Every good playoff series reaches a strategic endgame. This grimy, defense first, sometimes strange series between Western Conference titans appeared to approach that point down the stretch of the Los Angeles Lakers Game 4 win over the Golden State Warriors -- and, fittingly, that endgame involved a prolonged reunion between the intergalactic superstars who have circled each other on the biggest stages for a decade: Stephen Curry and LeBron James.
Over and over, for various tactical reasons linked to the endgame lineups each team chose, they found themselves matched up against each other again on both ends: Curry testing LeBron's defense on switches, LeBron (with Lonnie Walker IV as his improbable tag-team partner) hunting down Curry on the pick-and-roll like old times.
So much of the past and present collided on this possession:
What a wonderful callback to LeBron's iconic, sneering block on Curry in the Cleveland Cavaliers' romp over the Warriors in Game 6 of the 2016 Finals -- perhaps less explosive and a little gentler, the two all-timers now either in or entering the graybeard phases of their careers. (That 2016 game ended with Curry tossing his mouthpiece into the Cleveland crowd and getting ejected. You probably remember how that series ended.)
Curry spent the first half of Game 4 tearing apart the Lakers on pick-and-rolls targeting Anthony Davis -- who began the game guarding Gary Payton II, the latest winner of Golden State's starting five roulette. Remarkably, no single Golden State lineup has appeared in all four games of this series, per NBA.com. Their most-used group -- the version of the starting five with JaMychal Green that lasted all of two games -- has logged only 24 minutes. The Lakers' starting five has played 55 minutes in the series -- though that group is minus-5.
The Lakers slotting Davis onto Payton II was a predictable counter. In Game 3, Darvin Ham shifted Davis off of Draymond Green and onto JaMychal Green. Jarred Vanderbilt toggled onto Draymond Green, with Austin Reaves shifting to Curry. The idea was to switch the Curry-Draymond Green two-man ballet and allow Davis to hang off JaMychal Green -- lording over the paint, as he did in the Lakers' Game 1 win.
If the Warriors in Game 3 wanted to rope Davis into the pick-and-roll, well, they'd have to use JaMychal Green -- a nonthreat rolling into open space (if he rolls at all; Green prefers to pop for 3s, and the Lakers are unconcerned about him shooting non-corner 3s.)
Payton isn't Draymond Green, but he's a canny playmaker. He is the Warriors' best option defending D'Angelo Russell, allowing Curry to chill on Vanderbilt. The tweak made sense.
Curry tested Davis with an endless pile of Payton pick-and-rolls -- and then with Kevon Looney, when Looney replaced Draymond Green. Those plays don't target Davis so much as drag him from the basket, unlocking the paint and the rim.
Curry was brilliant until missing two open shots and committing a bizarre turnover in the last 90 seconds. He single-handedly broke the Lakers defense, rifling pocket passes, burrowing inside with hesitation dribbles that freed up his screeners for layups, turning the corner at times on Davis, firing jumpers when they were there. It was a reminder that, yes, Curry is and always has been a point guard even though he often acts and moves like a shooting guard and cedes playmaking to Green. Like most pantheon players, he contains ingredients of several player archetypes -- forming something new, revolutionary, generational.
Curry ran 48 pick-and-rolls in Game 4, his highest total this season -- and tied for his high in any game since 2017, per Second Spectrum. The Warriors scored 1.175 points per possession out of those plays -- a fat number, more than enough to win in a series in which the defenses have dictated terms.
That's another fun subplot here.