The Lakers helped the Warriors open up their brand new arena in San Francisco on Saturday and I was there to see them up close. The final score was 123-101 Lakers, and the final score pretty much reflected the level each team played to. The Lakers came out fast to take a big lead and then coasted for a bit when the Warriors made a nice push to get into halftime with a decent lead. The Lakers reserves played the entire 2nd half and promptly reestablished their position as the better group and ran away with things.
All in all, it was a good showing for the first taste of Lakers basketball. After the game Frank Vogel said he was “excited” for what the team could be and that over the course of the game we saw it in flashes. I agree with Vogel. The Lakers looked great in stretches, looked sloppy in other parts, and, ultimately, beat a Warriors team that was banged up and seeking a new identity after losing several key contributors from the core group that kept them as the league’s standard bearer for the past half decade this summer to free agency and trades.
In saying all that, being in the arena for the game gave me an interesting vantage point for the contest, so here are 5 thoughts on what I saw from the Lakers in their preseason opener.
- The Lakers are huge. There’s been lots of talk about the 76ers this off-season and how much size they’ll offer in their starting lineup of Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Harris, and Richardson. The Lakers are not far off that with the starting group they put out vs. the Warriors: JaVale, AD, LeBron, Green, and Bradley. Bradley’s the smallest guy at 6’3″, but he can play much bigger than that due to his long arms and physicality at the point of attack. The fact that the Lakers came off the bench with Dwight Howard for McGee just offered more size, which the Lakers used wonderfully on both sides of the ball. Be it in how the team rotated defensively, how they crashed the offensive boards, or how they consistently threw the ball over the top for lobs against smaller Warriors defenders, the Lakers played an inside-out, bully-ball attack that Golden State simply couldn’t match up with. Again, the Warriors were missing Looney and Cauley-Stein, so the Lakers size advantage was even more pronounced, but my sense is that even if those guys were there, the Lakers size would have been problematic.
- Anthony Davis is pretty good, you guys. In the 1st quarter, Davis scored 17 points and 7 rebounds. The Warriors, as a team, had 20 points and 11 rebounds. At one point Davis was outscoring the Warriors 12-11 and looked pretty much unstoppable even though he was being guarded by Draymond Green. Davis finished the game with 22 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in only 18 minutes. Half of his rebound were on the offensive glass. He was long, bouncy, physical, and skilled. There’s been a lot of “we’ve forgotten how good Anthony Davis is” talk over the summer and while I think that’s been overstated, I do think there’s some truth in that. Davis, though, seems pretty focused on reminding people of how good he can be and the Warriors just happened to be first on the list of teams to get a taste. I know it’s only preseason, but Davis looked fantastic.
- I’m going to cheat here by making two points about Rajon Rondo. One, he showed good chemistry with Davis, finding him for two alley-oops and generally flashing a strong understanding of how and where Davis wanted the ball in order to get chances at easy baskets. This point should not be ignored when wondering why Rondo played as much as he did. THAT SAID, and this is the 2nd point — Rondo played a lot and many of those minutes overlapped with LeBron and in those minutes things were a bit clunky. Just like last season. Rondo is still most comfortable as the primary offensive initiator and, so, he often brought the ball up while LeBron ended up on the elbow. This led to a couple of HORNS sets that were well executed, but things seemed to not flow as smoothly with Rondo sharing the court with LeBron. And while Rondo did hit a couple of 3’s while spotting up off the ball, they came with his defender barely in the picture in an attempt to gum up spacing. Rondo still looks hesitant to fire away when open and one attempt from deep you could see him go through his thought process about whether or not he should actually shoot even though his man was nowhere near him. In other words, Rondo showed some good value and some bad value and I’m not sure this is anything new to people who have watched him over the last few years. I think he should probably play less a prominent role than he did on Saturday when the real games come. I also fully acknowledge it was the 1st preseason game and there seemed to be a real plan that Rondo (as well as LeBron and Davis) would not play in the 2nd half, so his minutes could have totally been planned to play out that way. Or maybe that’s just a thing I’m telling myself. Sigh.
- The Bradley/Green duo can defend. Bradley was aggressive at the point of attack and picked up Steph full court on some possessions. He was a bit handsy and got called for some fouls, but I like his assertiveness and how he tried to put his stamp on the game by playing with force. After the game Bradley again acknowledged how excited he is to be playing on this specific team with the types of bigs he has behind him because they will allow him to dial it up even more defensively. As for Green, he guarded multiple positions and never stood out negatively. He had a couple of possessions where he over pressured and got caught reaching in, but his rotations off the ball were crisp and on time. A small play that stood out to me was when Green was on the weakside rotating to a shooter in the corner but as he was closing out he veered into the gap between the man in the corner and the 2nd shooter at the shoulder of the arc. Green shot into that gap on this closeout and deflected the pass from the corner to the shoulder and nearly forced a turnover. This wasn’t some huge play and I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t notice it. But the Lakers need smart defenders who know how to play on the weakside island and disrupt things even when they’re at a man disadvantage. Green is one such player and I’m happy the Lakers have him.
- Dwight and KCP didn’t have good statistical games buy I actually thought both played better than their numbers. Dwight looked stiff on offense, but moved well on defense and was a presence on both backboards. He was very good at “hand fighting” on the offensive glass to shed boxouts and either get to rebounds outright or keep them alive. KCP chased well defensively and stayed connected to his man by either locking and trailing or shooting gaps around and through screens. The Lakers will need both to be better offensively this season, but I liked how both played on the other end, so let’s give them credit there.
- BONUS: Alex Caruso didn’t play until the 2nd half and while that was disappointing to me, when he did get his chance he played well. After an early possession where he misread a P&R and tried to throw a late pocket bounce pass rather than a lob, he made good reads and showed why I think he should earn real rotation minutes. He attacked the front of the rim off the bounce, looked to shoot his jumper when defenders sagged, and made some really good passes to set up easy shots for teammates. Caruso doesn’t have the same presence or command as Rondo, but do not mistake that for not understanding how to play the position.
I’m going to repeat myself here: this was only one game and it was the preseason opener, so be careful on how much influence you give to the results we saw on Saturday. The Lakers played well, the Warriors (who may have some real issues this year for reasons I can get into another day) did not. Carrying these results too far would probably be a mistake. That said, some of what we got was very encouraging and if they can continue to build on those things, I’ll be quite happy.