Somebody get Shannon Sharpe some courtside tickets.
The budding rivalry between the old guard of LeBron James and the Lakers and the Ja Morant and the brash, up-and-coming Grizzlies is about to get very intense with a highly anticipated Western Conference first-round series. If styles make fights, this one promises to be gripping.
Here are three keys to watch for this series.
1) Can Jaren Jackson Jr. stay on the court for 30+ minutes a game?
If Steven Adams — or even Brandon Clarke — were healthy, the Grizzlies would be a much easier pick in this series. However, both men will be out against the Lakers (Adams with a knee injury, Clarke with a torn Achilles). That leaves Memphis thin up front, with Xavier Tillman starting at center.
It puts a lot of pressure on Jaren Jackson Jr. — he is the most important player in this series.
The Lakers’ game is built around pounding teams inside, getting to the line (26.6 attempts a game, most in the league), and using their size and craft to overwhelm teams in the paint (they were sixth in points in the paint this season). While the Lakers added shooting at the deadline with D'Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, most of those looks come from working inside out.
Jackson is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and the leading shot blocker in the league (three per game) who can slow the Lakers inside and cause problems. He will get time guarding Anthony Davis, but also spend time on Jared Vanderbilt (which allows Jackson to play more as a free safety). Plus, Jackson has become an increasingly important part of the Grizzlies’ offense.
He’s got to be on the court to do any of that. Jackson is prone to get in foul trouble, and if/when he does this series the Lakers will feast. Jackson has to be disciplined, stay on the court and give Memphis 30+ minutes a night (he averaged 28.4 minutes per game this season.
Dillon Brooks‘ foul count is also something to watch. He will be the primary defender on LeBron James, and if LeBron can get him in foul trouble and on the bench, the Memphis defense will have to scramble to match up.
If this series ends up with a Lakers parade to the foul line, they will win. Memphis can’t let that happen.
2) Can LeBron James and Anthony Davis play at their peak for seven games?
At the end of the Lakers’ play-in win against the Timberwolves, Lakers stars LeBron and Anthony Davis looked exhausted. It’s part of what led to the bad inbounds pass LeBron had picked off in overtime — tired bodies lead to bad decisions.
Brooks is a physical defender who wears guys down and will have the LeBron assignment. The Grizzlies as a whole can be exhausting to play against because of their athleticism, especially when they get out and run. It can grind a team down both over one game and the course of a series.
While Rob Pelinka did an impressive job upgrading the Lakers’ roster at the deadline, adding size and shooting, the Lakers’ championship dreams are still built around LeBron and Davis playing at a top-10 in the league level. No doubt both of them can reach those heights, but can they sustain it for a long, physical series? Will the youth and athleticism of the Grizzlies — Desmond Bane running Russell off screen after screen, for example — take its toll on the Lakers and their execution? The Grizzlies are counting on it.
3) Can the Lakers slow the Grizzlies down, make this a half-court series?
The Lakers have been an elite defensive team since the All-Star break, and the Grizzlies have not been an impressive half-court team at any point (22nd in the league). If this series becomes about half-court execution and grinding out physical wins, the Lakers will advance.
However, as much as the Lakers played faster in the first half of this season, they are not a good transition defensive team (29th in points allowed per transition play, via Cleaning the Glass)
The Grizzlies were second in the league with 25.8 transition points per game. If Memphis can control the pace, get stops (or steals) then get out and run, they will have a huge advantage. Usually playoff series slow down from the regular season, but this series could be the exception.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies in seven. This is a coin toss of a series, and maybe my judgment is clouded by the recency bias of not being impressed by Los Angeles in their play-in win, but I think the Grizzlies just have too much athleticism and it will win out over the savvy of Los Angeles.