Shortly after Steve Kerr was discussing the buffets in Las Vegas on ESPN Friday — prompted by his comments following his ejection on Monday — LeBron James lofted a lob to Lonzo Ball out of the quarter break to give the Los Angeles Lakers a one-point lead over Kerr’s Golden State Warriors.
Kerr went on to remark on the tempo and excitement of the Warriors’ first encounter with James — their opponent in the last four NBA Finals — as a Laker.
It was a preseason game. In Las Vegas. However, with a packed T-Mobile Center, a whiplash pace and another astoundingly easy high-scoring performance from Stephen Curry, Golden State’s first look at LA-Bron delivered, in a 123-113 Warriors loss. A rivalry that hasn’t really been one — the two teams haven’t been competitive at the same time in more than two decades — delivered.
Wednesday — and Friday’s rematch against Los Angeles in San Jose to conclude the preseason — serve as dress rehearsals, Kerr said, with full scouting reports and in-season game prep.
“It’s still basketball, if it counts or not,” Kevin Durant said earlier this week. He played like it, scoring 18 points and pulling down 12 rebounds in 24 minutes.
With 3:54 to go in the first quarter, Durant drove home a slam off an Andre Iguodala miss, then unleashed a bellow. That was just moments before a Damian Jones block on a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope try off the backboard led to a Durant run out and a Klay Thompson three.
That was swiftly followed by a James lob to former Warrior JaVale McGee for a dunk.
There was also the requisite preening. With six minutes to go in the second quarter, Curry held the goose neck on a three in front of the Lakers’ bench and former Golden State assistant Luke Walton, as Durant was called for a charge under the basket, negating that very three.
The pace stayed high throughout the first three quarters.
With 4:30 to go before the half, Durant took a rebound from a missed Kyle Kuzma three coast-to-coast, lowered his shoulder and bowled over Brandon Ingram, and didn’t get called for a foul on a lay-up.
Twice, McGee frustrated former teammates at the rim, including Iguodala — which led to a three by Caldwell-Pope — and then again as halftime neared, against Durant, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds in the first half.
With under a minute to go before the half, Curry hit a lean-back, stumbling three to give the Warriors a 57-56 lead, and to give himself 18 points (he finished with a team-high 23). James answered with a weaving drive to give him 12 points. He also had 10 rebounds and five assists in 17 first-half minutes.
James then hit a mid-court halftime buzzer-beater to make it 61-57, stared at the illuminated backboard and held an almost superheroic pose, chest wide, arms hanging at his sides, staring over his right shoulder as his teammates came off the bench to congratulate him.
That tempo and physicality waned noticeably after the regular rotation players exited — Durant fouled out with 5:07 to go in the third (he’s only fouled out four times in his NBA career) with 18 points and 12 rebounds. While the starters and second units were in, there were some clear roles being defined for Golden State.
Jones — who was on a two-way contract last season — continued to show how much more comfortable he’s become in the role of center.
Bell made the extra pass underneath with 8:42 to go in the third to a slashing Jones, who hammered home a reach-back one-handed dunk. Jones finished with seven points on 3-of-3 shooting in 17 minutes, with five steals, but no rebounds..
“I think it’s been a great few weeks for Damian, from the standpoint of gaining experience,” Kerr said on Tuesday. “[Monday] was good for him just in terms of seeing things he hadn’t seen yet. Phoenix ran some really good stuff. They spread you out, took 33 3-pointers and ran a very modern NBA offense with a shooting four man and a diving five. That’s not easy to hash out when you’re the anchor and the five man.”
Quinn Cook — who found an open Iguodala for a long two in the final seconds of the first quarter — also hit a reverse lay-in past James and Lance Stephenson seconds into the second. He got the bulk of the wing rotation minutes vacated by Patrick McCaw, and ahead of rookie Jacob Evans. He finished wth eight points on 3-of-7 shooting (1-for-3 from three), three rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes.
Shaun Livingston — proclaimed by Kerr to be the “elder statesman” of the Warriors after the retirement of David West and the departure of Zaza Pachulia — got a rare technical with under nine minutes to go in the first half, but saw 12 minutes after resting on Monday against the Phoenix Suns. He showed his veteran savvy coming in with four minutes to go in the third, dishing a no-look pass to a driving Kevon Looney for a dunk.
Apart from that, Looney did not do much to show the improvement the Warriors saw through the first three games of the preseason. With three minutes left in the first, he missed a three, and couldn’t get back in time to prevent a Caldwell-Pope dunk. With 18.2 seconds left in the third, he took too many steps and then spiked the ball for a technical.
James blasted past Looney on the baseline with 7:04 to go in the second quarter, and Looney reached out, overmatched, to grab him for a foul as James spun around and hit the scoop shot, flexing for the crowd.
The next trip down, he took an outlet pass from Thompson for a bucket, but it was far from a smooth night for Golden State’s likely second four man, who was praised by Kerr in the pregame, and has looked to have taken major strides in both his confidence and athleticism.
“I think Loon has been rock solid,” Kerr said before the game. “I think Jordan [Bell]’s been up-and-down a little bit. He’s shown great promise, does some great things, but he has some lapses occasionally. Loon is usually right place, right time. Jordan sometimes relies on his athleticism.”
The Lakers scored 41 points in the third quarter — led by 18 from Brandon Ingram, who went 11-of-12 at the line and 3-for-5 from the floor in the quarter, and finished with 26. That was enough to get Los Angeles out to its largest lead of the night — 102-92.
After Friday’s finale — Draymond Green will play, Kerr said — Golden State will cut their roster down on Saturday — ahead of Monday’s league deadline — and will likely drop down to 14, keeping a spot open for an addition like Cook was last season. Cook was signed to a two-way contract after he was a victim of the final cut by the Atlanta Hawks, and was then signed midseason to a two-year NBA contract.
That means that the Warriors will likely keep one of its crop of youngsters, and it will be a wing, which means that Alfonzo McKinnie — who played well on Monday — could be in line to make the squad. Danuel House Jr. — who did not play — is also in consideration for either a spot, or a two-way deal.
“It’s really something that we just have to hash out,” Kerr said. “Ultimately, the decision will be Bob [Myers]’s with our input, at some point later this week. A few of us will sit down and decide the best course of action. Obviously, there are a lot of different scenarios with the two-way contract that we have available.”
McKinnie, who played 14 minutes on Wednesday, didn’t hit the court until late in the third quarter, but is “very athletic,” Kerr said, with the potential to be a very good defender. With 4:53 to go, he took a pass on the baseline and put in a nifty lay-up. He finished with 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting with four rebounds.
“I think Alfonzo’s had a nice camp, and so has Danuel,” Kerr continued. “He’s impressed us. I’ve said ti many times this week, this group has been fantastic. Tyler [Ulis] changes games with his ball pressure and speed. Marcus [Derrickson] gives us a pick-and-pop ability that we don’t normally have from that spot.”
Ulis and Derrickson — the latter of whom led Golden State in scoring in the Las Vegas Summer League — both got on the floor late in the fourth quarter.