SAN FRANCISCO — Draymond Green and Stephen Curry started a run for the dynasty’s life on Wednesday and they’re going to keep running until this series, this postseason and this whole thing is over. Run until somebody stops them or time just expires. Run with desperation. Run with purpose. Run and let’s see who can stop them.
The Warriors ran at the Lakers in Game 5. They ran into the Lakers. They ran past the Lakers. They made the Lakers run with them. They’re going to keep running into Game 6, and if they survive that, they’re going to run some more in Game 7. And whoever’s left standing at the finish line, proud and panting, will survive this second-round series.
More specifically, Draymond, Curry, Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II and Jordan Poole staved off elimination by turning Game 5 into a four-quarter sprint and pulling away from LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers for a 121-106 victory at Chase Center. Of course, the Lakers still hold a 3-2 lead and can eliminate the Warriors on Friday in Los Angeles, where the Warriors lost Games 3 and 4 to put themselves in this predicament.
But among several very effective strategic tweaks in Game 5, the Warriors’ clear and determined efforts to grab every rebound and start sprinting seemed to have the largest potential big-picture effects. Really, this could come down to which team still has its legs going into the later rounds of this title fight. And the Warriors want to put as much mileage on LeBron and Davis (if he’s OK after getting smacked in the face and leaving the game early in the fourth quarter on Wednesday) as possible.
“We want to push their guys,” Steve Kerr told me after his news conference. “I’m sure they feel the same way. Last game they were putting Steph in all those pick-and-rolls, so they’re trying to wear Steph out. We’re trying to wear out Davis and LeBron. Long series. So it is a little bit of a battle of attrition, and we’ve just gotta keep pushing the tempo.”
The official statistics say the Warriors scored 13 fast-break points. The Lakers scored 15. But the speed of the Warriors’ play goes beyond that raw total. When Draymond flew down the court at top speed, he not only forced Davis and LeBron to run, but also forced the Lakers into emergency defense that wasn’t quite set even when it settled back into a half-court possession.
“Push the tempo early because they’re a great defensive team,” Kerr said. “Any time we play a team that good in the half-court, you’ve gotta get out and run just to create advantages so you’re not going against a set defense. I thought the guys set that tone in the first half. Draymond was pushing the ball like crazy, so was Steph, guys were running lanes.
“The fast-break points never tell the story. Sometimes you just push the ball ahead and that creates a scrambled defense with cross-matches, and then you get the ball swung and somebody gets an open look. It may not be a fast-break bucket, but it’s a bucket as a result of the pace.”
The Warriors can play faster with their new small starting lineup (first deployed in Game 4), which switches Gary Payton II in for Kevon Looney. Though Payton isn’t an offensive creator, he ramps up the speed by playing such great defense, which helps the Warriors avoid fouling the Lakers so much and stopping the game so often. And GP2 (a game-best plus-25 in 27 minutes) also is a great rim-runner, either finishing off a fast break (he scored 13 points) or dragging a Laker player along with him at top speed all the way down the floor.
The Warriors are trying to amp up Davis’ workload in the half-court, too, by drawing him into every Curry pick-and-roll, which pulls him to the 3-point line. On Wednesday, that opened up lanes for Draymond drives (20 points on Wednesday after scoring 27 points combined in the first four games of this series), Wiggins’ midrange game (25 points on 10-of-18 shooting) and a bit of a revival performance by Poole, who only made 5 of his 14 shots but was in rhythm all game.
Did all that take away some of the Lakers’ juice? In the second half, Davis only scored 5 points and was minus-8 in 12 minutes before he left the game. LeBron was good for his entire stint, but he played 39 more minutes in Game 5 after playing 43 in Game 4. The Warriors’ big guns are playing heavy minutes, too, but maybe the toll will hit differently for the bigger, brawnier Lakers.
Either way, the Warriors are determined to keep up the four-quarter dash. The continuation of this era probably depends on it. And four-time champions don’t die easily. That’s when they really start running.
“I think it’s up to mostly me, Draymond, (Poole) when he’s out there, to do that, to push it,” Curry said. “But it’s important just because they’re, at times, a big team with AD. He puts a lot of pressure on you on the offensive end. So you try to create whatever advantage you can. That’s a big thing. And part of that is just trying to keep them off the foul line as much as possible just because that slows the game down and gives them free points and they get to set their defense.
“So you want to get stops, but even if they do score, that is our advantage in the series is our speed and the fact that I can push, Draymond can push, (Poole) can push, we got guys running the lane in transition, spacing the floor. So it’s hard to do, but it helps us counter what they do well.”
The small-ball unit also has another effect: It has largely taken the Lakers’ best perimeter defender, Jarred Vanderbilt, out of the action (only 11 minutes on Wednesday) because the Warriors simply don’t defend him, which completely mucks up the Lakers’ offensive spacing. That is putting Dennis Schröder into a bigger role, and the Warriors’ offense is fine with that.
Additionally, in Game 5 the Warriors were focused on trying to keep Curry out of the pick-and-roll, which the Lakers zeroed in on in Game 4 by forcing Curry into isolation against LeBron and other scorers time and again. On Wednesday, the Warriors had Wiggins fight through the screens instead of switching, which kept Curry on his own man most of the time.
“We did a better job of that tonight,” Kerr said. “We’re not afraid of Steph switching the pick-and-roll because he’s so strong. He’s a different guy than he was seven, eight years ago. But if we can avoid it, then we might as well avoid it and not allow them to just put him in pick-and-roll over and over again.”
The Warriors almost certainly won’t be able to pull all of this off back in L.A. on Friday. The Lakers will play better. It’s far more likely to get a role player to do something surprising at home than it is on the road, the way Lonnie Walker IV put up 15 fourth-quarter points in Game 4 at Crypto.com Arena. But the Warriors think they have something with GP2 in the starting lineup and matched up with D’Angelo Russell. They know that they can run at the Lakers. They don’t know if they’re going to win Game 6, but as they’ve done in many playoff series before this one, the Warriors have worked their way into a few solutions that they like.
And hey, they avoided elimination even without getting much outside shooting from Curry and Klay Thompson. After an off shooting night for both in Game 4, neither got hot in Game 5. Curry was just 3 of 11 from 3-point distance on Wednesday and Klay was only 3 of 12 overall. Can they expect one or both of the Splash Brothers to go big pretty soon?
“We’re still waiting for that game, which is a great sign,” Kerr said. “I thought we played well tonight but not our best. We can do better. We can be sharper. But what I liked about tonight was we didn’t foul. I think they shot 15 free throws, which was even. We shot 15 as well. And for the most part, we took care of the ball and we rebounded. And those were the keys. If we do those things, we can win whether we break out or not. But if we do those things and we get a hot shooting night, then we’re in great shape.”
The Warriors aren’t done yet. The end might come soon, it might not. But you could see it in their eyes and the way they attacked this game: The Warriors’ run isn’t over because they’re not done running. And the faster they go, the harder it’ll be for the Lakers to knock them down for good.
(Photo: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)