LOS ANGELES — Through three playoff games, the Lakers have a winning record and look poised to make their first deep run in front of home fans since they won a title in 2010.
Here are three takeaways to keep in mind heading towards Game 4 on Monday, again in Los Angeles.
“If You Play Off Rui, YOU GET PLAYOFF RUI”
In Game 1 of the Lakers’ opening-round series against the Grizzlies, Rui Hachimura had a team-high 29 points, tying a Lakers’ bench playoff record in the process. No one was as surprised as the Grizzlies, who openly admitted to a plan to ignore Hachimura as a scorer, leading to a string of open looks, almost all of which he converted. After that game, Desmond Bane somewhat notoriously challenged Rui, saying, “Let’s see if he can do it again.”
In Game 2, Rui did it again, tying another long-held Lakers record and giving the team great minutes off of the bench despite the loss. On Saturday night, the saga of Playoff Rui continued in the team’s Game 3 victory.
In his first three minutes of action, Rui recorded seven points at a blistering clip, canning all three of his attempts from the floor. After 22 minutes total, Rui finished with 16 points and was perfect from beyond the arc and at the line.
Despite shooting under 30% on threes for the Lakers during the regular season, Rui’s made 9-of-12 through three playoff games, many of which have come from above the break, typically a weakness for him. Although he likely isn’t going to keep up the pace of what would make him the greatest shooter in league history, he does seem to be getting a little more lift on his line drive jumper, helping turn on-target, but short attempts into swishes. After Game 3, Rui even said that it’s a shot he said he’s been working on all season and he’s “been waiting for this moment.”
Considering how well he’s played, it could be worth considering moving him into the starting group for Jarred Vanderbilt — who nearly “Snelled” with no points and one board in 21 minutes, though he did tally three blocks and two steals, wreaking some havoc as a defensive playmaker. Still, Vando’s main matchup Ja took it to the Lakers down the stretch, including 22-straight Grizzlies points in the fourth quarter, many of them coming at Vanderbilt’s expense.
However, Rui seemed to get a bit outside of himself down the stretch, nearly charging through a ref towards David Roddy for what he perceived as a hard foul ultimately assigned to John Konchar, picking up a tech in the process, and uncouthly calling for the ball while LeBron had a mismatch in Desmond Bane on the post.
While it might not ultimately matter in this series, considering LA’s homecourt advantage and 2-1 series lead on the back of the current rotation, this is an intra-squad battle to keep a close eye on as lineup optimization will become increasingly important as the Lakers advance deeper into the postseason.
players to score in double figures and shoot 50% or better in each of their first 8 career playoffs games:— Fastbreak Breakfast (@fastbreakbreak) April 23, 2023
Rui Hachimura pic.twitter.com/NMolnyB0DR
The Bear Pokes Back
After an almost decade-long gap between sold-out playoff games, tonight showed Lakers fans were ready to meet the night with the energy that the game called for. From more than an hour before the opening tip, there were more fans in attendance than an average Oakland Athletics game, giving LeBron a standing ovation upon his entrance and exit from his pre-game warmup. They were even louder, however, for Dillon Brooks, virulently booing his warmup and announcement in the starting lineup. In the postgame, LeBron, D’Angelo Russell, and Darvin Ham all praised the crowd for providing a properly electric atmosphere.
Instead of getting in LeBron’s head and distracting him from the game at hand, it seemed like Brooks ultimately played himself, igniting a fierce hatred from one of the league’s more passionate in-arena fanbases, encouraging him to play beyond his means and harming his own team.
After a quarter, Brooks was 0-4 from the field with a jeer for every touch. Through the second, the boos continued, and Brooks had run his tab up to 3-13 from the floor. Still, Brooks’ jawing at LeBron continued over from Game 2, coming face-to-face with James during the second quarter despite his team trailing by more than 20 points.
Then, just 17 seconds into the second half, Brooks took a shot at LeBron below the belt, resulting in an uncharacteristically quick hook from the game after the referees assessed him a Flagrant-2.
Meanwhile, LeBron seemed unfazed by the hullabaloo, orchestrating the Lakers’ offense and getting in one of his better rhythms since returning from the foot injury he suffered in March. He scored 25 points, with 14 of them coming from inside the paint, including this full-speed throwdown in defiance of any mortal man’s reasonable injury or age-related decline.
LEBRON JAMES REVERSE DUNK IN HIS 20TH SEASON pic.twitter.com/9bo5Y4Y6pw— LeBron Muse (@BronMuse) April 23, 2023
If LeBron can rediscover his jumper now that it seems his penchant for rim pressure is back in full force — he missed all four of his threes despite an otherwise efficient night — the Lakers will have a nontrivial chance against any team they get to face this postseason.
Answers for AD’s Absence
Through two games, the Lakers had lost first halves and minutes with AD on the bench by double digits. Before the game, when I asked Darvin Ham how he planned to handle the two problems, he told me, “Start the game at the third quarter and play AD the entire 24 minutes.”
While they seemingly solved the former issue after running off to the biggest first-quarter lead in playoff history and holding the Grizzlies to the lowest-scoring quarter in the NBA this season, they continue to search for solutions to the problems that arise when Davis goes to the bench. Tonight, the Lakers were a passable -1 in Davis’ 10 minutes on the bench, but in a game they broadly dominated — and in which Jaren Jackson Jr. was limited to only 31 minutes with foul trouble — the Grizzlies were undermanned in a way that prevented them from really making the Lakers pay the way they had in Games 1 and 2.
Weirdly, Ham went to Wenyen Gabriel towards the end of that massive first-quarter run with AD on the bench, but he only lasted a single minute after committing a silly foul, and never returned. If the team continues to struggle when AD sits, especially on defense, Darvin Ham will need to continue searching for answers.
After the game, LeBron talked about being better on the defensive glass in AD-less minutes after allowing Memphis to corral 18 offensive rebounds tonight, and adding some more size into the equation would certainly help the Lakers in that regard. Mo Bamba, who’s scarcely seen the floor since suffering a high ankle sprain weeks ago, might be able to help, but his low motor and relative weakness compared to someone like JJJ makes him a better hypothetical basketball stretch-5 than a real one. Wenyen lacks Bamba’s shooting and shot-blocking acumen, but is better on the boards. Either one deserves a chance to eat up some minutes from lackluster performers in the Lakers’ rotation.
In order to maintain pole position in this series, the Lakers need to win Game 4 in Los Angeles on Monday, giving them a puncher’s chance at a gentlemen’s sweep or a second chance to close out the series back at home on the 28th. With just a day of film review in between tonight’s win and Monday’s pivotal contest, the Lakers have plenty of work cut out for them.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.