While Ja Morant has taken a lot of the plaudits and been the face of the Grizzlies franchise as they’ve leaped from rebuilder to contender, just as important to their success has been Jaren Jackson Jr. Lakers fans have seen firsthand this series the impact JJJ can have on both sides of the court.
And while he was crowned Defensive Player of the Year this week and accepted his award before Game 2, it’s been the offensive end of the court where he’s been a problem for the Lakers. The visitors did a better job of containing him in Game 2 after a 31-point performance in Game 1, but he still has created some issues for the Lakers.
Specifically speaking, the Grizzlies and JJJ have found success attacking the Lakers when Anthony Davis sits. A good amount of his damage done in both games has come in the non-AD minutes.
Across the two games, the Grizzlies are a +17 in the 21 minutes with JJJ on the court and Davis on the bench. No Grizzly has played more minutes without AD on the floor than JJJ, either.
Eighteen of his 49 points so far this series have come in those 21 minutes. He’s shooting 6-8 from the field without Davis on the court. His 29.8% usage rate is higher than his regular season usage rate — and while some of that could be attributed to not having Morant on the court in Game 2, it’s been clear that, without AD on the floor, the Grizzlies are playing through JJJ and he’s making the Lakers pay.
Even before this series, the Lakers had gone non-traditional when AD sits, playing a frontcourt of LeBron James and Rui Hachimura. In the regular season, that pairing without Davis had a 24.1 net rating in 105 minutes together.
Taking it a step further, when those two were on the court without any center — Wenyen Gabriel or Mo Bamba — the Lakers had a net rating of 54.2 in 37 minutes. Opponents shot just 16-48 from inside the arc against those lineups in 71 possessions. It was an effective pairing in the regular season.
In the playoffs, Memphis has targeted those minutes and found success.
While the NBA’s match-up data can be spotty at times, the picture it paints is one that passes the eye test. Through two games, JJJ is shooting 7-10 from the field against Rui and 6-8 against LeBron James. There’s some overlap on some of these figures — shots over a Rui and LeBron double team would count for both, for example — and those shooting numbers are across the whole game, not just when AD sits.
But when you compare it to JJJ shooting just 2-10 against Davis this series with five of those shots blocked, it shows how stark the difference has been. In general, the Lakers haven’t found success in the non-AD minutes defensively.
Against the aforementioned Rui-LeBron frontcourt this postseason, Memphis is shooting 19-27 from inside the arc. Simply put, the Lakers are getting crushed in those minutes.
What’s the solution?
Well, the Lakers have more or less defended JJJ straight up with one of LeBron or Rui. And while they’ve made JJJ work for his points, he’s still knocked down shots with relative ease and regularity.
There are a lot of potential options for changes in how they defend JJJ moving forward. In Game 2, they briefly flashed a zone defense to open the second quarter.
But with the Lakers doing very little of that in the regular season and particularly after the trade deadline, the lack of familiarity means it might plug one problem and open up another, like allowing clean perimeter looks.
There’s the possibility of them reintroducing one of Wenyen Gabriel or Mo Bamba to the rotation. That feels unlikely for both for a number of reasons.
When it comes to Gabriel, he’s going to have the same problems LeBron and Rui have had in not being a big enough body to deter JJJ. Bamba certainly is big enough and has more of a reputation as a rim protector.
However, Bamba hasn’t played non-garbage time minutes since he suffered his injury against the Warriors on March 5. To go from not playing to featuring in Game 3 of the playoffs, which would be his first real playoff action, would be quite the jump.
There are some questions about how he would integrate offensively as well. While he can space the floor as a 3-point shooter, he shot 31.3% with the Lakers and that was before spending six weeks injured and on the bench. He also presents other problems defensively as his lack of mobility in space would be targeted by the Grizzlies with their ball screens.
Again, while it would solve one issue, it would create others.
The answer to the Lakers issues might be simply changing how Rui and LeBron defend him. Perhaps the team starts offering some of the same soft doubles that JJJ and the Grizzlies employed against LeBron and AD in Games 1 and 2. It would force other Grizzlies to beat you in those minutes, but would also likely put the Lakers in help-and-recover situations.
The other obvious answer could be simply having Davis mirror JJJ’s minutes. The two have played effectively the same number of minutes in both games, just at different times. But then you’re changing a rotation you’ve been pretty locked into for a number of weeks now.
Every potential solution creates another issue, but it’s probably worth the Lakers attempting something to change things up against JJJ and the Grizzlies. They’ve gotten pretty comfortable attacking the Lakers in their current approach defensively, and it’s costing them pretty substantially. If it comes at the cost of figuring out another problem, at least you’re making role players beat you instead of a bonafide young star in JJJ.
The playoffs are all about counters, and counters to the counters. Memphis countered the Lakers’ non-AD lineups and found success, and now it’s time for the Lakers to respond back at home.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.