Lakers’ defense has Warriors on brink of elimination

When the Lakers have won during the 2022-23 playoffs, they have been stingy defensively. They have given up an average of 102.7 points during their seven victories over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and the Golden State Warriors in the second.

When the Lakers have lost during the playoffs, they have been significantly less defensive. They have given up an average of 115.3 points during their three losses to the Grizzlies and the Warriors going into Game 5 against Golden State on Wednesday night at Chase Center in San Francisco.

Anthony Davis has been at the center of the Lakers’ defensive efforts from start to finish. He’s been the Lakers’ leading rebounder with an average of 14 per game. He’s also blocked an average of 3.7 shots, although he didn’t have one in the Lakers’ victory over the Warriors in Game 4.

But despite Davis’ dominance in the paint and especially in front of the rim, this hasn’t been a one-man clampdown for the Lakers. There’s been a group buy-in that starts with Davis and extends to LeBron James, Jarred Vanderbilt, Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and the bench.

Darvin Ham’s background – as a hard-nosed player with the 2003-04 NBA champion Detroit Pistons and, more recently, as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks – helped to establish the Lakers’ defensive identity in his first season as their head coach.

It’s not always pretty basketball, but it’s a tried-and-true formula for success, especially in the playoffs.

“I just think the relentlessness brings a smile to my face and makes me feel fuzzy and warm,” Ham said after a gritty 104-101 victory Monday in Game 4 at Arena gave them a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. “It all starts on the defensive end, and that gives you a chance each and every night.”

The Grizzlies, especially guards Ja Morant and Desmond Bane, provided Ham and the Lakers with one type of a defensive challenge. Morant and Bane were bound and determined to drive toward the basket for their shots. Perimeter jumpers, including 3-pointers, were secondary options.

The Warriors play a different game. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson look for 3s first and they’re in constant motion in search of open opportunities. Covering them can be like running through an obstacle course of screens by their teammates, which can result in layups and dunks if not properly defended.

For the Warriors, standing still is a sin.

“There’s no other team on Earth that plays the way they play and puts you into precarious positions that they do,” Ham said of the Warriors. “They play with such speed – east, west, north, south. Their IQs, I mean, their chemistry, that rhythm, and when they’re hitting (shots), like they were, especially the second and third quarters (in Game 4), you know, it’s daunting,”

The Lakers have done well enough to have pushed the Warriors to the brink of elimination from the postseason, however. Golden State is averaging 113.5 points overall in the playoffs, but only 109.3 against the Lakers through the first four games of the series.

Curry is averaging 30.6 points overall during the playoffs and 25.3 in the four games against the Lakers. Thompson is averaging 20.3 points overall and 19.8 against the Lakers. Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors’ third-leading scorer is averaging 16.9 points overall and 14.8 in this series.

Ham referred to the Warriors as “the monster we’re dealing with” when he was asked about closing out the defending NBA champions in Game 5. He also said, “It’s definitely going to be a battle. You know that we just want to go out there and do what we need to do to be the best versions of ourselves.”

“I don’t even know what today is, but whenever Game 5 is, it’ll be another opportunity for us to continue to grow as a ballclub,” James said, clearly in a playoff fog after the Lakers’ victory Monday in Game 4. “So, I think we’ll be ready. One thing about when you play Golden State, you don’t have an opportunity to relax. You just don’t. So I’m not worried about us going in there (Chase Center) being comfortable.

“You just can’t do it versus Golden State. It’s not possible.”

Davis, seated next to James, said simply, “Same.”

Game 5: Lakers at Golden State (Lakers lead 3-1)

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Chase Center, San Francisco

TV/Radio: TNT/ESPN LA 710

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