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The Los Angeles Lakers start their bid for a second championship in four years when they take on the Memphis Grizzlies in Memphis in Game One of the Western Conference playoffs’ first round Sunday afternoon.
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The Grizzlies were one of the best teams in the NBA for most of the season until star guard, Ja Morant, was suspended for a couple of games and ultimately went on a brief hiatus to clear his head and deal with matters off the court. They stayed above water and took home when he returned to the lineup and held onto the two-seed despite pressure from the Sacramento Kings.
Memphis struggles to shoot the basketball but does have a couple of long-range shooters, is extremely athletic, and plays with so much pace that they often overwhelm and outwind their opponents. They are also fantastic on defense and have a deep roster.
The Lakers also do not find great success from beyond the arc but still score the seventh-most points per game because of their ability to drive the lane and get to the free-throw line. That effort is obviously helped by the presence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but the additions of D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, along with the emergence of Austin Reaves and Troy Brown Jr. have given them more space to navigate the painted area.
The Lakers claimed two of three meetings between the two this season but were outscored by one point overall in the season series. The one loss came in a February 28 game during which Morant dropped 28 points in the third quarter against frighteningly poor defense from LA.
Lakers fans need to be wary that LeBron, despite all of his excellence and playoff experience, has a long history of treating the first game of playoff series as a “feel-out” game, during which he is passive and somewhat lethargic. He also looked zapped of energy in overtime of the play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves but has had five days to rest.
On the other side, the Grizzlies will have to navigate the Lakers series and, in all likelihood, their entire playoff run without either one of Steven Adams or Brandon Clarke. Santi Aldama and Xavier Tillman, or even newly-promoted rookie Kenneth Lofton Jr. could see high minutes as a result.
The Grizzlies’ starting five is one of the most well-rounded in the league, but they are only 20-16 since he went out with a knee injury. Morant was also absent during a period in that stretch, but they have certainly taken a step back without their Australian bruiser anchoring the inside.
On a more positive note, Morant (26.2 points, 8.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds) has scored 39 or more points in three of his last five face-offs with the Lakers. His last encounter, a 39-point explosion, also came with 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
Jaren Jackson Jr. could be the player to watch despite Morant’s takeover ability. His offense has been on a noticeable uptick over the past couple of months, and if he can dominate at all three levels, he will create lots of open shots for Desmond Bane, Luke Kennard, Dillon Brooks, and the team’s other volume shooters.
The Lakers found their way to the seven seed in the Western Conference and beat the Timberwolves in the first play-in game to officially reach the playoff bracket despite being given a .3% chance to do so after a woeful 2-10 start. Their season turned around when they traded Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverly, among others, and picked up Russell, Beasley, Rui Hachimura, and Jarred Vanderbilt.
The Lakers produced the best record in the West post-All-Star break and ranked fourth in defensive rating and sixth in net rating during the same stretch. They are still a little light on the defensive perimeter but have players that can score the basketball all over the roster and two of the game’s most unstoppable players at the controls.
LA’s path to victory will be at the free-throw line. Not only do they shoot more than anyone in the league, but Jackson Jr., Memphis’ only healthy and established interior defender, averages 4.4 fouls per game in the playoffs and plays less than 28 minutes per night on account of his foul trouble. If the Lakers can neutralize him or foul him out, they will have a highway to the rim all series long.
This series would look entirely different if Adams and Clarke were healthy and available, but they are not, and that favors the Lakers in the long run.
On the flip side, the Grizzlies have had longer to rest and analyze their opponent and are also playing at home, where they were a whopping 35-6 (second-best in the NBA). That combined with LeBron’s habit of being a slow starter in playoff series puts them in a strong spot for Game One.
So, expect the Lakers to come on strong in the second half and in the rest of the series, but ride with the home team to get a very narrow victory. The Grizzlies moneyline is the favorite play here.
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