NBA Playoffs: Warriors’ title defense in limbo as Lakers’ Anthony Davis comes up clutch

The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers were one home win away from fulfilling their destiny in an unexpected, possibly final, clash between the NBA’s two biggest stars.

All Stephen Curry and LeBron James had to do was take care of things on their own courts.

Curry’s Warriors gave life to the Sacramento Kings as the Kings dominated the defending champions in a decisive victory at home. But the Lakers handled the night with appropriate focus and saved the Grizzlies from their upset with the biggest win of the first round of the playoffs. We’re still one win away from a playoff streak of historic significance, or one that surprises more than two decades ago.

Golden State and Sacramento will dance again on Sunday afternoon — the Lakers earned the right to wait.

Here are five takeaways from Friday’s games.

Champions are frivolous

Perhaps an easy way to tell if a reigning champion has lost his edge is to watch him squander opportunities to close out the streak.

For the Warriors, the composure of champions has been replaced by an arrogance that’s almost insulting, but if we’ve watched them all season, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Warriors had everything going for them going into Game 6: They thought they took the heart out of the Warriors Kings with a Game 5 win in Sacramento and didn’t treat them with the respect they deserved on Friday. It was evident from the end as King took an early lead and never really looked back.

It was reminiscent of the first two games when the Kings ran, ran, and ran some more. De’Aaron Fox’s injury only slowed him down so much; the injured finger on his shooting hand didn’t stop him from getting where he wanted, whenever he wanted. He continued to push the pace in the set offensively or after baskets or layups, and that kept the Warriors on their heels. If you didn’t know better, the Warriors were coming into the game, it wasn’t clear which team was the playoff proven team against the rookies.

Sacramento's Malik Monk reacts after Golden State's Stephen Curry makes a layup during Game 6 of Golden State's Stephen Curry at Chase Center on April 28, 2023 in San Francisco.  pictures)
Sacramento’s Malik Monk reacts after scoring a basket next to Golden State’s Stephen Curry during Game 6 at Chase Center on April 28, 2023 in San Francisco. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Curry looked casual again, just like he did in big stretches in Game 5, but his teammates won’t bail him out. Instead, they followed his lead.

Jordan Poole has gotten a lot of slack in a lot of different places this season, but he signed a pretty sizable contract during the preseason that says he should be blamed for his role in the Warriors’ success. Instead, he operated like a Harlem Globetrotter most of the night, an approach his team can’t afford. Good and heady plays were offset by boneheaded plays, sometimes right after. He can challenge defenses in ways his teammates can’t, but his shot selection often creates fast break opportunities for the Kings that they can’t give them. He went 2-for-11, while Curry was 9-of-21 (five).

A repeat win in Sacramento might be too much to ask of the proud champion, and given their game on Friday, one wonders if it will be close.

Trainer game

Steve Kerr is legitimately a top 15 coach of all time, but Mike Brown clearly learned from him and has some level of cheat code against his former employer.

Brown took lemons and made applesauce, rejecting some level of conventional wisdom and going against a team that has made little popular. The Kings went without a big man on the floor in the second quarter and the Warriors didn’t know what to do with it. Carr responded by going with Kevon Looney and Draymond Green, and it didn’t work. Malik Monk, like he did in Game 5, ran wild all over the Warriors defense for 28 points and 7 rebounds.

They didn’t let the little things bother them, they weren’t intimidated by the Warriors chant as Golden State went on a modest run. Much of that has to do with Brown and his approach to a team that appears to be teetering on the edge but appears to be playing with a maturity and seriousness befitting a contender. They weren’t broken by Game 5, although they could have been.

Fox once again took advantage of the Warriors’ defense regardless of the injury, driving the pace and spraying open shooters. Champions need to do more than just win on the road again; champions are in trouble.

Kings biggest problem

At some point we have to give the Kings credit. Domant Sabonis is going to get a lot of love at the end of the voting for MVP, and rightfully so, but he was out of sorts in Game 5. Young Keegan Murray continues to grow in this series, not only hitting open shots, but also playing solid defense and playing mistake-free basketball. But neither was a huge factor.

Murray hit four 3s and scored 15 with 12 rebounds while shooting 29 percent. Sabonis was just as miserable. And yet the players at the end of the bench were behind with five minutes on the road against the so-called invincible team.

The Warriors’ vaunted top five didn’t look so unbeatable, and now they’re rattled and confident heading into Game 7. The Kings feel confident and ready to return to their home court knowing they have champions. Can they knock them out? Don’t say they can’t.

Good in the West

Who are the Grizzlies because they are at home. They didn’t bother leaving Memphis after Game 5, perhaps feeling satisfied by avoiding elimination at home. They have been proven to be more bark than bite and when things don’t go their way, they don’t even cut it anymore.

The second seed in the West went out in embarrassing fashion and has turned out to be a scrappy operation. Remember when the Grizzlies felt that Ja Morenta’s injury was a real contender in the West last spring? That was a long time ago. There was no focus, no intent, no execution in Game 6. They have shown that they are exactly who they are and the front office needs to take a hard look at what they want moving forward.

Morant is a franchise player, but he has to align himself this way. Dillon Brooks is a big part of their identity, but can they afford to hire such a volatile player who doesn’t seem to know his place in the league or in the team hierarchy? Of course, the injuries to Stephen Adams and Brandon Clarke will remain serious after that. But that’s no excuse for the meltdowns and meltdowns they had in the decisive Game 4, when they squandered a late lead and then the streak. Game 6 was more of a formality than an opportunity for the Grizzlies, and taking the next step isn’t as easy as it seems.

How good is Davis? Well, he had two lethargic games (by his standards), and he played less than 30 minutes in that game, but still finished with the second-most blocks on a Laker in a playoff series (26), in six games, no less. He put up five in that game instead of just shutting down the action at the rim. Davis botched Morant’s 15-footer early in the game and seemed to set it all up later.

Granted, the Grizzlies did the Lakers a favor by not participating, but Davis showed why he can be a generational defensive player when he wants to be. He might not make the All-Defense team, but he might be the best thing left in these playoffs, Green notwithstanding.

Who knows if he’s the best player on the Lakers? Of course, James still consumes that much oxygen and can increase it briefly when he needs it. But Davis feels like the barometer of this team as the rest of them follow.

The trips won’t be as bad next series, which is great news for Davis going into this series. He needs to stay engaged and pissed off for the next few weeks. He’s not the Lakers’ only hope, but he’s their best hope to be more than a nice story.

It’s safe to say that the Lakers are real-life title contenders. And who in their right mind could have said that two months ago? Four months ago? Or four weeks ago? It’s all wide open — for everyone.

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