LeBron James and the No. 7-seeded Los Angeles Lakers begin their first-round series against Ja Morant and the No. 2-seeded Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday at the FedExForum.
The matchup carries plenty of enticing storylines, besides the pure basketball intrigue. The Lakers won the season series 2-1, though the first game was pre-deadline, LeBron missed the latter two, and Ja missed the most recent meeting.
The Lakers (43-39) are fully healthy and have won 10 of their last 12 games, including the Play-In. The Grizzlies are short-handed in the frontcourt but are 13-5 since March 9. Here are five predictions for Grizzlies-Lakers.
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Bold Predictions for Lakers-Grizzlies
5) 3-point shooting won’t matter all that much
Turnovers and free-throw discrepancy — both key metrics for the Lakers — will be immensely important. The Grizzlies scored the second-most points in transition this season, while the Lakers surrendered the fourth-most (the eye test is worse). The Lakers led the league in free throw attempts, by far.
Both teams are defense-first, inside-out squads that finished bottom-10 in 3-point percentage. This series has a chance to be a bit of a brickfest all-around, so dictating pace, limiting mistakes, generating easy buckets, and prevailing in the trenches will be more critical than outside accuracy.
4) The best rebounding team will win the series
Memphis finished second in boards per game. Los Angeles finished sixth. If the shooting is indeed cold, there should be nonstop opportunities for boards and 50/50 balls. Rebounding will directly impact transition effectiveness, and perhaps be as important as any stat in this series.
This is where the absence of Steven Adams (and Brandon Clarke) will haunt the Grizzlies, and why Jarred Vanderbilt could be an X-factor. Anthony Davis, meanwhile, just finished up the most productive rebounding of his career (12.5 per game, 13.3 since Feb. 9).
3) Darvin Ham will be tested
It should be fascinating to see how Darvin Ham performs in his first best-of-seven series as a head coach. Ham’s culture-setting and positivity have been vital to the Lakers’ resiliency and nightly effort, and he deserves loads of credit for steering the ship through choppy waters before the trade deadline.
However, the playoffs are about tactical adjustments. Ham’s rotations, in-game moves, and halfcourt offense have justifiably faced scrutiny, although the Lakers’ ball-movement noticeably improved after the deadline.
Ham has repeatedly admitted (including after the Play-In game) that his staff needs to find creative ways to put AD in opportune scoring positions, particularly when facing double teams. We’ll see how often the Grizzlies double AD considering they have the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner to check him, but the Lakers will need Davis to break out of his mild scoring slump. Getting Jaren Jackson Jr. in foul trouble (his weakness) has to be a priority for the Lakers.
My biggest questions for Ham: Who closes? What role does D’Angelo Russell have vis-à-vis Dennis Schroder? And how will the Lakers defend Ja when Dennis sits?
Ham will hit extreme highs and lows in this series and experience some postseason growing pains. There will be at least one angry night on Lakers Twitter.
2) Things will get spicy
Unlike last season, the 2022-23 Lakers have largely avoided on-court fireworks. They’ve played a ton of tense games, but have rarely engaged in confrontational situations with opponents.
The Grizzlies will bring it out of them — as they seemingly do every opponent. Minutes after the Play-In win, LeBron was already (maybe) throwing shade at Dillon Brooks.
Dillon Brooks on Tuesday: “I wouldn’t mind playing LeBron in a 7-game series…knock him out right away…that’ll be a good 1st round matchup for us.” LeBron later: “Dillon Brooks…you can’t disrespect him because he makes shots.” (Brooks v. LA this season: 11-45 FG, 6-20 from 3)
You may recall Desmond Bane and LeBron getting chippy in January of 2022. Oh, and expect to see Shannon Sharpe courtside.
It won’t take long for tempers toi flare. I’m predicting double-technicals to be handed out before halftime of Game 1.
1) Lakers in six
The Lakers should have the advantage early in the series thanks to the schedule-makers. Los Angeles has been desperately in need of rest after a stressful month of tightly-packed, must-win games. Their ugly overtime Play-In game victory on Tuesday (LeBron played 45 minutes, AD played 43) was their eighth game in 14 days.
Conveniently, the Lakers will get four full days off before Game 1, allowing them time to adjust to the central time zone ahead of a 12 p.m. PT start in Game 1 and 4:30 p.m. PT start on Game 2 on Wednesday (they’re flying to Memphis on Friday). Game 3 won’t be until next Saturday, meaning the Lakers will play three games in 10 days and four in 13 days.
Here’s the schedule for the Lakers-Grizzlies series.
The Lakers, after a 4-day break before Game 1, will get 2 days off after each of the first 2 games. They have to like that. pic.twitter.com/IQNarP8p7i
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) April 12, 2023
The Grizzlies will enjoy the same time off (and avoided the Play-In, of course), but the Lakers should reap the benefits. Crypto.com Arena, at full capacity for playoff games for the first time since 2013, will be electric in Games 3, 4, and 6, as the Play-In atmosphere foreshadowed.
As impressive as the Lakers’ season turnaround has been — they boast the NBA’s second-best record and defense since the All-Star break — I remain skeptical about how LeBron, managing a torn right foot tendon, can hold up through weeks of grueling playoff games. But I do believe the Lakers have enough juice to grind out an “upset” over the confident but relatively unproven Grizzlies.
The Lakers will steal Game 1, go 3-0 at home, and face the … Golden State Warriors in the most-hyped Western Conference semifinals of all-time.
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