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Lakers-Warriors is a battle of free throws vs. 3-pointers for the soul of basketball

The Lakers and Warriors are built on different philosophies that are colliding in the NBA Playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers finished with almost identical records this season while building their rosters through opposite philosophies.

The four-time champion Warriors forever turned the sport on its head by eschewing shots at the rim for three-pointers, inadvertently changing the geometry of the game and what constitutes a “good shot” in the process. The Lakers fall back on the old axiom that size is king. For LA to win, it needs to dominate the paint on both ends.

The second round series between the NBA’s two most glamorous franchises feels so much bigger than a typical No. 6 seed vs. No. 7 seed matchup. There are no shortage of storylines on a human level: it’s another chapter in the Stephen Curry-LeBron James rivalry, the threat of this being the Warriors’ last dance with Draymond Green and top executive Bob Myers potentially being free agents after the season, James’ chase for an elusive fifth ring, and Anthony Davis’ mission to regain his status as one of the best players in the world.

At its core, though, this series comes down to three-pointers vs. free throws.

The Lakers beat the Warriors in Game 1, 117-112, on Tuesday night in San Francisco by proving that one-point shots can be as valuable as three-point shots in the right context. The Warriors shot 21-of-53 from three-point range, good for a sparkling 39.6 percent. The Lakers, by contrast, shot just 6-of-25 (24 percent) from three, and won. That never happens.

How? The answer, of course, lies at the foul line.

The Lakers went 25-of-29 (86.2 percent) from the free throw line. The Warriors went 5-of-6 at the foul line.

This isn’t an aberration, and it’s certainly not proof that the refs rigged the game. This is just how these two teams play, and is a byproduct of the type of shots they hunt.

The Warriors shot 3,540 threes this season, the most in the NBA. They made 38.5 percent of those attempts as a team, the second best mark in the NBA. The Lakers shot 2,558 threes this season, which was No. 26 out of 30 NBA teams. LA’s 34.6 percent connection rate ranked No. 25 in the league.

Meanwhile, the Lakers shot 2,182 free throws, the most in the NBA. The Warriors shot 1,655 free throws this season, dead last in the NBA. In addition to getting fouled more than any team in the NBA, the Lakers also foul less on defense than any team in the league. LA’s 17.1 percent opponent free throw rate was tops in the NBA.

The Lakers took 32.9 percent of their shots at the rim on the season. The Warriors took 24.9 percent of their shots at the rim on the season. The Warriors took 42.3 percent of their shots from three, while the Lakers only took 32.7 percent of their field goal attempts from deep.

The contrast between these two teams is clear to see, and it’s embodied by their best players. Of course, I’m talking about Curry for the Warriors, but this actually isn’t about LeBron James. At this point, Anthony Davis is the Lakers’ best player, and his presence changes everything in this series.

Remember when the Warriors burned an All-NBA big man in Domantas Sabonis to the cup repeatedly in their first round series against the Kings? That’s not going to fly against a clearly superior talent in Davis. All AD did in Game 1 was finished with 30 points, 23 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks. His block total doesn’t capture how many attempts he deterred the Warriors from even taking in close.

How can the Warriors slow down AD? It sounds wild, but the Warriors might actually need more shooting.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr went with the starting lineup he used most of the season when he had everyone healthy in Game 1 vs. the Lakers: Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andrew Wiggins with Draymond Green and Kevon Looney up front. We think of the Warriors as the greatest shooting team ever because of Curry and Thompson, but in reality their best lineup has less shooting threats than most teams put on the floor. That’s because Looney and Green aren’t credible threats from deep.

Having two non-shooters on the floor junks up the Warriors’ spacing in all kinds of ways. That wasn’t a huge issue against the Kings because Golden State could still beat Sabonis to the basket. To say it isn’t as easy against Davis and the Lakers is an understatement. With the Lakers’ perimeter defenders top-locking the Golden State shooters and funneling everything to the rim where Davis is waiting, the Warriors just don’t have enough spacing to generate consistently good looks. Read Golden State of Mind’s Joe Viray for more on the tactical battle.

The Warriors need to pull Davis away from the rim somehow, but Looney and Green don’t have the shooting skill to do it. That’s why the big key for the Warriors in this series just might be more Jordan Poole. If you watched Game 1, you know Poole ended up being the main character for a shot he missed:

Poole is getting blasted online for taking that shot with 10 seconds on the clock and Curry on the floor. Personally, I don’t think it was a terrible shot: Poole had hit six threes already in the game, and it was an open look within his range. He missed and the Lakers won.

Fans making Poole the scapegoat should realize that he’s also the Warriors’ best option to open up some space in the halfcourt. While Poole is a rollercoaster in terms of decision-making and shot selection, he can get really hot when he’s going right. They need him in this series. It sure would help the Warriors if they had a legitimate stretch five on the roster, but they don’t.

The Warriors have to find a way to open up more space, which will lead to better shot attempts at the rim and cleaner three-point looks. It’s just so hard to do it when Davis doesn’t have to guard the perimeter and can wait by the rim to swat any shot. Credit LA’s perimeter defenders, too, especially Jarred Vanderbilt and Dennis Schröder , who did a great job navigating screens. Of course, the game looks different if Golden State is more disciplined defensively to avoid bad fouls. The Lakers probably won’t shoot 86.2 percent from the line every game, too.

A battle of size vs. shooting is taking place on the NBA’s biggest stage with its two flashiest franchises in the spotlight. The adjustments are coming, and the chess match is only going to get more fascinating.