2021 State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament
LeBron comes through with clutch 3 to send Lakers into playoffs
LeBron James' late, long-range trey stuns the Warriors, who get another chance to advance against Memphis.
With the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament between the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors tied with a little more than a minute to go, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope set two ball screens for LeBron James, trying to get Stephen Curry switched onto the ball. The switch was there if James was able to attack, but with Andrew Wiggins hanging around, James passed to an open Caldwell-Pope in the paint. The Warriors’ defense collapsed and Curry drifted away from James, who remained beyond the 3-point line with less than five seconds left on the shot clock.
“I sunk in,” Curry said afterward, “thinking he was kind of out of the play.”
If the roles were reversed, there would be no leaving Curry, no matter how much time was left on the clock and no matter how far he was from the basket. The league’s leading scorer had the Lakers in a panic all night, double-teaming him more than 30 feet from the basket.
James was more than 30 feet from the basket. And he’d made just four shots (on 13 attempts) from beyond 30 feet all season (Curry had made 41 prior to Wednesday). But Caldwell-Pope got the ball back to him and James had just enough time to set his feet and launch. Curry closed out, but not in time.
The 34-foot shot fell through the net with 58.2 seconds left on the game clock, giving the Lakers a 103-100 lead (and the final margin of victory). It was James’ first basket to give his team the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime since Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals (a game the Lakers lost).
“It was a great shot,” Curry said. “That’s a tough one, because you don’t really expect it to go in. You expect us to get the rebound, come down in transition, and have a possession to take the lead. But everything changes when it goes in. All-time great players make great shots. That’s what happens.”
The bucket allowed the Lakers to get back on defense. They doubled Curry and forced the ball out of his hands. Kent Bazemore made a great ad-lib play to attack the paint and create an open 3-pointer for Jordan Poole, but Poole’s shot was off the mark. The Warriors got one more chance, but Curry was again unable to break free.
Lakers-Warriors, the Play-In matchup we’ve been anticipating for weeks, lived up to expectations. It went down to the wire and two great defensive teams played great defense. The Lakers put all their attention on Curry, trying to prevent pull-up 3s and double-teaming him until he gave up the ball. He still scored an efficient 37 points, shooting 12-for-23, including 6-for-9 from beyond the arc. But the Warriors committed 20 turnovers, including 15 in the second half, when they shot 47%, but scored just 45 points on 50 possessions.
The Warriors’ defense was nearly as resilient as that of the Lakers. James and Anthony Davis struggled in the first half, but combined for 36 (of their 47) points on 14-for-22 shooting after halftime. Against two of the league’s top five defenses, the stars still found ways to score, and the biggest star of his generation hit the biggest shot of the night.
The victory sends the defending champs back to the playoffs, where they will face the No. 2 seed Phoenix Suns in the first round, with Game 1 set for Sunday in Phoenix (3:30 ET, ABC). This season has been a struggle, mired by significant injuries to both James and Davis. Finishing as the No. 7 seed and likely having to start every series on the road is a challenge that nobody could have expected the Lakers to face when this season began. The two stars clearly aren’t back to 100%, but as long as they’re on the floor, the Lakers have a chance to repeat.
The Suns won two of the three regular season meetings and only two teams scored more efficiently against the Lakers’ No. 1 defense. But the Lakers didn’t have both James (played in only the first meeting) and Davis (played in only the third) for any of the three.
The Warriors get one more chance to get back to the playoffs.
Grizzlies stay alive, send Spurs home
Neither the Memphis Grizzlies nor the San Antonio Spurs are a very prolific team from beyond the arc. They ranked 24th and 30th in 3-pointers made this season and, appropriately, they combined to make just 15 3s (on 44 attempts) in the No. 9-10 Play-In game earlier on Wednesday. It was an old-school battle in the paint and on the glass, and the Grizzlies were simply the stronger, tougher team, ending the Spurs’ season and advancing to the final Play-In game with a 100-96 victory.
The Grizzlies opened up a 21-point lead late in the first quarter, getting to the rim and hurting the Spurs on the glass. A 17-0 San Antonio run in the second quarter made it a competitive game, but, even with that stretch of 17 points on just eight possessions, the Spurs were held under a point per possession for the 12th time this season. The team that led the league in mid-range field goal attempts shot just 7-for-28 from mid-range and, with Dillon Brooks in his shirt for almost all of his 38 minutes on the floor, DeMar DeRozan had a rough night. He got to the line for 11 attempts, but shot just 5-for-21 from the field, his worst shooting performance of the season.
Patty Mills (3-for-6 from 3-point range) was the only Spur eager to shoot from 3-point range. Others took 3s, but spent more time trying to force their way into the paint. They had some success in that regard, but not enough to make up for the lack of perimeter shooting.
The Grizzlies had Jonas Valanciunas, who finished with 23 points, 23 rebounds and three blocks. They also had Brooks, who, while slowing down DeRozan, scored 24 points of his own. Eight of those — two pull-up jumpers and two drives — came on four straight possessions that put the Grizzlies ahead for good midway through the fourth quarter.
This is the first time in the Spurs’ 54-year history (including their nine seasons in the ABA) that they’ve gone two seasons without making the playoffs. They have an improving young core, but their veterans — DeRozan, Mills and Rudy Gay — are all free agents.
The Grizzlies have an improving young core, too. And that core will play one more do-or-die game on Friday.
Warriors and Grizzlies for No. 8
So it’s Grizzlies-Warriors from San Francisco at 9 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN. The winner advances to the playoffs to face the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz. The loser sees their season come to an end.
These two teams played a nearly-as-important game on Sunday, where the winner finished in eighth place (needing to win just one Play-In game) and the loser finished ninth (needing to win two). The Warriors won that game behind 46 points from Curry, though they blew a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead before responding with a 14-0 run in the closing minutes.
It’s a chance for Curry to build on his legacy. It’s a chance for Brooks to dig in and slow down another star. And it’s another win-or-go home situation.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.