In what always seems like a cosmic flaw in the universe (at least according to a Laker fan like me), the Lakers missed the playoffs last season after they couldn’t even finish as a top-10 seed in the Western Conference in order to qualify for the play-in tournament.
After a roster overhaul that saw them finish with the best record in the Western Conference following the trade deadline, the Lakers were able to get out of the play-in tournament to now face the 2nd-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in a first round matchup. The Lakers will look to beat the Grizzlies in this series to advance to the second round for only the second time since 2012. Of course, we all remember what happened the last time they reached the second round back in 2020.
To preview Sunday’s Game 1 and the series overall, here are the main challenges that the Lakers will have to overcome to win and move on.
I think we all knew the fourth-year phenom would be leading off this list. Although Ja Morant’s scoring and overall shooting efficiency is down from his All-NBA season last year, he’s still averaging 26.2 points per game. Covering for his slight regression in areas, he’s become more of a facilitator for his teammates than in the past, averaging 8.1 assists per game this season (6.7 in the 2021-22 season).
As much as we all know about how explosive and dangerous Morant is, we also know about the tumultuous second half he’s had this season. After holding a gun in one of his Instagram live videos, Morant found himself away from the team indefinitely before serving an official suspension. He missed 9 games in total, returning Mar. 22.
Morant averaged only 20.0 points per game in 8 appearances following his return, however, this was only in 28.4 minutes per game as 3 of those appearances featured some lopsided Grizzlies wins that allowed Morant some rest.
Those minutes will be elevated in the high 30s for this first round matchup, with Morant representing the exact archetype of superstar that can give the Lakers fits from time-to-time. Expect Dennis Schroder, Austin Reaves, and maybe even Jarred Vanderbilt to take turns guarding him. Either way, each possession will be a group effort to contain Morant.
The Lakers’ defense will likely pack the paint against him, daring the 30.4% 3-point shooter this year to take some heaves. However, they’ll also have to hope their focus on him doesn’t lead to the supporting cast punishing them…
With the paint packed with purple-and-gold defenders, it’s likely that the Lakers will dare the Grizzlies’ players to sink 3-pointers. With the Lakers being the road team in this matchup, it’ll be interesting to see how this pans out given how role players always seem to ignite from beyond the arc in home playoff games.
The fear of that happening is only strengthened when realizing that the Grizzlies have made the 7th-most 3-pointers per game since the All-Star Game, previously ranked 21st before that break. That extreme improvement has been carried by the Grizzlies’ trade deadline acquisition, former Clipper Luke Kennard. Since joining the Grizzlies, he’s made a staggering 54.0% of his 5.7 3-point attempts per game, giving the team an additional tool beyond the arc.
The Lakers will just have to challenge him, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, and the other shooters as much as they can while containing Morant. After that, they’ll just hope they don’t see the ball go in too often.
Transition, Grizzlies’ defense
If the Lakers are able to win the transition game while also finding ways to score against the Grizzlies’ 3rd-ranked defense, they’ll be set up well to win the series.
A Lakers-Grizzlies nugget to monitor: LA gave up the fourth-most transition points per game (23.4) this season. Memphis scored the second-most (25.8).— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) April 13, 2023
As you can see above, the Lakers are seemingly out-matched in transition against this Grizzlies team despite having one of the best transition players of all-time in LeBron James. It should be noted that this statistic comes from the 2022-23 season as a whole with the Lakers probably fairing better in transition statistics on the defensive side following the All-Star break. Slowing down really isn’t much of a surprise when you consider they added D’Angelo Russell while subtracting Russell Westbrook.
In terms of attacking the Grizzlies’ defense, the Lakers may struggle against them in transition as well as the half-court. Even without the injured Steven Adams or Brandon Clarke, this Grizzlies team has defensive firepower on the perimeter and around the rim, headlined by (wannabe WWE superstar) Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson, Jr.
Both players are very aggressive, which the Lakers could actually try and take advantage of. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schröder are some of the best in the league at drawing fouls, and if they’re able to do so early and often against Brooks and Jackson, that defensive advantage for the Grizzlies could dissipate quickly in these games with both needing to sit on the bench on foul trouble.
When taking everything above into account, despite the Lakers winning the battle already in terms of superstars, this will be a tough series for the purple-and-gold. It may very well end in an early and disappointing conclusion to this 2022-23 season that has been pretty enjoyable in recent weeks after a very depressing start.
But the Lakers absolutely have a chance in this series. And against a team like the Grizzlies, that’s much more than what you can ask for considering how the season started.
And if LeBron and Davis dominate while the rest of the team helps win around the margins of a Game 1 in Memphis… the Lakers would immediately hop into the driver’s seat of this series despite being a 7 seed.
Notes and Updates:
- LeBron James (right foot soreness), Anthony Davis (right foot stress injury) and Dennis Schröder (right Achilles soreness) are all probable to play. Looks like everyone will be healthy for the Lakers!
- Steven Adams (right knee PCL sprain) and Brandon Clarke (left Achilles tear) both were shut down for the season heading into the postseason. Clarke at the beginning of March, while Adams’ absence was reported on just a few days after.
The Lakers and Grizzlies will tip off early at 12 p.m. PT on Sunday. The game will be nationally and exclusively televised on ABC.
You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.