When the Lakers last faced the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this month, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were all active but unfortunately still dropped that game to the young team without Ja Morant. It was also after this specific game that Davis mentioned that the Lakers will have to start playing like underdogs given how they’ve failed to meet expectations to start the season.
At that point, the Lakers were still trying to figure their issues out, and were looking for some sort of winning momentum on the road. And while a lot has changed since then, the team’s goal hasn’t.
Less than three weeks later, the Lakers are back at the FedExForum, even if their roster looks a lot different this time around. L.A. has been hit hard by COVID, which has led them to sign several new faces to fill in multiple players who have been in and out of the lineup. Because of that and injuries, the Lakers haven’t had enough to win very many games, despite James playing some of the best basketball he has this season.
And sadly for the Lakers, it’s going to be even tougher on Wednesday, as not only are they on the second night of a back-to-back, but the Grizzlies will have Morant back in their rotation for this one.
The Lakers will have to play like underdogs because that’s exactly what they will be against this Grizzlies team: Underdogs. Memphis not only has a better record than the Lakers, but they’ve been far more consistent — even in the face of adversity — and are the only team in the league that has defeated both the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns on the road this year.
The Grizzlies have exceeded expectations, and have honestly been so fun to watch this season because the whole team makes an effort to go hard on both ends of the floor.
They have the sixth best offensive rating in the league (111.3), average the most steals (10.4 per game) and are third in blocks (5.8 per game) per game. Memphis’ head coach Taylor Jenkins has a done fantastic job of evolving his team through his leadership. He finds ways to put his team in positions to succeed and keeps them competitive every single game, no matter who they’re facing.
The beauty of the Grizzlies’ offense is that the ball moves so well, so regularly, that every single player gets their opportunity to score. And this is exactly the kind of team the Lakers’ defense has struggled to contain all season.
For Los Angeles to even have a chance on Tuesday, they’ll have to make life hard for Morant, who’s gradually becoming a superstar in the league. Ja is averaging a career-high 23.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.8 assists and now has a reliable jumper that has elevated his game. He’s probably gunning for a spot in this year’s All-Star game, so it won’t be a surprise if he goes all out during a rare national TV appearance on Tuesday. James or Westbrook will have to provide a ton of offense to keep up with Morant.
On Monday, Ja Morant and Desmond Bane became the 1st starting backcourt, both 23 years old or younger, to each have 30 points in a game since Allen Iverson and Jerry Stackhouse on April 5, 1997 against the Hornets. pic.twitter.com/y7F5AnpxaK— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 28, 2021
Aside from Morant, the Lakers need to keep an eye out for Desmond Bane and Steven Adams, who both have been vital for Memphis this season. Bane has made the second-year jump that Memphis wanted from him at the start of the season. The shooting guard is averaging the highest 3-point percentage in the league (48.9 percent) since Nov. 18. As for Adams, he’s been a reliable big who provides scoring at the basket, rebounding and interior defense.
That said, it will be interesting to see how the Lakers can expose Memphis’ defense. Maybe it’ll be another night of starting James at the 5, where he has been a +27 in the 105 minutes he’s played in that position this season. Or will this be the game Westbrook finally finds his groove again and finally converts most of his attempts at the rim?
David Fizdale, on the debut of LeBron James, starting center, and what led to it.— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) December 29, 2021
"LeBron's plus-minus at the 5 is so ridiculous right now... I just decided tonight was the night to start him at the 5."
However they come, though, both James and Westbrook will need to have huge performances on Tuesday. Again.
Only three pairs of Lakers teammates have had triple doubles in the same game— SB Nation (@SBNation) December 29, 2021
> Kareem and Magic
> LeBron and Lonzo
> LeBron and Russ (tonight) pic.twitter.com/NoocGXeTBU
It also definitely be nice if Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony and Avery Bradley also show up, because the Lakers desperately need production outside of James. And you know what else would be nice? If the Lakers hear good news in the morning and get their head coach and players out of protocols.
The latest on potential reinforcements
Hours before the Lakers tip-off vs. the Houston Rockets, assistant and current interim coach David Fizdale addressed the media and said that there’s no definite time as to when Vogel will be back but he is indeed getting close. The same applies with Austin Reaves, who has been in protocols for 11 days as of Tuesday.
“Obviously Frank is getting close as well. We were joking around about how much we miss him today on the Zoom because of his crazy jokes. He’s just a great, great human to be around,” Fizdale said. “To be in the trenches with. To a man, as corny as it sounds, we just really miss him. And we miss our video guys who are also at home.
“I don’t know the barrier honestly. I just know that (Reaves) is really close. I know that a lot of discussion was had about him possibly making this trip, but I haven’t gotten an update,” Fizdale continued. “I don’t have any new information, but I know he is close.”
But whoever is in or out of the lineup can’t matter for L.A. at this point. The Lakers desperately need to win games and bounce back from the five game losing streak they had last week, no matter who is playing. Nobody feels sorry for them (except us fans, of course) because almost all teams in the league are losing their players to the health and safety protocols or even injuries as well.
So Vogel, Reaves, or other players back or not, now more than ever is when Los Angeles needs to play with the most desperation they’ve played with all season.
Notes and Updates
- As of right now, Trevor Ariza, Rajon Rondo, Kent Bazemore, Avery Bradley and Frank Vogel remain in health and safety protocols. This also may change on Wednesday morning.
- Anthony Davis (MCL sprain) and Kendrick Nunn (bone bruise) are out. Wayne Ellington also did not travel with the team due to a non-COVID illness.
David Fizdale admitted pregame that part of reason Wayne didn't travel with his non-COVID illness was just that the team didn't want to expose everyone to something else right now while they're already missing so many guys. pic.twitter.com/2yJt5vUE0q— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) December 28, 2021
- Memphis’ Dillon Brooks and De’Anthony Melton are also in the health and safety protocols and will likely be out for Wednesday’s game.
- If you’re wondering about the latest on the Lakers trade front, our own Anthony Irwin interviewed Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report to talk about the latest on Talen Horton-Tucker, Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook and more.
- For all the doom and gloom this past week has been for the Lakers, the good news is that they’re only two games back from the fifth seed in the mediocre Western Conference. If you want to box score watch, it’ll be nice if the Denver Nuggets, L.A. Clippers, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves lose the following games.
Next five games:— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) December 29, 2021
LAL: MEM, POR, MIN, SAC, ATL
DEN: GSW, HOU, DAL, UTH, SAC
LAC: BOS, TOR, BKL, MIN, PHX
MIN: UTH, LAL, LAC, OKC, OKC
DAL: SAC, OKC, DEN, GSW, HOU https://t.co/a97bFaI77R
The Lakers won’t even get a full 24 hours of rest, as they tip-off against the Grizzlies at 5 p.m. PT on Wednesday. The game will be televised nationally on NBA TV, and locally on Spectrum SportsNet.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani