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Three things to watch as Curry, LeBron renew rivalry in Lakers vs. Warriors

Natalie joins Brother from Another to explain why Steph Curry is better than even LeBron James entering the conference semifinals between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers.

Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James.

That’s the unavoidable headline for the second-round series between the Lakers and Warriors because those two men met in the Finals for four straight years between 2015-18. Curry is still with the Warriors, although this team has evolved since then. LeBron James has jumped to Los Angeles and added a championship banner to a storied franchise.

However, this series is much more than Curry and LeBron.

“I think the Lakers changed their team dramatically at the trade deadline,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team eliminated the Kings. “They made some brilliant moves and became an entirely different team and Davin has done an incredible job guiding that team. They’re excellent defensively. We know they’ve got one of the all-time greats in LeBron but a lot of talent across the roster so it’s going to take a big effort to beat them.”

Here are three things to watch as the Lakers face the Warriors.

1) Can Anthony Davis be the best player in this series?

It’s a big ask considering the Warriors have “I just dropped a 50-spot in a Game 7" Stephen Curry, but if the Lakers are going to win this series Anthony Davis has to be dominant and the best player on the floor.

He was in the first round against Memphis (despite a couple of rough stretches), averaging 20.8 points and 13.7 rebounds a game, and more importantly playing maybe the best defense of his career. He has looked like a Defensive Player of the Year averaging 4.3 blocks a game and altering more shots in the paint.

The Warriors present a different test — Kevon Looney just outplayed likely All-NBA center Domantas Sabonis last round. Looney is a strong, big-bodied center who moves his feet well and uses his size to wear down whoever he plays against. He’s physical, and Davis will have to fight through it.

Spin off Looney to attack and Draymond Green will be waiting. Green will get his time on Davis, too. The Warriors’ secret weapon is they can go to Green on Davis with a small, floor-spacing lineup and not lose anything defensively.

LeBron James will make plays and put up points this series, but he was not his peak self against the Grizzlies and doesn’t have the same explosion due to the foot issue he returned from. He settled — nearly a third of his shots against Memphis were above-the-break 3-pointers. Plus, the defense on LeBron is about to get a lot tougher — Andrew Wiggins is as good a one-on-one defender of LeBron James as there is. The Warriors aren’t going to scramble defensively the same way as Memphis, which LeBron then picked apart with his passing and IQ.

LeBron will get his, but he will have to work for it. The Warriors will dare him to beat them with his scoring, not his passing.

One other thing on the Lakers’ stars: With this series going every other day — and the Lakers having to chase the Warriors through their player and ball movement offense — will LeBron and Davis wear down as the series goes along? This series will be a test of their conditioning and bodies.

2) The Lakers have a math problem they need to overcome

The Lakers want a grinding game, and they will pound the ball inside on the Warriors — Los Angeles takes 3-pointers (38.6% of their shot attempts) but hit just 31% of them in the first round. Even with the roster moves adding D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and just more shooting at the deadline, the Lakers want to score inside and win with defense.

The Warriors took 6.4 more 3-pointers a game in their first-round playoff series than the Lakers did, and that number is likely to climb (and the Warriors shot just 32.8% on those 3s in the first round, expect something closer to their 38.5% regular season average this series).

The Lakers are in for a culture shock trying to guard the Warriors’ ball movement, off-ball player movement, split actions and constant motion after facing a Grizzlies team often looking to isolate a mismatch. Curry never stops, and while Jared Vanderbilt and Dennis Schroder (with some Austin Reaves) mixed in will get the primary assignment, guarding him is a five-man job. The Lakers could pay for the drop coverage they used last season and against the Lakers in the regular season. There is no Dillon Brooks to just leave wide open and dare him to shoot (although Jordan Poole approached those levels last series).

Curry and the Warriors will launch 3-pointers — they will trade their 3s for the Lakers twos all game long. The math works in their favor.

That said, the Lakers played heavy drop coverage against the Warriors in the regular season and it worked. The Lakers clogged the lane and used their length on the wings to contest shots, and the Warriors’ offense stalled out in those games. The Lakers are going to live by this plan again until the Warriors hit 3s and make them come out of it.

Styles make fights and that’s part of the fun of this series. If it is a grinding, slow, physical series the Lakers can win. But if and when the Warriors get loose and start hitting 3-pointers the math does not favor the Lakers.

3) Sure LeBron vs. Curry, but what role players step up?

These teams have thrived over the years because of depth and role players stepping up. It will matter in this series.

Austin Reaves has evolved into the secondary playmaker the Lakers hoped Russell Westbrook would be for them. D’Angelo Russell can step up with big games, like his 31 in the Game 6 closeout of the Grizzlies. Dennis Schroder has played an increasing role because Darvin Ham trusts his defense. Rui Hachimura can get hot from 3 if you leave him open.

The Lakers after the All-Star break are a much deeper, better team that fits around LeBron and Davis. They defend, and they provide some depth of scoring. If the Lakers are going to win this series, those role players will have to come up with some monster games.

For the Warriors, Jordan Poole was dreadful last series (and frankly has taken a step back all season, we can debate the reasons for that). They need more out of him. Looney and Wiggins will land key defensive assignments but can get rebounds and buckets as well. Donte DiVincenzo almost fell out of the rotation last series, and the Warriors need better from him, Gary Payton II and Moses Moody. This has been a top-heavy Warriors team all season, but they need someone to step up.

What the Warriors also likely get this series that they didn’t against the Grizzlies is a Klay Thompson game. He’s not a role player, and he had several games scoring 20+ points against the Grizzlies, but he didn’t have that signature game that we all know will come at some point.

Prediction: Warriors in 6. As improved as the Lakers’ defense has been, this is a rough matchup for them stylistically. The Warriors can slow the Lakers’ stars one-on-one better than most teams. The matchups favor the Warriors, but if the Lakers can make this a grinding series they have a chance, I’m just not sold they can. Plus, I expect the Lakers to wear down as the series progresses.