LOS ANGELES – Sometimes you have to look beyond the manufactured story, and it can be hard to filter through when you become the focus of so much attention.
Such is the case with the first round between the Lakers and Grizzlies. As much as everyone wants to build this series around A) LeBron James and B) the Grizzlies’ lack of maturity, what struck me most in the first four games was how unaddressed this first round series was about LeBron James and the Grizzlies’ immaturity.
Certainly, both sides were tangible factors at times; There’s a reason this is such a hot topic. James had an incredible finish to send Game 4 into overtime, especially, and is still a ridiculously good basketball player at 38. As for Memphis, let’s just say the young Grizzlies’ grit was nothing short of charming this round.
James, however, was largely a bystander as Austin Revis and Anthony Davis took over at the end of Game 1, and was just one of many Lakers to put in a strong performance in Game 3, again a limited participant in the first 11:58 of Game 4. Quarter of Game 4… when most of the big shots came from D’Angelo Russell and Reaves.
As for the behavior of the Grizzlies… sure, Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks need to face the music after the loss. It’s part of being a professional and also part of being a teammate and not leaving Desmond Payne and Xavier Tillman to answer everything.
However, the biggest and most pressing problem is that Grizzlies seem to be short of secondary options. The Grizzlies have only three players they can count on offense now, and the bench has scored just 79 points in four games. Rui Hachimura owns 72 alone in Los Angeles. Overall, it’s a plus-40 in scoring Lakers off the bench over the course of the four games.
Wait, it gets worse. The Grizzlies hit just 30.1% of their 3s, even as the Lakers continue to discard their secondary options more aggressively; Outside the core of Morant-Bane-Jaren Jackson Jr. Memphis players shoot 39.7 percent from the floor and 27.1 percent from 3, with 19 free throw attempts in four games. Yikes.
The contrast with Los Angeles is somewhat stark. James can’t buy 3 (5 of 27), but the Lakers out of heart James Davis-Reeves (!) made 46.7 percent from downtown and 44.8 percent overall.
It’s a stunning statement because it’s a reflection of the wealth these teams have had for most of recent history. In particular, it’s a high G-Force spin for the Lakers’ once heavyweight roster in the league. And by “once” I mean, in January.
I watched the Lakers play a preseason game in Las Vegas in October and chatted with other observers that Reeves might be the third best player on the team. However, it was not intended as a compliment; Instead, it was a red flag that James and Davies would have to struggle and push just to bring the ALP up to mediocrity.
Still, somehow, somehow, the Lakers are here, with a massive 3-1 series lead thanks to a thrilling overtime win in Game 4 as secondary performers pulled them to the finish line, even as Davis tackled a groin problem and couldn’t get the win. James failed to score a basket for a full quarter against third-string center Memphis.
Some of that is because Reaves, an unqualified catch by the Lakers’ scouting department in 2021, turned out to be a lot better than anyone thought. But mostly, it’s the Lakers’ front office that gets this team moving quickly at the trade deadline, waiting for the right deal instead of panicking early in the season. Amazingly, the Lakers effectively replaced Thomas Bryant, the woodsy pick-and-roll defender who was unplayable in Denver, for Hachimura, who torched the Grizzlies in Game 1 — it cost them three seconds to get Hachimura, and they made it. When they sent Bryant.
Los Angeles also swung heavily on a deal to reconfigure the roster by sending in a not-so-well-fit Russell Westbrook and returning Russell, Jared Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley. (Cynical side note: It’s not lost on anyone in the City of Angels that Westbrook almost instantly became the player the Lakers spent a year and a half begging him to be the moment he joined the Clippers.)
These moves coincided with Reaves’ promotion to a more prominent role, first as a sixth man and then as a starter. A hot wing-sized ball player, he’s been a tough game for the secondary defenders (since the opposition’s ace is always on James) and especially feeds on Tyus Jones at the end of the first game. When Reaves has played for at least 30 minutes.
Suddenly, voila. The Lakers have a real team with a rotation of nine players. This doesn’t promise them anything beyond serendipity, but this list was near dead before then. Russell, Vanderbilt, and Hachimura were key players in the series (LA is still waiting for Beasley, unfortunately—a talented shooter in Minnesota and Utah, he’s struggled mightily as a Laker); Along with Reaves and Troy Brown Jr. and Dennis Schröder, the Los Angeles nine-man tournament just falls short of the backup position.
The contrast with Memphis is very colossal and very contradictory based on recent history. The Grizzlies’ second unit bombarded opponents with stubble a year ago, and even this year without Kyle Anderson and Dean Anthony Melton, they have reliably outpaced their opponents.
