LOS ANGELES — The game of basketball is played between the lines, and yet the Lakers and Grizzlies spent a good portion of Game 3 coming very close to crossing them. This was 48 minutes of two teams being chatty and chippy, and so from the opening tip, the entire night teetered on the edge.
The home team and arena did gain satisfaction, in the end, with two victories — over the swagger-licious Grizzlies and also their mouthy guard, Dillon Brooks.
The Lakers jumped to an 18-2 lead and never looked back against a Memphis team held to nine first-quarter points. The contest was a no-contest before the beautiful people made their way, naturally a bit tardy, to their wonderful seats. Most important, the Lakers seized advantage in this first-round series over the No. 3-seeded Grizzlies, who welcomed the return of Ja Morant from a wrist injury — he briefly put a late scare into the Lakers — but had little else to enjoy.
As for Brooks, he was ejected in the third quarter after reaching between the legs of LeBron James — seemingly for the basketball — and making contact with a sensitive area. The referees were likely on high alert anyway because of Brooks’ disrespectful comments about LeBron. Now we’ll see if the league decides to do more than issue a fine to Brooks.
1. Brooks hurts the wrong team
Laker fans are known for being fashionably late arrivals, but a healthy handful defied that notion by showing up as soon as the gates opened to catch pre-game warmups, presumably with the goal of booing Public Enemy No. 1. That would be Brooks, who not only “poked the bear” (his words for irritating LeBron), but an entire city as well.
And so, in what was a rare sight in any NBA arena, a player was booed… 90 minutes before tip. And then, in a spicy and unplanned meeting, Brooks and LeBron came face-to-face just before the layup line, and LeBron whispered something to Brooks — and we’ll assume it wasn’t pleasantries. Just the day before, LeBron abruptly cut short his media session when the subject of Brooks was raised by reporters.
Anyway, Brooks seemed shook from the jeers from the crowd that rained on him all game. He missed eight of his first nine shots and those jeers turned to laughter. He wasn’t the only Memphis player to misfire early, but he definitely set the tone. In the bigger picture, Brooks’ expanded profile and fame is concealing something that’s obvious: his talent, and certainly his performance in this series, isn’t matching all that attention he’s getting. He’s shooting 13-for-40 in this series and the Lakers are even daring him to shoot. Brooks missed 10 of 13 shots Saturday before his ejection. You might say he was missing … before he went missing.
2. Ja rule
Moments after arriving at crypto.Com Arena, Ja Morant had a message for his teammates: I’m good. He went through some stretching, then took the court for some shooting, and all lights were yellow until an hour before the game when they turned green. So Morant’s absence from this series was limited to one game, following his nasty crash to the court and (initially scary) wrist injury.
Upon return, he reminded everyone what they missed with a brilliant performance that, from the Grizzlies’ standpoint, was wasted. Morant finished with 45 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds and was the best player on a floor he shared with LeBron and Davis. Making six 3-pointers — which obviously require more flex and strength — with a bad wrist was impressive. He was especially large in the fourth quarter when he scored 22 straight Memphis points — too little, too late, however. The energy and grit he showed also resulted in another problematic fall to the floor, and this time Morant suffered an apparent ankle sprain in the game’s final few minutes. He walked off the floor on his own power and isn’t expected to miss Monday’s Game 4.
“You just got to play through it,” Morant said. “I’m here to lead my team to battle. I don’t want to leave them out there by themselves.”
Based on what happened Saturday, when he refused to allow a heavily-wrapped and still-sore right wrist to stop him — Morant at times went to his left hand for shots — it’ll take plenty to keep him off the floor.
3. AD bounces back
The Lakers missed a big opportunity in Game 2 when the Grizzlies were without Morant. One reason was the surprising subpar play by Anthony Davis. He scored only 13 points, never had any impact defensively and really was invisible. What was really telling is Davis didn’t have a proven opponent in front of him. Remember, the Grizzlies are without Steven Adams and also Brandon Clarke, a pair of rugged interior players who normally would be the front line against AD.
Well, Davis had a winning response Saturday, amassing 31 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks. This was more in line with the bang Davis provided in the first two games of the series. Really, there’s no reason AD shouldn’t have this type of impact every game against the Grizzlies, even with Jaren Jackson Jr., the freshly-named Kia Defensive Player of the Year, often standing between him and the rim. Jackson has a tendency to draw fouls, and when that happens, Memphis must turn to Xavier Tillman, who’s a decent reserve but not a match for Davis.
4. Rui still ready to roll
Move aside, Austin Reeves, and make room for a co-fan favorite at Crypto. That would be Rui Hachimura, who has rapidly won over the crowd with more of the same level of play since arriving at mid-season in a swap with the Wizards. Hachimura sparked a dominant Laker first half with a series of plays, including deep shots and hard drives to the hoop. He scored 16 points off the bench and is continuing to demand significant minutes, to the point where the Lakers actually lean on him for stretches.
Which raises a playoff question: Whose comeback has been the bigger surprise, Russell Westbrook’s with the Clippers or Hachimura’s? Well, actually, the question is misleading, because at least Westbrook, a former MVP, has played high-level hoops before. This is a first for Hachimura, who was deemed a wasted lottery pick (ninth overall in 2019) by Washington and jettisoned before the Wizards had to make a decision on a rookie extension. Acquiring Hachimura came at little risk for the Lakers, who needed an infusion of cheap young talent in February, when the season appeared lost, and surrendered nothing of consequence to get him.
So far, so solid against the Grizzlies, with Hachimura averaging 21.7 points in the first round. He’s athletic and skilled at 6-foot-8, and while he’s not dangerous on the boards or defensively, he brings a level of energy and production that’s helping the Lakers right now.
5. Last L.A. team standing?
Perhaps the most impressive moment Saturday inside Crypto.com Arena was during the doubleheader changeover, from a Clippers’ home game early in the day to the Lakers’ nightcap. The Clippers-Suns game tipped at 12:30 local time, the Lakers at 7. It took dozens of workers to swap the playing court, and then all of the cosmetics surrounding the inside bowl, to reflect the shift from one home team to another. This has happened dozens of times before; still, the speed and efficiently is something to behold.
— NBA (@NBA) April 23, 2023
It’s also something that moved Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer to dip into his considerable wallet and build his own arena; the Clippers are considered the third tenant (behind the L.A. Kings hockey team and the Lakers) and therefore get the less favorable tipoff times on weekend doubleheaders. Ballmer believes it comes at a disadvantage to his team, hence the new arena being built in Inglewood. Did the early start on Saturday hurt the Clippers against the Suns? Probably not as much as missing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Anyway, unlike the Clippers, the Lakers had to play their way into the playoffs from the Play-In Tournament, and now own better odds than the Clippers to advance into the next round. Did anyone see this coming just a month ago, when the Clippers had a healthy George and Leonard while the Lakers were dealing with a mistake-prone Westbrook and briefly sinking as low as 11th in the West standings? Seems like forever when that happened.
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