Records: Lakers 13-2, Grizzlies 5-9
Offensive ratings: Lakers 110.6 (6th), Grizzlies 103.4 (27th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.1 (4th), Grizzlies 112.0 (23rd)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Grizzlies: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jae Crowder, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (out); Grizzlies: Grayson Allen (probable), Andre Iguodala (waiting to join a contender)
Lakers coming in: The Lakers have won 6 straight games, but some trends are starting to emerge that bear watching.
They’ve “slipped” to 4th overall in defense after a few performances where they’ve not played to the same level they did at the start of their season. Having Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma back playing bigger roles matters here. As does missing Avery Bradley. More lineups Frank Vogel is using are skewing offense and lacking more than 2-3 good defenders on the floor at the same time and this is leading to incremental drop off over the course of a full game. This team can still dial it up defensively for extended stretches, but they’ve not played a great defensive game where they look and play dialed in for a full 48 minutes in several contests.
On the flip side, this team is now up to 6th in offense with those same lineups that skew offense raising the team’s ceiling on that end. More shooting is on the floor for longer stretches and that’s leading to better spacing and better performances from beyond the arc. It also helps that AD has found his stride offensively the last couple of games and that KCP has really picked up his shooting during the winning streak.
This team, then, could be evolving into a really good, but not great defensive team but also a really good offensive team that can outscore a lot of teams when playing closer to their peak. Ultimately, it looks like this team’s ceiling could be a top 7 or 8 team on both sides of the ball which, typically, puts you squarely in the championship contender tier. There’s a lot of season left and it’s not a sure thing they end up at this level, but there are some encouraging signs.
Grizzlies coming in: After winning 3 in a row vs. the Spurs, Hornets, and Jazz, the Grizzlies have lost two straight games — including a loss vs. the injury ravaged Warriors. That loss, in particular, is just a really bad one to take and speaks to the relative inexperience of this group and how up and down they can be.
As I wrote when in my preview from the first matchup between these teams, the Grizz remain an intriguing young team that has several guys I really like. Ja Morant looks like the rookie of the year favorite,1Zion missing so much time matters here, of course. Jaren Jackson is a wonderful PF/C who can play inside and out offensively while protecting the rim and showing some switchability defensively, and Brandon Clarke is a forward who a bunch of teams are going to kick themselves for not drafting when they had the chance in the late lottery.
Ultimately, regardless of their 5-9 record, I see this Grizzlies team as a group on the rise. I think they’re probably still a team that could shed some veteran talent at the trade deadline in order to continue to stack assets for the long term build, but this will be a team to watch for in the next 2-3 seasons. A lot of folks look at the Hawks this way, but with Morant and JJJ, this team looks to have two stars in the making and if Brooks and Clarke develop in a way where they approach their ceiling, that could be a really good core to build around.
Keys to the game: The last time these teams played Anthony Davis shot 27 FT’s as Jaren Jackson could not get out of his own way (or Davis) to avoid whistles. With Jackson spending so much time on the bench, Memphis was forced to play guys like Crowder and Kyle Anderson on AD, which only led to more fouls as Davis worked close to the paint offensively and looked to get to the rim every chance he got. As the game went on, the Lakers were able to pull away and that was that.
I do not expect the same type of game tonight. For one, the way that game played out was just kind of flukey. Second, with the Lakers coming off a back to back and the Grizz having not played since Tuesday, I expect them to be the fresher team and not the group playing a step behind/slow to the point that they’re committing as many fouls.
One thing to watch for, then, is how the Lakers handle these young-legged Grizzlies defensively — especially at the point of attack and in transition. Avery Bradley did a really good job defending Morant in the first matchup, but now that job will land on KCP’s shoulders. KCP is more than capable of defending at a good level, but he’s not nearly as physical as Bradley and is not as good at getting over screens when defending the ball. The Lakers bigs will need to be better in their contain when Morant turns the corner in order to keep him from getting to the rim to get shots in the restricted area. If they don’t, they expose themselves to Morant layups and to offensive rebounding chances by Valanciunas, Jackson, and Clarke.
Another thing to watch for is, generally, the Lakers energy level. There were several stretches during the OKC game where both AD and LeBron looked tired. I wrote about how LeBron seemed to want to take some shortcuts vs. the Thunder and if he plays that same way vs. the Grizz it could end up costing them in ways that add up (turnovers, long missed jumpers, etc can all lead to fast break chances that Memphis/Morant can capitalize on). Being on a back to back, I hope Vogel can find extended rest for both his stars.
Of course, to do that requires that the bench players raise their games and provide good minutes. Kyle Kuzma has been scoring well, so I’m hopeful that can continue and that a lineup that includes him, Dwight, Caruso, and Rondo can lead to enough productivity and balance on both sides of the ball to allow AD/Bron some time on the bench. This would also be a game where I would not mind seeing Jared Dudley be the 5th player in that group rather than Quinn Cook. I think Dudley can give more size, as much (if not more) shooting, and just be a steadier player in the context of that lineup.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com