Unfortunately, it’s Death by a Thousand Cuts now. Season-ending injuries to Stephen Adams and Brandon Clark shredded the front court depth, leaving the Grizzlies to start the previously underused Tillman. He has held amazingly well on defense, but he and Jackson are now the only reliable big players in the rotation. (The other possibility, Santi Aldama, is being cooked.)
Meanwhile, the loss of Anderson and running back of second year pro Zaire Williams left Memphis with a huge hole in the offensive position. The Grizzlies still have depth of guard for days, but this isn’t a match where they can be put to good use because the Lakers are so big – Reaves is 6-5, Hachimura is 6-8, James is 6-9, and even Russell is 6-4. You can’t play Luke Kennard, John Konchar, and Bane at the same time against those guys as two, three, and four, or play small fronts with Morant and Jones against Lakers starters (the Los Angeles unit burned out near the end of Game 1).
As a result, the bench player really earned his trust in the series: surprisingly, it’s rookie forward David Ruddy. The Grizzlies turned him over to James and used him as a backup in three locations; For any important moment, jump right after Aldama in tap order. Rudy had his share of positive moments, including defending in space. Don’t expect his feet to move the way his nose does.
But the other part of this is that the players the Grizzlies use don’t intimidate the Lakers from the perimeter, Roddy included. Kennard cannot open, and the other players are left open. Even Jones, usually a reliable option, is 1 of 13 of 3 in this series and played just eight minutes in Game 4.
Crucial to this was Brooks’ death as the shooter, and I’d argue it was more relevant to the outcome so far than his word choices. Brooks averaged 25.8 points per game in a playoff series just two years ago — yeah, really — and is a near-respectable 34.2% for a 3-year career shooter. Even those percentages could have been higher were it not for some adventurous shot selection; With his feet up, he’s a man defenders usually worry about.
Except, now it isn’t. Even as Game 4 goes on, Los Angeles is becoming more adventurous in giving him shooting opportunities farther from the perimeter. Find out how the Lakers defend Brooks’ ball screen for Morant; Instead of deciding on a switch or an offer, the two defenders hang out with Morant and don’t worry about Brooks.
They treat both Brooks and Roddy this way anytime they are over the break, making the assist “nail” off midfield. (Side note: Brooks or Rudy could also have pulled back on this one.) By the fourth quarter, it was almost comical. The Grizzlies tipped Brooks into the corner on this play as Morant tries to get his sack against Russell at the top of the corkscrew.
Look where Schroeder is. He’s basically 2 feet away from Russell, and completely cedes any 3 corner to Brooks. There is no way for Morant to get to the basket here. (The Grizzlies were saved by an illegal defense call against Davis, the first time in NBA history that such a violation was reported in the fourth quarter of a playoff game.)
Memphis didn’t help matters with some of its tactical decisions along the way. The Grizzlies could have focused more on isolating Morant against Russell or Reaves, rather than bringing secondary defenders into the fold with ball screens that LA didn’t worry about.
The most egregious of these decisions came as the end of the regulations drew near. With 35 seconds left, here comes Brooks to screen the ball for Morant; Since the Lakers had already proven that they weren’t remotely worried about Brooks’ jumper, all they did was bring the elder Hachimura onto the play to defend Morant at the edge.
Of course, the Grizzlies can rightfully argue that they might have won the game anyway if there had been one or two different rebounds. Even allowing the Grizzlies’ misfit pitchers, the 9-of-42 on a steady diet of open-angle 3s fared very poorly. The Grizzlies also burned their challenge on a low-leverage and out-of-bounds call in the second quarter and wasn’t available to reverse a brutal charge call against Morant with just over two minutes left. (I know we’re all trying to give LeBron his flowers, but can we talk about how bad that call is?)
Tillman’s story would have been the story of the game had the Grizzlies won, powering James for most of the fourth quarter. In fact, with two and a half minutes remaining, he stopped a play very similar to James’ sloppy drive. Given the post-game comment regarding Memphis players not helping on this drive, note that they also stayed home on this and let Tillman (and Jackson on the backline) handle it:
However, the series has highlighted weaknesses that run deeper than just a single game or fourth quarter, and it will be interesting to see how Memphis responds. Can the Grizzlies open up lineups with Kennard to provide enough spacing without getting bogged down on defense? For that matter, could they put him in the game when they’re 5 behind with 13 seconds left in the game?
Grizzlies may also attempt to physically make contact when setting on display. Here’s the ATO from Game 4 that the Browns have been navigating around with ease:
Using Kennard as a screening agent wasn’t much better:
Well, I’ve been in the weeds here, and I’ve already been hollering long enough, so let’s finish where we started – with the overall story: The difference between these two teams by four games was less in terms of experience in young victories and a lot more about the secondary players. The Lakers outperform the players in Memphis.
It’s a stark shift from the mid-season situation, and could lead to the biggest playoff upset (by seeding, anyway) in a decade.
(Photo: Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images)
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