LOS ANGELES — When Thursday’s game between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers was scheduled, it was with the understanding that Golden State — the two-time defending champions and the toast of the NBA — would be facing its longtime nemesis, LeBron James, and his new team — one of the league’s jewel franchises.
While early-season match-ups between the two held some intrigue — played on MLK Day and Christmas Day — it was the potential for the two teams battling for playoff positioning down the stretch that made Thursday’s game of national interest, at the very least.
Instead, against a Lakers team that’s bereft of its starting lineup for the rest of the season, with James sitting out the final weeks of the season, Golden State predictably blew Los Angeles off its home floor, 108-90, playing with a creative joy that’s been frustratingly absent for much of the Warriors’ run at a third straight championship.
With the second game of a back-to-back scheduled against Cleveland on Friday in Oakland, and both DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Iguodala scheduled to rest, the game afforded the Warriors’ principles a chance to have fun against an overmatched team that was far from the club that engineered a Christmas Day shocker at Oracle Arena.
“Their whole team was missing,” said forward Kevin Durant, who had a Twitter-melting conversation with James on the sideline in the second quarter.”It was pretty easy for us to get into a rhythm. They’re playing a lot of young players, a lot of inexperienced players. I think we took advantage of that.”
No one seemed to have more joy than Cousins, who was untouchable on both blocks and an uncontested force in the lane. Cousins effectively built off of his most efficient outing as a Warrior on Tuesday against Denver, when he went 12-of-17 from the field and 2-for-4 from three, scoring 28 points, pulling down 13 rebounds and dishing out five assists in 29 minutes.
On Thursday, in just 23 minutes, he had 21 points on, 10 rebounds, an assist and a pair of steals. He exited midway through the third quarter as Golden State’s lead swelled to 32, banging a pair of threes before a running dunk with 4:15 left in the period that proved to be his final basket.
“I think it’s been amazing,” Curry said. “He’s playing with more confidence. More decisive when he has the ball in his hands, and it’s just a great thing to see the amount of talent we have on the floor and everyone working together and in sync. He looks good. His body looks good.”
“He’s just having so much fun on the court,” Kerr said of Cousins. “He’s a joy to coach. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s playing at a really high level. I think he’s playing as well as he has all season, since his comeback. You can see the confidence, and the excitement on his part, to head to the playoffs for the first time in his career.”
Golden State jumped out to a 17-6 lead over the first five minutes, and yet, a lone fan in the lower bowl, during a brief stoppage in play around the 6:45 mark, chanted, “Over-RATED!” Durant promptly hit his second wide-open three in as many tries to up the score to 20-6. Kerr said the last few games have been among the best Golden State has played, defensively, the entire season.
“It was great to set the tone and find a way to create momentum tonight,” Curry said. “Games like tonight, you have to come out with a good effort in the first quarter, find a way to establish your dominance and let that carry the rest of the game.”
With 4:51 left in the first, Curry picked up a defensive board and then hit Durant with a court-length behind-the-back pass for a slam dunk. Curry finished with just seven points, but had seven assists and tied Cousins for a team-high 10 rebounds.
“That’s not the first time he’s thrown it lefty behind the back,” Durant said. “He’s had some better passes than that, but tha twas a great pass and a great look. That was normal for him.”
After that, Golden State put in its second unit, and Durant flipped an underhanded pass on a broken play to Alfonzo McKinnie for a slam dunk to give the Warriors a 31-8 lead with 3:56 to go in the first. James stood about eight feet outside of the huddle during the ensuing Lakers time out, a nonplussed look on his face.
Golden State tried out new plays, like one with 2:16 to go in the first quarter where Green hit Durant coming off a Looney screen for a three normally taken by Curry. By the end of the first quarter, Golden State held a 39-12 lead.
“[It was] entertaining,” Kerr said. “[We] had some great possessions and some wild ones. We let that game kind of slip away from us in the second quarter. It was good that we only turned it over twice in the second half. We just kind of settled down.”
Durant, with 11 first-quarter points, almost singlehandedly outscored the Lakers (6-for-29 from the field, 0-for-10 from three in the first) with 11 points. In the second quarter, the Warriors saw Los Angeles out-score them 30-21, climbing to within 15 with 1:54 left. That was as close as the Lakers would get.
Durant finished with 15 points in 28 minutes, going 3-of-4 from three and 5-of-7 from the field with eight assists and six rebounds. He was one of five Warriors in double figures, including Quinn Cook (18), Thompson (11), Cousins (who shot 9-of-17 from the floor) and Green (12).
The game was somewhat of a formality in the Warriors’ quest to retain home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, with their Tuesday win over the Nuggets giving them the tiebreaker over the West’s presumptive No. 2 seed. Golden State’s magic number to clinch the No. 1 seed is down to two, with only one of its final four games to be played against a team currently in the playoff race: The No. 6-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.
No Golden State player spent more than 29 minutes on the court on Thursday, as the Warriors prepare for what’s expected to be a rest day on Friday in advance of Sunday’s game against the team from Los Angeles that’s actually playoff-bound.
While the Lakers are without their stars by choice (James) or due to injury (Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram), the Clippers dealt their stars — acquired in the Blake Griffin trade last year — away at the trade deadline (and even sent one of the players they acquired — Mike Muscala — to the Lakers). Under Doc Rivers, the new-look Clippers are somehow even better since, going 16-6 after acquiring Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler and Ivica Zubac. Before the deadline, the Clippers were 31-26.
After resting Iguodala and Cousins, Golden State should be in good enough shape to get an accurate read of how Rivers and the Clippers could challenge them, should they meet in the playoffs. As good as the Clippers have been, though, they fell by 32 this week to the No. 3-seed Houston Rockets, who at this point would match up with them in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.