Jordan Poole, Off The Deep End
8:59 AM EDT on May 3, 2023
It took decades to challenge the hierarchical notion that the best player always gets the last shot. Michael Jordan helped change that through the auspices of John Paxson and then Steve Kerr. LeBron James was criticized often for looking for the best percentage shot in late-game situations even if it wasn't his. But old rules die hard even now, and the notion that the superstar eats first, best, and last in all situations remains a staple of the game.
Thus, when Jordan Poole pulled up for an open but distant 28-footer with 10 seconds left in a game the Golden State Warriors were losing by three points Tuesday night, there was a collective gasp that reeked of "Not you, not from there, and not this soon." The shot missed, Laker guard/pest Dennis Schröder retrieved the ball and closed out an invigorating 117-112 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal, otherwise known as The Shootout At The Six/Seven Seed Corral.
By the laws of dynastic Warrior basketball, that shot was supposed to be Stephen Curry's on the basis that he hasn't taken a bad shot since 2013. Or it was supposed to be Klay Thompson's because he is prince regent in this particular royal family. But the Lakers had made Curry's night difficult by doubling him routinely with a combination of Schröder, Jarred Vanderbilt, Austin Reaves, and whatever else was handy, and by constricting his action around the basket by having Anthony Davis or LeBron James block everything that looked orange and round, and Thompson was off to the side and out of Poole's vision.
So the job fell to Poole, unless you would prefer to say that he seized it prematurely. The fourth-year guard/Thompson understudy who had a difficult series against Sacramento has fallen into the role of the maddening streak shooter who can't be relied upon to always find ways to be helpful when his shot isn't falling. Not that that was the case Tuesday night (he had 21 points, making six of 11 three-pointers), but Poole's place, one which has occasionally chafed, has always been as the third long-distance option in such situations. That's what Curry is for, after all, and nobody would find any blame in Curry missing a 28-footer because 28 feet is still about nine feet inside his normal range.
So while the Warriors defended Poole’s decision-making because that's what you do if you don't want fistfights in the hallway, the notion that Golden State didn't get the best shot available in the most propitious time will linger until … well, until Thursday, anyway. It’s a long series.
The broader truth from Tuesday night is that the Lakers as presently constructed are not the Kings. Davis in particular thrived against a team whose biggest presence is the redoubtable but undersized Kevon Looney, who put up his usual line of 10 points, five assists and a thousand rebounds, many of them offensive. Davis's own line of 30-23-5-4 blocks stood out on a team that has three things the Warriors not only don't have but were not confronted with against Sacramento: a defensive presence, the ability to draw fouls, and an unwillingness to commit them.
The Lakers showed all those things, shooting 29 free throws to Golden State's six to help make up for a 45-point deficit in three-pointers made. Their offense was less incandescent than efficient, and they forced the Warriors to take 53 threes, the most of any team in these playoffs and only five off the playoff record set by James Harden and associated other Houston Rockets in 2020. Part of that was surely due to the Lakers' size (see Davis and James, mostly), but some was also due to the Warriors' impatience, which has reared its ugly head at several points this postseason.
Some is also due to the fact that while these Warriors are defending champions, they are also a six-seed on merit. The Lakers are the seven on merit as well, but they came by their finish honestly after a terrible start, and were strengthened by the medicinal benefits of profoundly beating the noisome Grizzly upstarts so soundly that they are already yanking down Dillon Brooks murals in Memphis. That is never bad for the soul, and neither is having a healthy Davis and James against a team that has to terrorize from distance because unlike rearview mirrors, the Warriors do not appear larger the closer they approach.
The danger here, as is always true in Game 1s, is to assume that teams won’t adjust to what they have just seen, and both teams will do that before Thursday, and again before Saturday. By Game 4, both the Lakers and Warriors will have likely employed all their available fidgets and the remainder of the series will be simply strength against strength. For Golden State, those adjustments will include finding ways for Curry to beat the double-teams that seemingly limited his freedom of movement even though he still managed 24 shots, 16 of them from distance.
But as we said, his definition of distance and everyone else's are significantly different, and one of the other adjustments the Warriors will attempt to make will be to do a better job of freeing him to take that last best shot. Sure, the Warriors' motion offense is designed to be egalitarian by its very nature, but some citizens are more equal than others. In other words, if Poole is taking a 28-footer with 10 seconds left in another close game, it won't be because the Warriors designed it that way.