The Los Angeles Lakers are back in the NBA Playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference.
They have a first-round matchup on deck with the Memphis Grizzlies, who are the No. 2 seed for a second consecutive season. Memphis lost in the second round of the playoffs last season to the Golden State Warriors.
It hasn’t been an easy season for the Grizzlies, who lost All-Star guard Ja Morant in the middle of the campaign to a suspension, but he has returned and played well since. The team won’t have two key big men in this series, as Brandon Clarke (Achilles) and Steven Adams (knee) are both out.
The Lakers, on the other hand, turned their season around at the trade deadline, adding D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, Mo Bamba and Malik Beasley in a flurry of deals. Over the team’s last 18 regular season games, it went 13-5, shooting up the standings in the West in the process.
After a come-from-behind win in the play-in tournament against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles is looking to make a deep playoff run.
Can LeBron James and Anthony Davis bring the Lakers back to the mountaintop in the NBA this season?
Here are five keys for the team to get things started right with an upset over the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs:
1. Force Memphis’ offense into the half court
This regular season, Memphis ranked just 11th in the NBA in offensive rating, but the team has shown that it thrives when it can get out in transition.
The Grizzlies finished second in the NBA in fast-break points per game in the regular season (18.0), and they also were eighth in the NBA in points per game off of turnovers (17.7).
A Lakers-Grizzlies nugget to monitor: LA gave up the fourth-most transition points per game (23.4) this season. Memphis scored the second-most (25.8).
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) April 13, 2023
Those numbers really helped a Memphis team that isn’t exactly the most efficient in the league at shooting the ball, as the squad ranked 21st in the league in effective field-goal percentage in the regular season.
Desmond Bane and Luke Kennard can light it up from beyond the arc, but Memphis does a ton of damage in the open court. If the Lakers can slow the Grizzlies’ offense down and force the team to play in a half-court setting, it could expose some of Memphis’ shooting issues.
Los Angeles is equipped to do this, as the team finished fourth in the NBA in defensive rating from the All-Star break through the end of the regular season.
2. Make Ja Morant a jump shooter
Along the same lines of limiting the Grizzlies in transition, the Lakers have to keep Ja Morant out of the paint and force him to make jump shots to beat them.
After shooting a career-high 34.4 percent from 3-point range last season, Morant came back to Earth in the 2022-23 regular season, shooting 30.7 percent from deep.
He’s elite at attacking the rim and finishing through contact, but his jump shot can be inconsistent at times.
The Grizzlies finished the regular season with the most points in the paint per game in the NBA (58.4). Morant is a huge reason why, so Los Angeles has to make his life tougher and do its best to keep him from getting easy buckets at the rim.
3. Survive the non-LeBron James minutes
This seems like a no-brainer, but the Lakers have struggled without James on the floor this season.
In the four-time champion’s 55 games in the regular season, the Lakers were plus-5.1 points per 100 possessions during his time on the floor.
However, James’ net plus/minus per 100 possessions was plus-8.8, which means the Lakers were minus-3.7 points per 100 possessions when he wasn’t on the floor.
In the playoffs, James is likely going to play as many minutes as he can, but the Lakers have to be careful about pushing him after he dealt with a foot injury in the regular season.
The Lakers can’t afford to fall behind when James sits, so Darvin Ham may have to get creative with how he staggers minutes to keep Los Angeles afloat when its superstar veteran is on the bench.
4. Have Anthony Davis win his matchup with Jaren Jackson Jr.
This could be the biggest key of the series, as Jaren Jackson Jr. is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
However, Davis has put together one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 25.9 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in the regular season.
With Clarke and Adams both out, Jackson is really the only player Memphis has that can truly contain Davis. The team will also likely throw Xavier Tillman and Santi Aldama in the mix, but this battle is between Davis and the first-time All-Star Jackson.
Last postseason, Jackson struggled mightily with foul trouble, fouling out of three different games and picking up at least five fouls in seven of his 12 appearances.
If Davis can score efficiently on the Grizzlies All-Star and get him in foul trouble, it’s going to open up plenty of offensive opportunities for the Lakers in this series.
5. Dominate the free-throw battle
The Lakers are the best team in the NBA at defending without fouling, as they picked up a league-low 17.9 personal fouls per game in the regular season.
Los Angeles also finished second in the league in personal fouls drawn per game at 21.5.
The Grizzlies, on the other hand, finished the regular season in the middle of the pack in both categories.
The Lakers and Grizzlies played each other 3 times this season. Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. played in all 3:
Brooks: fouled out
JJJ: 5 fouls
Brooks: 5 fouls
JJJ: 5 fouls
Brooks: 5 fouls
JJJ: 5 fouls
Lakers in 6. pic.twitter.com/Ar9LnjIqYJ
— 𝙉𝘼𝙅 (@najeeadams_) April 14, 2023
Los Angeles has a legit chance to dominate the free-throw battle with Davis, Austin Reaves and James, and it could help the team compete with a strong Memphis offense.
Plus, the Grizzlies’ frontcourt depth has been tested with injuries, so getting a player like Jackson out of the lineup because of fouls could swing this series toward Los Angeles.
This won’t be an easy series, but the Lakers have the talent to win it.