Records: Lakers 2-1, Grizzlies 1-2
Offensive ratings: Lakers 107.5 (10th), Grizzlies 100.0 (26th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.0 (11th), Grizzlies 107.7 (22nd)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Grizzlies: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jae Crowder, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas
Injuries: Lakers: Kyle Kuzma (out), Rajon Rondo (out); Grizzlies: Kyle Anderson (questionable), Andre Iguodala (waiting to join a contender)
The Lakers coming in: Sitting at 2-1, the Lakers have won back to back games — their latest a victory over the Hornets on Sunday. That game saw Anthony Davis dominate in the first half, LeBron James dominate the second half, and Dwight Howard be a “star in his role” for the entirety of his 23 minutes of court action. The game also featured an Alex Caruso cameo in the in the 3rd and 4th quarters that, coincidence or not, aligned with the Lakers best stretch of the game and the point where they pulled away to take control of the would be win.
Where this leaves the Lakers is an interesting place in which Frank Vogel seemingly has insight to a formula which can help him win, but one that, be it for locker room politics/the want to keep everyone engaged/the desire to manage a long season, may not be an all-the-time approach in every single game.
What’s been clear is that playing a smaller lineup with a 2nd ball-handling guard who then slides LeBron and Davis up a position to PF and C respectively can unlock more of what this Lakers team can do well on both sides of the floor. Doing that every night, though, could come with costs1Whether physical costs, the mental toll it could take, or any lockerroom capital in the form of diminished buy-in from players he’ll need over the course of an 82 game campaign. and I imagine Vogel might see this as sacrificing a few battles in order to win the war. We’ll see if that is the best approach or not, but it’s worked vs. the last two opponents.
The Grizzlies coming in: The Grizz are 1-2, but are coming off an exciting overtime win vs. the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night. That game saw prized rookie Ja Morant go toe-to-toe with Kyrie Irving in the closing minutes of regulation, including a huge block on Kyrie’s last second jumper that forced the extra frame.
Morant’s play, not only in matching up w/ Kyrie, but so far in this young season is something to be excited about. He is living up to his draft status with averages of (roughly) 18 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds a night. Combine this with 2nd year PF JJJ throwing out a 17 points, 7 rebound, and nearly 2 block per night stat line and you can see why the future in Memphis is considered by so many to be so bright.
These two young guys not only complement each other, they both represent a player archetype that is plug and play for the modern NBA. A scoring PG who enjoys setting up teammates and a stretch-y, skilled PF who offers rim protection and switch-ability to defend all over the floor? Every team in the league would happily take those guys. Just like I think most teams will end up wanting a versatile, defensive minded forward like Brandon Clarke who the Grizz took in the first round of June’s draft.
Like all young players, though, the right mix of veterans are needed to help nudge them towards the best version of themselves. The Grizz hope they have that group with guys like Jae Crowder, Jonas Valanciunas, and Kyle Anderson. This trio offers a nice blend of skill, lead-by-example style, and role player games that should help prop up young guys who hope to develop into star level veterans.
In other words, the Grizz are a nice mix of super intriguing young prospects and vets who know what the hell they’re doing. That makes them a tricky matchup even when you’re the better team.
Keys to the game: The Grizzlies offer a formula that, even in these early stages of the season, are known to give the Lakers some problems. Defensively, they have the right combination of frontcourt defensive players who will surely gum up the Lakers LeBron/AD pick and roll. Jae Crowder and JJJ will start on LeBron and AD respectively, but both can capably switch onto either Lakers star. With Valanciunas lurking behind it all, driving lanes will be tight and the Lakers could very easily end up being over-reliant on LeBron making jumpers and/or AD going to work in the post on the smaller Crowder.
Finding ways to bust this type of coverage is imperative for the Lakers. I get it’s early in the season, but it’s time to start showing counters to this defensive approach and get easy baskets. I get that the Lakers can always change their lineup, but they don’t want to be forced into that; they want to hurt whatever coverage they face, put the defense on its heels, and then keep showing variation within their attack to pound teams into submission. That’s not happened so far this year, the Grizz will give them another chance to try some things and find solutions.
What will be interesting to me, though, is how the Grizz match up when the Lakers do go smaller and play AD at the 5. In theory, Memphis can slide JJJ up to C, keep Crowder (or Clarke) on LeBron and still switch effectively. If this happens, I expect the Lakers to try to bust this coverage by running P&R’s with guards setting picks for LeBron on the ball and forcing perimeter players to either switch onto LeBron (which should lead to more manageable post up chances) or force perimeter players to hedge/recover — something those guys typically aren’t good at because they don’t get enough reps at it. We saw this at the tale end of the Hornets game and LeBron got dunks on back to back possessions.
Another thing that interests me is how the Lakers defend Morant. I’d assume Avery Bradley takes the rookie head-on, but his shiftiness could give the veteran problems. The Lakers have not yet had to face a young-legged scoring PG like this2The Clippers had the bus-driver Patrick Beverly, the Jazz had an older Mike Conley, the Hornets had Terry Rozier and these guys offer unique challenges for defenses at the point of attack. I expect Bradley to go under screens and generally play off Morant by a step to protect against the drive, but this also flies in the face of Bradley’s aggressive-at-the-point-of-attack nature. So, it’s something to watch for.
The last matchup I’ll be watching intently is at SG where Danny Green will face off against Dillon Brooks. This is like the spiderman pointing meme come to life, with both offering good size at the position and both being relied upon as deep threats to complement their more ball hungry star (or soon to be star) level teammates. Brooks is shooting 4 threes a game and hitting half of them. Green will need to do his usual helping off the ball, but not get lost in recovering back to Brooks in order to get him off the arc. Brooks has been much less successful as a 2-point shooter this year (37.4% shooting on 2’s), so putting him in these positions is imperative to keeping him quiet.
I did not write this for the Hornets game, but believed it to be true then just as I do now: This is a game the Lakers should win, which always concerns me. A team with nothing to lose that can play free and loose is dangerous. The Grizz would love nothing more than to come into Los Angeles and beat the favorite Lakers. The Lakers, then, would be wise to take this game seriously and try to put their foot on the pedal early — something they did not do vs. Charlotte. This is the part of the schedule where the Lakers would do well to rack up some victories and create some cushion that will be useful later in the season when any number of variables could impact success.
We’ll know whether this team believes the same thing very early in this one.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.
*All stats via stats.nba.com