NBA Western Conference play-in: LeBron vs. Curry a dream matchup

Follow The Money's Mitch Moss and Pauly Howard run through the most significant player props for tonight's much anticipated play-in tilt between the Warriors and Lakers.

The 2021 NBA play-in tournament is underway with the Eastern Conference kicking things off Tuesday night. So far, the Boston Celtics have claimed the No. 7 seed, and the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers will play for No. 8 on Thursday.

And tonight, it’s the Western Conference’s turn.

As a reminder of how the tournament works, the No. 7 and 8 seeds play to determine who officially captures No. 7, with the loser of that game then going on to face the winner of the Nos. 9-10 match for the No. 8 seed.

Here’s a closer look at the two Western Conference games that will go down Wednesday night, with a prediction for who will win each game, plus a hypothetical glance at Friday’s No. 8-deciding contest.

(7) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Golden State Warriors

Jae C. Hong/AP

Collectively, these two teams have won four of the last six NBA titles, and represented the Western Conference in the finals in six years running. So naturally they’re competing in the play-in tournament for a chance to make the playoffs at all.

Just like the NBA drew it up!

That said, this is a dream matchup for the league, in a way — a winner-gets-in (and gets to avoid Rudy Gobert and the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz) contest between sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famers LeBron James and Stephen Curry? Sign the casual fan up — this is a headliner heavyweight bout if ever there was one.

Of course, there’s a reason these two teams are in the No. 7 and 8 seeds as opposed to their usual lofty perches. The season didn’t go as planned for either of them. The Warriors were dealt a major blow before training camp even started when Klay Thompson, recovering from a torn ACL, tore his Achilles in November.

Meanwhile, Golden State’s top pick in the 2020 draft, big man James Wiseman, spent most of the season on the shelf due to injury and won’t return until 2021–22, and Kelly Oubre Jr. is week-to-week after injuring his wrist.

But thanks to an MVP-like performance from Curry, vintage Draymond Green defence and a solid all-around performance from Thornhill, Ontario’s own Andrew Wiggins, this team did just enough to hang around the play-in tournament seeding basically from wire to wire. In fact, you could argue that they’re playing their best basketball of the season at the perfect time, entering the playoffs on a league-best six-game win streak.

The Lakers’ season was similarly disrupted by injury. On March 19, the defending NBA champs were 28-13 and sitting pretty in second in the West, seemingly cruising to a second-straight high seed in the NBA playoffs. Then, on March 20, James sprained his ankle and missed the team’s next 20 games, a period in which the team tumbled down the standings.

Making matters worse, Anthony Davis also managed to suit up for just 36 games, leaving the team woefully undermanned during the aforementioned tumble.

That said, unlike the Warriors, who won’t have Thompson, Wiseman or Oubre back for the play-in matchup, this Lakers squad is at full health heading into the playoffs. They’ve won five straight heading in, and six of 10 since LeBron returned to the lineup on April 30.

The other thing working in L.A.’s favour is the one thing that worked for the team even when LeBron and AD missed games — the team’s defence. On the season, they gave up a league-low 107.1 points per 100 possessions, and they have at least a puncher’s chance of holding Curry below his league-high season average of 32 points per game.

In the three games they played this season, the Lakers went 2-1 (the lone loss was by two), and they held Curry to 26, 16 and 27 points. If Curry doesn’t go off, there’s no way this Warriors team can keep pace with a Lakers squad that was one game out of fifth in the conference, and suddenly looks like the team that should’ve been contending for first.

Prediction: Lakers win.

(9) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (10) San Antonio Spurs

AP Photo/Ashley Landis

Here’s a quick representation of where the Spurs are at and how their season went. When ESPN put up a graphic on social media featuring players ostensibly from all the teams still in the running, they forgot to include anyone who suits up for San Antonio:

ESPN eventually corrected the graphic by adding former Toronto Raptor DeMar DeRozan, who it should be noted had the best season of his career according to win shares per 48 (.172), but the Spurs have quietly slipped down the standings since holding down the fifth spot at the start of March.

That’s partly due to a health and safety situation with four players catching COVID-19 that ultimately backloaded their schedule, and partly due to losing both LaMarcus Aldridge (buyout) and Derrick White (injury, just after he’d seemingly hit his stride).

This is a team with talent in DeRozan, Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl, another former Raptor who also enjoyed his best season to date, but they’ve also got some seriously tired legs. They won just two of their last 12 and limped into the play-in with a -1.7 point differential on the year.

The Grizzlies, on the other hand, are feeling rejuvenated after finally getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back in the lineup after he missed the majority of the season. Unlike their play-in opponent, they finished on a hot streak, winning seven of their final nine (admittedly against not-great competition).

While Ja Morant didn’t make the leap many hoped he would, shooting just 30.3 per cent from three-point land and struggling on defence, the team was buoyed by the superb play of yet another former Raptor in Jonas Valanciunas. Despite missing five games to COVID himself in January and early February, JV averaged 17.1 points per game on the season, and finished third in the league in rebounds (12.5) and second in offensive boards (4.1).

The Spurs won a matchup between these two teams on opening night in December, but Memphis won a back-to-back in San Antonio on Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 by a combined 48 points. And that was when the Spurs still had their legs.

Prediction: Grizzlies win.

(8) Golden State Warriors vs. (9) Memphis Grizzlies

Brandon Dill/AP

If I’m wrong about either or both of the first two predictions, well, this is going to be a prediction for a game that never happened. Be warned.

But if I’m right, the Warriors and Grizzlies will meet in a knock-down, drag-out battle for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and the right to try to beat Gobert and the Jazz four times in seven games.

And considering what we said above about Curry’s season-long offensive domination and Morant struggling on D (and the fact Golden State just beat Memphis 113–101 on the final night of the season in a similarly must-win game), this one feels relatively easy to call.

Prediction: Warriors win.

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