It has come down to this: Steph Curry versus LeBron James.
The magic of the play-in tournament, and the fact that the drama has ramped up to an exponential degree in the last few weeks of the season, can be seen in this matchup of the seventh versus eighth seed.
The Golden State Warriors have been punching upwards for majority of the season, dealing with injuries and inconsistent play, hovering around a supernova performance from Curry. The Lakers, on the other hand, started out looking like a squad that was simply toying with the opposition before injuries also derailed their place in the standings and led to a freefall.
And that’s how we got here.
The reigning champs and the former dynasty going head-to-head, for the right to clinch the seventh seed. The storylines on both sides are endless and the cast of characters are supremely compelling.
On one side, you’ve got the Warriors, who have been standing on the shoulders of Curry all season long. He put to rest all whispers that he can’t carry a team to the playoffs without guys like Klay Thompson and Draymond Green by absolutely lighting the league on fire. He averaged a career-high 31.9 points, outlasting Bradley Beal in the most entertaining race for the scoring title. He missed most of last season in what was a lost cause, and a lot of people thought that his time had passed. Instead, he showed that it’s only the beginning.
As Curry enters the next chapter of his career, one in which he is now the big brother to several youngsters like James Wiseman and Juan Toscano-Anderson, he will be tasked to lead the team, while being the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth option.
His reliable wingman Draymond is still in the mix. He's still one of the best defenders in the NBA, able to predict the outcomes of possessions and passes one or two steps in advance. He will be crucial in this matchup, because he will be tasked to guard both superstars of the Lakers on different occasions.
This now brings us to the opponents that the Dubs will have to go through in order to advance outright. Let’s be clear here: the Lakers are not your usual seventh seed.
The Lakers are here because of injuries and absences due to COVID-19 protocol decimating their lineup. James played only 45 out of a possible 72 games, while Davis was even more missing in action, playing in only 36 games. The rest of their team has teetered between inconsistently good and suspect.
Dennis Schroeder has looked good as the starting point guard for the Lakers, and sophomore Talen Horton-Tucker has taken advantage of all the opportunities given to him. But Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wesley Matthews, Montrezl Harrell and the rest of the squad have been up and down without their superstars helping them to get easy looks at the basket.
However, what’s working for Los Angeles, and what has helped them stay afloat despite James and Davis missing so much time, is their stout defense. They have the best defensive rating in the league at 106.8, limiting their opponents to the second lowest total points per game. This will definitely be put to the test by the Warriors. Everyone knows that stopping Curry is the key to defeating Golden State, yet the Lakers don’t necessarily have a defender in the backcourt that can hang with the Chef. Finding out how best to contain Curry will give the Lakers the chance to advance.
The Lakers are well aware that nothing short of another trip to the Finals would be a disappointment. The Warriors, on the other hand, are the team that no one expected to be here, and now no one wants to face. There’s something to be said about battling a team playing without pressure, and that’s what the Lakers are up against. If James and Davis are healthy, the Lakers have the advantage in terms of frontcourt power and depth. But if Curry starts cooking? Then all bets are off.
The second battle in the West play-in may not be as spicy as Curry versus James, but it doesn’t make it any less interesting.
The San Antonio Spurs missed out on the playoffs for the first time since the universe was spoken into existence last season. Same for the Memphis Grizzlies, who were within reach before injuries to Jaren Jackson Jr. and an insane Damian Lillard allowed the Portland Trail Blazers to push ahead of them and enter the playoffs as the eighth seed.
Now, both teams are battling in a knockout game. As the 9th and 10th seed, either the Spurs or Grizzlies will have to win two games – one against each other, and the second one against the loser of the Lakers-Warriors match. It is going to be a tall order for sure. But for a young team like the Grizzlies and a veteran squad in the Spurs, they recognize the gravity of the situation and are ready to face it head on.
The Spurs have made no bones about being the underdog in this matchup. After all, they’ve only won two games out of the last 12, barely holding onto the 10th spot. If the New Orleans Pelicans or Sacramento Kings were able to play more consistent basketball, the Spurs could have been easily removed from the equation.
A big reason for their freefall has been the absence of Derrick White, who was ruled out for the season in late April due to a high-ankle sprain injury. The Spurs have missed one of their best two-way players since then, with rookie Devin Vassell coming in with big shoes to fill.
The Spurs will be placing a lot on Demar DeRozan’s shoulders. Though no one has talked about him, DDR has quietly put together one of the best seasons of his career. With averages of 21.6 points and 6.9 assists, DeRozan will be asked to generate offense for himself and the rest of the team, with the ball primarily in his hands.
He’ll also have a good running mate alongside him in Dejounte Murray, who’s all the way back after suffering through a torn ACL a few years ago. He fits the mold of what a classic Spur is – a rock solid two-way player who will do his role within San Antonio’s tried-and-tested system.
But if the Spurs are disciplined and fixed, the Memphis Grizzlies are the exact opposite. They are a team that will live and die with what their young leader Ja Morant decides to do on the floor. He’s a future superstar that is growing before our eyes, and his evolution has been one of the reasons to keep track of the Grizzlies moving forward.
Morant may not be the most accurate shooter from the perimeter, as his shooting has dropped to 30.3 percent. But what Morant has done goes far beyond shooting. He has created an identity for Memphis as a result of his poise and thrilling forays to the basket. It’s obviously a radical change in tone from the grit-and-grind era of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph. But with Morant leading the charge and talented youngsters in Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane in the fold, the Grizzlies are starting to rebuild their blueprint that could hopefully push them up the standings.
So now, the question is: among these four teams, which squads will eventually end up as the 7th and 8th seed in the playoffs? It’s easy to see that the Lakers and Warriors are the favorites, mainly because they have MVPs at their disposal. But that match is so crucial, because falling into a do-or-die game against either Memphis or San Antonio is a terrifying prospect. Having to take down the relentlessly efficient Spurs or the electric Morant-led Grizzlies in one game with everything on the line doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.
Buckle up. We’re in for a West Coast treat.