Season opener games are weird. The fans are super excited and, I think, the players are too, but there’s a general sloppiness and unevenness to the play. The guys usually haven’t shaken off all the rust from the preseason, the refs are usually focused on some rule shifts/points of emphasis that impact how the game is called, and everyone is still rounding into shape. So, when the Lakers face the Warriors in tonight’s 2021-22 season opener, I’m honestly not sure what to expect beyond things not going the way that they might if this matchup was taking place 4 weeks from now.
On the lineup side of things, we know what the Warriors will do:
The Warriors starting Looney gives the Lakers a window to start bigger themselves and, if they go that route, I’d expect DeAndre Jordan to get the call. The rest of the Dubs group is to be expected, though Draymond (and Wiggins, reportedly) having minutes restrictions does somewhat surprise. Regardless, though, what I expect from this team is exactly what we saw from them in the preseason — tons of 3 pointers attempted, fast pace, ball movement, and good activity defensively. They’ll play smaller as the game goes on, test your defensive resolve by spreading the floor and making you chase, and keep making the extra pass in order to get an open 3 eventually.
Curry and Poole are the only ones who will play outside of these norms. They’ll hunt their own shots early in the clock and whenever they have daylight. We all know Steph, but it’s Poole who should concern and not be taken lightly. The Lakers saw firsthand how hot he can get and marking him should be a priority. Again, play him to hunt his shot and track him off ball as if he’s always looking for a way to get the ball to score. Do that, and you’ll be alright. Don’t and, well, he can really hurt you.
On the Lakers side, this is a game where you’d want their size and physicality to show up. Obviously, with Bron/AD/Russ, you’re going to have a certain edge against most teams, but with Dwight and DeAndre, the Lakers need to leverage their size even more to work the offensive glass and really pressure the perimeter defensively in order to force the Warriors off the arc and, hopefully, into the mid-range where the expected points per shot attempt drop.
We don’t yet know how the Lakers will start from a lineup perspective, nor do we know whether Monk and/or Nunn will be available to play after missing the team’s last two preseason games. We do know Ellington (hamstring) will joint THT (thumb) and Ariza (ankle) on the sidelines for this one, so there’s a very real chance the Lakers will again be down a lot of their expected backcourt rotation tonight. The team did recently claim Avery Bradley off waivers, but I doubt he sees any action tonight, even if his defense could be useful.
Whether the Lakers play bigger or smaller, however, the things that matter against the Warriors remain unchanged. Defensively, you must play up on screens involving Steph (and, now, Poole). You must be precise in your rotations off the ball and must commit to make the extra effort when chasing to/from the arc/paint and back again. You must leverage your size and athleticism, particularly in the front court, to gain advantages on both backboards. When any lesser decision maker has the ball, put them in positions to play faster and in more chaos than they’re used to in order to force mistakes. Target their lesser defenders, particularly at the point of attack, in order to force the type of extra help that puts them into rotation.
Now, in saying all that, the preseason showed us that the Lakers may not be ready to do several of these things at a high level. They struggled defensively in real ways and were too turnover prone offensively to really see the benefits of playing as fast as they did. It’s fair to assume, some of these things will remain true tonight and, if they happen to the extent they did in the preseason, the Lakers will lose. It’s really that simple.
However, STAPLES Center will be packed tonight and Russell Westbrook will be making his home debut in a game that really counts. If the Lakers can channel that energy into actual production, they could really show out. How it all goes, I’ve honestly no clue. Like I said at the top, season openers are weird. But, I’m excited to see how it all goes either way.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TNT.