MEMPHIS – Fantastic on the floor, phlegmatic when it was over. That was Ja Morant during and after the Memphis Grizzlies’ 116-99 Game 5 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday at FedEx Forum.
The Grizzlies’ point guard and most important player scored 31 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists and got similar double-double help from Desmond Bane (33 points, 10 boards) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (18 points, 10 rebounds) to cut the Lakers’ lead to 3-2 in the best-of-seven series and send everyone back to Los Angeles for Game 6 on Friday.
Morant’s tie-dyed, rainbow-colored sweat pants-and-hoodie ensemble spoke as loudly as his performance, but he was particularly muted from the podium. Short answers, four or five words long, flat, no apparent emotion, so no grist for any Lakers mill.
Asked at the end of his session what it would require for the Grizzlies to force a Game 7 on Sunday, the All-Star guard so deep into his tortuous season said: “Me being a leader and being ready for this pedestal everyone got me on.”
Well then. While we await whatever form that takes, here are five takeaways from Memphis’ successful effort to stave off a No. 7 seed over No. 2 seed upset, for now at least:
1. Things got too small for the Lakers
Midway through the third quarter, Morant followed up a 3-pointer with an isolation bucket against L.A. counterpart D’Angelo Russell. That’s when the 6-foot-3 Grizzlies guard hit the 6-foot-4 Russell with the snarky “too small” sign, bending down as he headed up court, palm down, to indicate an opponent about one foot tall.
For the record, that’s not when Russell or anybody else on the Lakers was too small. But there were critical times when the visitors did lack sufficient size to deter the Grizzlies. Whenever big man Anthony Davis subbed out, it was as if someone flipped a green light for the Memphis attack.
“Green light?” Jackson said, not buying the imagery. “There’s no green light in the playoffs. That’s all I’ve got for you.”
The numbers can put this in perspective then: In the 35 minutes 10 seconds Davis was in the game, the Lakers were six points better than the home team. In the 12:50 he sat, they were 22 points worse.
The effect it had on the Grizzlies was most evident in the second half. When Davis came out with 4:10 left in the third quarter, the Lakers – who had trailed by as much as 17 points in the first half – had closed to 75-74.
A mere 89 seconds later, Lakers coach Darvin Ham sent Davis back in, his team down 82-74.
Fourth quarter, same pattern: Davis was on the bench as the period began, the Grizzlies now ahead 94-76. When he subbed in at 9:17, it was 103-79. And the first half went that way too, the Lakers breaking even in the big man’s 17:20 but nine points worse in the 6:40 he sat.
His team couldn’t afford to be without him. Davis scored 31 points with 19 rebounds and a pair of blocks. He shot 14-of-23 (60.8%), which meant his teammates were a combined 23-of-69 (33.3%).
The concern for the Lakers and their fans now is a different pattern: Davis’ up-and-down series so far. In Games 1, 3 and 5, he has averaged 28 points and 16 rebounds on 54.7% shooting. In Games 2 and 4, 12.5 points and 10 rebounds, while making only 29.6%.
2. Going small beats going home
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins knew the stakes and adjusted from his Game 4 tactics. After using backup point guard Tyus Jones for only nine minutes in the Game 4, Jones played 15 in Game 5. Shooter Luke Kennard went from 13-plus to 17-plus (and would have been out there longer if not for suffering a shoulder stinger in the fourth quarter).
The spacing was better, the pace was better and obviously the outcome was better due in part to the rotation tweak.
“Everybody can push, everybody can shoot, everybody can play-make,” said Bane, a 6-foot-4 guard who played a game-high 42:50. “It’s tough [for opponents] – then we’ve got J.J. [Jackson] down there to protect the rim.”
3. A rare rough one for LeBron
LeBron James famously has been even better in close-out games than in the rest of his playoff performances, scoring a little more (28.8 ppg), rebounding a little better (9.3 rpg), even taking and making a bit more from 3-point range when he can send foes off into summer.
But not this time. James scored just 15 points on 5-of-17 shooting – 1 of 9 from the arc – and the Lakers were a little worse (minus 1) than Memphis in the 37 minutes he played. OK, so they were 15 points worse in the 12 minutes James sat, but it still wasn’t the result James prides himself on and from which he’s widely known.
Jenkins said the plan was to pressure him, swarm him with defenders and not give up too many easy points in transition. It worked better than usual.
“Tonight,” the NBA’s all-time leading scorer said, “I was not very good at all.”
4. Brooks wouldn’t respect Brooks
A couple postseasons ago, Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks had a bit of a breakthrough, averaging 25.8 points on 51.5% shooting in a five-game first-round loss to Utah. Last year, Brooks took heat from Warriors coach Steve Kerr for “breaking the code” in his hard foul that shut down Golden State guard Gary Payton II, though he was still a two-way factor for Memphis.
Now? He’s an afterthought, the mouth that roared after Game 2 in his comments about James but more of a mouse that squeaks lately. He is averaging 10.6 points while shooting 30.3%, including 21.6% on threes (8 of 37). His minutes fell from 41 in Game 4 to less than 30 in Game 5 and might have dropped further had Kennard not gotten hurt.
After two games in L.A. in which he avoided postgame reporters, Brooks did take questions after Game 5. But a lot fewer folks were listening.
5. One game left … unless it’s two
The Grizzlies said all the right things about their resolve, their discipline, and their determination, and for the most part played accordingly to stay afloat in the series. “Stoic poise,” Jenkins called their current demeanor. It’s not easy or common for teams that trail 3-1 in seven-game series to come all the way back to advance but it has happened: 13 times in 271 series prior to this postseason.
The Lakers, meanwhile, get to play at home Friday and they have one of the all-time close-out masters on their side. His record got dinged only slightly, now 40-11 according to StatMuse.
Said Ham: “We were told we weren’t going to be here in the first place. So, there’s no pressure. It’s just basketball.”
Key to Los Angeles’ revival? Better bench play. The Lakers’ reserves got swamped, with every one of them in negative territory. The Grizzlies, by comparison, were 26 points better when Kennard (and the effect his 3-point shooting has on the opposing defense) was out there.
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