Lakers-Warriors would be a thrilling Play-In matchup ... before reality sets in for both franchises

The NBA would love seven games of this, but will have to settle for one … and change, if there’s a repeat of whatever clock malfeasance occurred in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

Another footnote of the LeBron James-Stephen Curry book was entered, with the Warriors coming away with a 128-121 victory, and it’s likely those two will do this dance again in a little over a month in the Play-In Tournament — although it’s not completely out of the question Golden State or the Lakers overtake whomever is floundering in the eighth spot, nor is it too crazy to envision the Houston Rockets making life miserable for both veteran teams in the meantime.

On one hand, there won’t be a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line, like last May. But getting just one game of this, should it turn out as such, will leave the NBA world wanting more because so much has been invested in these two — perhaps at the expense of other compelling stories that will take center stage before too long.

The nature of the game and thrills of earlier matchups produce the feeling both would be dangerous in a seven-game series against some of the neophytes at the top, and then you remember they’re playing against each other and not the powers who’ve actually proven to be worthy over the season to date.

Being compelling can be confusing, but neither of these teams are truly championship-worthy; they just happen to be led by the preeminent winners since Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan stepped away.

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 a compelling Play-In matchup, but neither team appears to be a serious title contender. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

April Madness will have to do, as it feels destined one team will advance to another win-or-go-home contest and the other will head to an offseason of what-ifs, regrets and finger-pointing. This night wasn’t without controversy, even before the shot clock malfunctioned in the last two minutes. James’ leaning triple in Curry’s grill was too good to be true, as replays revealed James’ shoe was on the out-of-bounds line, and the 3-pointer was snatched from the scoreboard some 20 seconds after the matter seemed adjudicated.

James has seen it all, and he can’t recall an instance like that. It’s a new rule, predicated on getting things right in a reasonable manner in a reasonable aftermath of a critical play. Key word: reasonable.

The 11-minute delay where multiple plays were reviewed was followed by another unfathomable one, this one by the computers operating the shot clock, killing all momentum for what should’ve been a winding finish to a really good and well-played game.

LeBron mouthed he's too old for this, without a hint of irony considering sitting feet away from him was the man who should be too old and seasoned to be blaring out shot-clock numbers, longtime Lakers PA man Lawrence Tanter.

Blame the league for the former, not the latter — even though we’ve all begged the league to use the tools at its disposal to get things right.

And perhaps the league has gotten this Play-In thing right, too. While it would be wild to watch the Warriors and Lakers chase the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks for the last spot in the traditional setup, the added intrigue in the ninth and 10th spots has erased some of the March malaise.

If not for the Play-In, there would be crowing and moaning about the conference imbalance, whining that Adam Silver should scrap conferences and go to a 1-16 playoff model — and best believe, don’t rule out the complaints if we don’t get a full helping of spring Steph and spring LeBron when the weather breaks.

As an aside, it’s a bit funny to watch us trip over ourselves to say Kevin Durant tipped the scales of this great individual rivalry (he did) while not valuing the Lakers employ an all-time great on the back end of these battles in Anthony Davis (he is).

Suffice to say, if Davis was undervalued he should be no longer. It’s hard for a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year to be overlooked, especially when he drops 25 points with 12 boards nightly, but such is life when it comes to these two supernovas.

Once Davis was nailed with a hit to the eye that would make Clubber Lang growl, going to the locker room to never return, the Warriors had all the vertical spacing they could ask for by way of Draymond Green lobs to Jonathan Kuminga.

The Lakers aren’t a great defensive unit, especially with James picking and choosing his spots, making great defensive plays during moments yet nowhere near the force he was in his younger form, but they’re really out of sorts when Davis is out.

It’s a freeway to the rim and, more importantly, Davis can’t punish the Warriors for being the smallest team in the league. Veteran Kevon Looney is on the outs for the youth and bounce of Trayce Jackson-Davis, but he’s no physical match for Davis — and there’s only so many minutes Green can handle defending the Lakers big man before you wonder how it’ll affect the other important parts of his game.

But therein lies the delicate line both teams walk, both from circumstance and self-inflicted errors. Things naturally develop over an 82-game marathon, but Kuminga should’ve been unlocked a lot sooner — it seemingly took Green’s suspension to get Steve Kerr to play him more, and it alleviated pressure from an overtaxed Curry.

Green’s suspension for putting the Million-Dollar Dream on Rudy Gobert then subsequent flail at Jusuf Nurkić is a big reason he’s played only 41 games so far — and the Warriors are 24-17, on a 48-win pace in normal circumstances.

But things are never normal, never linear in the Bay, and it’s too easy to extrapolate on where the Warriors would be without two notable absences from their emotional leader. They’d certainly be better than tied at ninth and having the possibility of staring down James in a one-game playoff.

Then there’s the Lakers. James and Davis have been healthy and damned good this year, and Laker optimists expected them to carry the momentum from last year’s playoff run into this year.

But something hasn’t fully clicked, and although D’Angelo Russell has been at an All-Star level since the calendar turned to 2024 (21.1 points, 6.3 assists, 45 percent 3-point shooting), he revealed a disconnect between himself and coach Darvin Ham, who always seems to be a three-game losing streak away from the hot seat.

So now both franchises stare at each other — they probably had plenty of time to do that during those arduous delays, wondering how did they get here, thinking the other side is too good to be barely hanging onto the back end of the playoffs. And knowing they’ll have to go through the other in some emotional battle just for the right to have another, then maybe another, before they can breathe again.

Yeah, and then maybe they’ll face Denver, where reality will really hit them.