Warriors, LeBron James' Lakers primed to start real rivalry next season

Monte Poole
NBC Sports BayArea

Don Nelson was the coach. His starting five for Game 1 featured two-thirds of the Run-TMC trio, Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond, joined by forwards Rod Higgins and Mario Elie and center Jim Peterson. Chris Mullin sat out with knee soreness.

The Warriors lost by 10 but bounced back behind Mullin to win Game 2, tying the series. Mullin had 41 points, Hardaway 28, Richmond 22.

That was the Warriors' only slice of success in the series. They lost Games 3 and 4 in Oakland, then went back on the road and lost Game 5 at The Forum.

Warriors-Lakers, Western Conference semifinals in 1991 was the seventh time since the Warriors moved to the Bay Area in 1962 that the teams met in the postseason.

It also was the last time, mostly because the Warriors spent of the next 22 seasons holding themselves hostage to their own dysfunction. And when they began to rise, the Lakers fell.

That's about to change. These two teams are about to become more familiar in the least friendly of ways.

Barring catastrophic injury on one side or the other, there is a reasonable chance of getting Warriors-Lakers in the 2021 playoffs and, finally, providing at least the beginnings of a rivalry we've always wanted but never really had.

"That would be most glamorous matchup the NBA could hope for," says Mychal Thompson, the Lakers radio analyst who also happens to be the father of Warriors star Klay Thompson. "Look, the Clippers are good. The Bucks are fun. A few other teams have great players and personalities.

"But when you talk about the Splash Brothers, the attraction of the Golden State Warriors and their recent history, going against LeBron (James) and the Lakers, that is a Western Conference Finals dream matchup."

The Lakers should be at least as good as they were in 2019-20, when their 49-14 record had them atop the conference when play was suspended on March 11. LeBron was dodging Father Time and Anthony Davis was staking a persuasive claim to be the best sidekick in the league.

The Warriors, their "gap year" behind them, should be a lock to return to the playoffs. A top-four seed is conceivable.

[RUNNIN' PLAYS PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]
 

The Bay Area and Los Angeles are natural geographic rivals, with the Giants and Dodgers despising each other since both moved to California in the late 1950s. The Rams and 49ers traded mean mugs until 1989, when the Niners took a 30-3 win in the NFC Championship game, followed by 17 consecutive wins over LA/St. Louis.

The NBA got in on the action in the early 2000s. Kings-Lakers was fierce and provocative and, the teams seeing each other in the playoffs three straight seasons. The Lakers won all three series, and Sacramento still is trying to recover.

The Lakers, in general, have owned the state. And in their last meeting with the Warriors, on Feb. 27, when LA fans took over Chase Center as their team rolled to a 116-86 rout, the tone in the building was reminiscent days long past.

"It was one-sided, but that's to be expected when you have three Hall of Famers on the floor," Thompson says, referring to former teammates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. "The Warriors had quality players, guys like Sleepy Floyd and Purvis Short, but they couldn't put it together."

Not in the early 1990s, when the Showtime Lakers dominated. Not the early 2000s, when Kobe Bryant would stroll into Oracle Arena and be treated like royalty.

The 2020s, whenever the schedule allows, has tremendous promise. LeBron has spent the second half of his career chasing the Warriors, failing more often than succeeding. And now he's in the same conference. How convenient.

In such a series, the Lakers, Thompson says, would have to win on defense. Control the paint, own rebounds and pile up second-chance points. Which makes Davis the pivotal player.

The Warriors, however, can shoot any opponent off the floor.

"When those guys are knocking down shots, they're practically impossible to beat," Thompson says. "When they had (Kevin Durant), Steph and Klay making shots, those guys were deadly. I'm sure they'll add a couple players, but even without KD, Klay and Steph can demoralize teams."

[RELATED: Steph gets why some people call him cocky]

LeBron will be 36 in December. The last time the Warriors met in the postseason, he was a 6-year-old in Ohio. Curry was a 3-year-old in North Carolina.

Storylines will be plentiful whenever the 2020-21 season opens, and one will be the potential of another Steph-vs.-LeBron clash. Lakers-Warriors, finally when it matters most.

If the world is stabilized and the basketball gods have a sense of theater, we'll get it sometime in May 2021.

Warriors, LeBron James' Lakers primed to start real rivalry next season originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

What to Read Next