakers treated the night with focus, bailing out the Grizzlies with their biggest playoff win of the first round. We’re still one win away from a playoff series with historical implications, or one that picks up on history from over two decades ago.

Golden State and Sacramento will dance again Sunday afternoon — the Lakers have earned the right to wait.

Here are five takeaways from Friday’s games.

The champions are dubious

Perhaps it’s easy to tell when a reigning champion has lost his lead by watching him miss opportunities to end a streak.

With the Warriors, a champion’s composure has been replaced with an arrogance that’s almost insulting, but if we’ve watched them all season it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Warriors had everything in their favor going into Game 6: They believed they had taken the heart of the upstart Kings with a Game 5 win in Sacramento and didn’t treat them with the proper respect on Friday. It was seen at the top as the Kings took an early lead and never quite looked back.

It felt like the first two games as the Kings ran and ran and ran some more. De’Aaron Fox’s injury only slowed him down so much; the injured finger on his shooting hand didn’t prevent him from getting where he wanted, whenever he wanted. He continued to push the pace, on set offense or after baskets or turnovers, and kept the Warriors on their heels. Unless you knew better, the way the Warriors approached the game, it wasn’t obvious which team was the playoff-seasoned team against the freshmen.

Sacramento's Malik Monk reacts after making a basket next to Golden State's Stephen Curry in Game 6 of their NBA playoff series at the Chase Center in San Francisco on April 28, 2023 at the Chase Center in San Francisco.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Sacramento’s Malik Monk reacts after scoring a basket next to Golden State’s Stephen Curry in Game 6 of the NBA playoffs at The Chase Center in San Francisco on April 28, 2023 at the Chase Center in San Francisco. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Curry looked casual again, as he did for long stretches in Game 5, but he would not be saved by his teammates. Instead, they followed his lead.

Jordan Poole has slacked off a lot in many different areas this season, but he signed a fairly substantial contract in preseason that says he should be responsible for his role in the Warriors’ success. Instead, he’s been acting like a Harlem globetrotter for most of the night, and his team can’t afford such an approach. Good and exhilarating games were balanced by stupid games, sometimes immediately afterwards. He can challenge defenses in ways his teammates can’t, but his shot selection often results in quick breaks for the kings that can’t be gifted to them. He was 2 for 11 and Curry, while having 9 of 21, had as many turnovers as assists (five).

Another win in Sacramento might be asking too much for a proud champion, and given the way they played on Friday, one wonders if it’ll even be close.

coaching matchup

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, forsaking a certain amount of conventional wisdom and going small against the team that made small. In the second quarter, the Kings took the floor without any big men 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, like he did in Game 5, ran wild through the entire Warriors defense and hit 28 with 7 rebounds.

They didn’t let the little things bother them, they didn’t let the “Warriors” chant intimidate them whenever Golden State made a modest run. Much of that can be attributed to Brown and his approach to a team that seems to falter on the sidelines but seem to be playing with a maturity and seriousness befitting a competitor. They weren’t broken by Game 5, although they could have been.

Fox again took advantage of the Warriors defense, regardless of his injury, upping the tempo and spraying to open shooters. The champions have more to do than just win on the street again; The champions are in trouble.

King’s bigger problem

At some point we have to give credit to the Kings. Domantas Sabonis will get a lot of MVP love at the end of voting and rightly so, but he was completely out of form in Game 5. Rookie Keegan Murray continues to grow in this series not only hitting open shots but also playing solid defense and flawless basketball. But neither was a big factor.

Murray hit four 3s and hit 15 with 12 rebounds but shot 29% from the field. Sabonis was just as miserable. And yet the players at the end of the bench were up against a so-called invincible team with five minutes to go.

The vaunted five of the Warriors didn’t look so unbeatable and now they go into Game 7 with battered and battered confidence. The Kings feel confident and ready to return to their home turf knowing they have the champions on the ropes. Can you knock them out? Don’t say they can’t.

Good in the west

What the Grizzlies are for being at home. They didn’t bother leaving Memphis after Game 5, perhaps content to repel elimination on their home ground. They have shown that they bark more than they bite, and when things don’t go their way, they do not even bark more.

The second seed in the west went embarrassingly out and proved a shady enterprise. Remember when the Grizzlies felt hurt as Ja Morant last spring because they were genuine competitors out west? That’s a long time ago. In Game 6 there was no focus, no intent, and no execution. They have shown that they are who they are and the front office needs to take a good look at what they are trying to move forward.

Morant is a franchise player, but he has to behave like one. Dillon Brooks is a big part of their identity, but can they afford to hire such an unpredictable player who doesn’t seem to know his place in the league or in his team’s hierarchy? Of course, Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke’s injuries will linger heavily in the aftermath. But that’s no excuse for the hit they took and the glitches they suffered in the crucial Game 4 when they squandered a late lead and subsequently the series. Game 6 was more of a formality than an opportunity for the Grizzlies, and taking the next step isn’t as easy as it seems.

How good is Davis? Well, he had two legitimate lethargic games (by his standards) and played under 30 minutes in those ones, but still finished with the second-most blocks by a Laker in a playoff series (26) — in no fewer than six games. He bet five on the book in that game and didn’t just stop the activity on the edge. Davis thwarted Morant’s 15-foot throw early in the game and it later seemed to set the tone for everything.

Granted, the Grizzlies did the Lakers a favor by not showing up, but Davis showed why he can be a generational defender when he wants to be. He probably won’t be an all-defense team, but he could be the best one left in this playoff — Green notwithstanding.

Who knows if he’s the best player in the Lakers? Of course, James still takes in as much oxygen and can turn it up momentarily if needed. But Davis feels like the barometer for this team as he follows the rest.

Traveling in the next series won’t be as bad, which is great news for Davis as this series progresses. He needs to stay engaged and angry over the next few weeks. He’s not the Lakers’ only hope, but he’s their best hope to be more than just a sweet story.

It’s safe to say that the Lakers are real title contenders. And who in their right mind could have said that two months ago? Four months ago? Or four weeks ago? It’s all wide open – for everyone.

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