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Yes and No: 2 things to Like (and 2 not to) through 2 playoff games

From #PlayoffRui to Troy Brown’s shrinking role, there’s plenty to discuss through two games of the Lakers 1st round matchup with Memphis.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Los Angeles Lakers v Memphis Grizzlies

The NBA playoffs are here and after two games, the Lakers got the coveted split that all lower-seeded teams seek as they begin a series on the road. Each game offered some positives and negatives, with the Lakers striking first in Game 1 only to have the shorthanded, Ja-less Grizzlies bounce back with schematic adjustments and a desperation befitting their circumstances.

Heading into Game 3, then, there’s plenty to watch for, but all of it will be informed by the first two games and all that went into each outcome. With that said, here’s our second edition of my ‘yes and no’ column (here’s the inaugural post), where I’ll take a look at a couple of things I’ve liked and disliked about the Lakers with an emphasis on the playoffs...

Playoff Rui

Coming into the Memphis series, Rui Hachimura had played in exactly five playoff games in his NBA career, but had acquitted himself well in those chances. Rui’s counting stats weren’t off the charts, but his efficiency with the Wizards in his lone postseason appearance vs. the 76ers was excellent:

  • 14.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 61.7% FG and 60.0% 3PT FG

Of course, a five-game sample is incredibly small but these numbers are worth noting when looking at what Rui has done in Games 1 and 2 vs. Memphis. His series averages so far:

  • 24.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 69.2% FG and 70.0% 3PT FG

In Game 1, Rui put up 29 points and made five 3-pointers, only to follow that up with a similarly efficient 20-point night while knocking down two more triples and seven of his 12 attempts from the field overall. Rui became the first Lakers’ reserve to score 20 points or more in consecutive games since Magic Johnson did it in 1996 and, in the process, pushed his playoff streak to four consecutive games of scoring at least 20 points while shooting at least 58% from the field.

Rui’s offense is especially important vs. an excellent Grizzlies defense that is shrinking the floor against both LeBron and AD, collapsing into the paint and providing early help on their drives and post-ups, while also pinching off above-the-break and weakside corner shooters in the pick-and-roll. Rui is making this type of defense pay, not only by hitting his jumpers, but by attacking closeouts and cutting effectively to score both from the perimeter and the paint.

Rui has also competed defensively and on the glass, while becoming a fixture of closing lineups where his combination of size, athleticism, and skill set on both sides of the ball slots perfectly between LeBron and AD as the type of rangy forward that can fill in the gaps as needed.

The Non-Anthony Davis Minutes

Through two games the Lakers are losing the non-AD minutes in such convincing fashion that if they do not find a way to rectify things, it could cost them the series. The Lakers are a +23 in the minutes that AD plays, but have been outscored by 17 points in the 22 minutes he’s sat in what has amounted to mostly disastrous shifts vs. Grizzlies lineups led by Jaren Jackson, Jr.

The Lakers have mostly played small in these minutes, with LeBron and Rui as the lone “bigs”, and then flanked by different combinations of the team’s guards, with Dennis Schröder, Troy Brown Jr., and Malik Beasley getting the bulk of the minutes.

That lineup has not been able to defend effectively, posting a Defensive Rating of 139.3 and a net rating of -13.4 in their 13 minutes so far this series. Beyond that specific lineup, however, the Lakers' other guards and wings with Bron and Rui have also struggled to gain traction; the only one that has a positive plus-minus is the group from the second half of Game 2 that skewed bigger and included Jarred Vanderbilt with Beasley and Schröder (+1 in three minutes).

The Lakers must find more viable solutions for these portions of the game when AD sits and, while it might seem like a reach because of how little he’s played of late, I am to the point where I’d lean towards giving Wenyen Gabriel a shot next to LeBron and Rui. Even if it’s only for a shift to see if that group can make some headway on both sides of the ball, it makes some sense to try it as an option.

Wenyen isn’t a floor spacer, but, he’s an excellent cutter and understands how to relocate into open spaces as a release valve and how to go to offensive glass when his defender leaves him to help. Further, he’s a high-motor player who can help on both backboards and provide some additional defensive resistance against Jackson Jr. while also serving as another big player who can try to take advantage of the Grizzlies’ size deficiency on the bench.

And while I’m not sure he could be the primary defender on JJJ due to his propensity to foul, Wenyen could be a helper and secondary rim protector who is better on the backboards than an additional guard or smaller wing might be. Basically, give Wenyen a shot. It’s not like the other groups have had any success, and he’s been a positive contributor all season.

Troy Brown Jr.’s Shrinking Role

Troy Brown Jr. was one of the more pleasant surprises for the Lakers this season, becoming a rotation mainstay as a small forward who showed comfort and remained productive when starting or coming off the bench. Troy proved to be the type of generalist role-player who demonstrated enough capability as a ball handler, shooter, passer, cutter, finisher and defender to hold his own in the long slog of the regular season.

In the playoffs, however, Troy’s role is becoming less concrete and, ironically, it might just be for the same reasons he thrived during the regular season. As a generalist who is a jack of all trades but a master of none, the more limited nature of Troy’s strengths aren’t proving as useful in the higher-leverage minutes of the playoffs, while his weaknesses — even if they are not severe — are being put to the test more often on any given possession.

To be clear, it’s not like Troy is suddenly a worse player than he was in the regular season (though the struggles with his shot are real and have come at a really bad time). It’s just that his role is getting squeezed from being able to do a lot of things fairly well to needing to do a select few things very well in this new pressurized environment.

And, while it’s only been three games (two vs. the Grizzlies, and the play-in vs. the Timberwolves), Troy’s not yet showing he can up his play while narrowing his game to fit these new parameters. And, if that continues as it has, Darvin may need to make the decision to reduce his role even more than he has over the course of the first two games.

Anthony Davis’ Defense

AD did not have a good offensive showing in Game 2, missing several makable shots while struggling against the switching and physicality of a Memphis team desperately seeking a victory. And even in Game 1, where AD was much more productive and efficient, he did not have the type of offensive outburst that he’s capable of.

AD has been dominant defensively, however, and through two games he is again flashing the type of instincts, production and impact that have him in the conversation for the best defensive player in the world. There are few players who can both cover the type of ground that AD can and consistently dissect what the opposition is trying to do in order to get to those spots on the floor to disrupt the action.

Through two games, AD has 12 blocked shots and altered countless others, forcing misses in the paint as the Grizzles try to score over and around him from all different angles and out of a multitude of actions. From the rim to the arc, AD is smothering attempts and deterring Memphis from getting off clean looks whenever he’s in the general vicinity of the action.

It is easy to wax poetic about Davis’ defense when he is this dialed in, but there are simply no superlatives that can accurately capture the devastating nature of a player who can switch out onto guards, defend the post and navigate the P&R with aplomb whether he’s at the level, in a trap, or in a drop, and do it all while accumulating the types of counting stats in blocks and steals that he is. He looks like he is simultaneously the best isolation defender and the best help defender at the same time. It is, truly, unreal.

With the Lakers returning home, we can only hope that this level of defensive intensity and focus remains while his offense reverts to the levels we’ve come to expect from AD in the playoffs. Memphis offers a dynamic defense of their own and the newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year in Jackson Jr., but AD is more than capable of doing damage against him and any other defender the Grizzlies send at him.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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