Lakers-Warriors would be an exciting play-in duel … before reality sets in for both franchises

The NBA would love to play seven of these games, but will have to settle for one … and change if the time abuse that occurred Saturday night in Los Angeles is repeated.

Another footnote in the book of LeBron James-Stephen Curry games has been entered: The Warriors walked away with a 128-121 victory, and it's likely the two will repeat that dance in the play-in tournament in just over a month — though it's not entirely out of the question that Golden State or the Lakers might overtake whoever is currently languishing in eighth place, and it's not too crazy to imagine the Houston Rockets making life difficult for both experienced teams in the meantime, either.

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On one hand, it's not about getting to the Western Conference finals like it was last May. But if you get just one game out of it, should that happen, the NBA world will be clamoring for more because so much has been invested in those two games – perhaps at the expense of other exciting storylines that will take center stage in the not-too-distant future.

The nature of the game and the tension of previous encounters give the feeling that both would be dangerous in a seven-game series against some of the newcomers at the top, but then you remember that they are playing against each other and not the top players who have actually proven themselves worthy so far this season.

It can be confusing to be convincing, but none of these teams are truly championship worthy; they just happen to be led by the most dominant winners since the retirement of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) react after play was stopped due to a shot clock malfunction during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in Los Angeles, Saturday, March 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Lakers-Warriors would be an exciting play-in duel, but neither team seems to be a serious title contender. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

April Madness will have to do, as it seems one team is heading into another win-or-lose contest and the other is heading into an offseason of what-ifs, regrets and finger-pointing. This night was not without controversy, even before the shot clock failed in the final two minutes. James's lopsided three-pointer into Curry's grill was too good to be true, as replays showed James' shoe was on the out-of-bounds line, and the three-pointer was taken off the scoreboard about 20 seconds after the matter seemed settled.

James has seen it all and can't remember a case like this. It's a new rule that relies on making things right in a sensible way and sequence after a critical move. Key word: sensible.

The 11-minute delay during which several plays were reviewed was followed by another unbelievable delay, this time by the computers controlling the shot clock, which killed any momentum for what should have been an exciting ending to a really good and well-played game.

LeBron said, without a hint of irony, that he was too old for it, considering that just a few feet away from him sat the man who should be too old and experienced to be belting out so many shot-clock numbers: longtime Lakers PA player Lawrence Tanter.

Blame the League for the former, not the latter – even though we have all begged the League to use the tools at its disposal to make things right.

And maybe the league got this play-in thing right, too. While it would be crazy to see the Warriors and Lakers knock the eighth-place Dallas Mavericks off the final spot in the traditional setup, the added excitement of ninth and tenth places has somewhat erased the March malaise.

If the play-in didn't exist, people would be crowing about the imbalance in the conferences and moaning and whining that Adam Silver should abolish the conferences and move to a 1-16 playoff model – and believe me, the complaints shouldn't be ignored if we don't get a full helping of Spring Steph and Spring LeBron when the weather turns.

That being said, it's a little weird to watch us trip over ourselves by saying Kevin Durant tipped the scales in this great singles rivalry (he did) without acknowledging that the Lakers are using one of the all-time greats in Anthony Davis to close out these matchups (he is).

Suffice it to say, if Davis was underrated, he shouldn't be underrated anymore. It's hard to overlook a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, especially when he's scoring 25 points with 12 rebounds every night, but that's life when it comes to these two supernovas.

After Davis took a hit to the eye that would have made Clubber Lang growl and sent him to the locker room never to return, the Warriors had as much vertical space as they could have wanted thanks to lobs from Draymond Green to Jonathan Kuminga.

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The Lakers are not a great defensive unit, mainly because James picks his spots and makes great defensive plays at times, but they are still not nearly as strong as they were when they were younger. When Davis is out, however, they are really out of shape.

It's a highway to the basket and, more importantly, Davis can't punish the Warriors for being the smallest team in the league. Veteran Kevon Looney has a tough time because of Trayce Jackson-Davis' youth and jumping ability, but physically he's no match for Davis — and Green can only defend the Lakers' big man for so many minutes before you start to wonder how it will affect the other important parts of his game.

But that's the fine line both teams walk, both due to circumstances and self-inflicted mistakes. Things naturally evolve over the course of an 82-game marathon, but Kuminga should have been released much sooner — apparently it took Green's suspension for Steve Kerr to let him play more often, and it relieved the pressure on an overwhelmed Curry.

Green's suspension for betting the “million dollar dream” on Rudy Gobert and then attacking Jusuf Nurkić is a big reason he has only played 41 games so far – and the Warriors are 24-17 and would have a winning record of 48 under normal circumstances.

But things are never normal, never straight in the Bay, and it's too easy to extrapolate where the Warriors would be without two notable failures by their emotional leader. They would certainly be better off than sitting in ninth place with a chance to overtake James in a playoff game.

And then there are the Lakers. James and Davis have been healthy and in pretty darn good shape this year, and Lakers optimists expected them to carry the momentum from last year's playoffs into this year.

But something wasn't quite right, and although D'Angelo Russell has reached All-Star level since the turn of the year 2024 (21.1 points, 6.3 assists, 45% three-point percentage), he revealed a discrepancy between himself and coach Darvin Ham, who always seems to be out of the hot seat for three games in a row.

So now both franchises are staring at each other — they probably had plenty of time to do so during these arduous delays — wondering how they got here. They think the other side is too good to just hang on to the end of the playoffs. And they know they'll have to win an emotional battle against the other just for the right to have one more, and then maybe one more, before they can breathe again.

Yes, and then they might hit Denver, where reality catches up with them.