MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If there is anything more punishing than one of Ja Morant’s lightning drives in the paint or one of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s rejections at the rim, it might just be this year’s Western Conference pack, stubbornly refusing to yield ground to the scuffling Lakers.
If Tuesday night is any indication, the rest of that road – much of which will they will have to navigate without injured LeBron James – is going to be rocky at best.
Against the hard-nosed Grizzlies, the Lakers lacked coordination and leadership on offense, two of the key things that James provides. And while a scrappy defensive effort helped keep them neck-and-neck with Memphis for 2½ quarters, the makeshift dam broke in a 47-point third led by the relentless strides of Morant, who scored 28 of his 39 points in the period and finished with 10 rebounds and 10 assists for a triple-double.
The Lakers (29-33) wound up with a 121-109 loss to a team they’ll have to face again at home in a week. The second-place Grizzlies (37-23) are a stiff challenge, but few if any games will be easy during the indefinite stretch the Lakers have to play without James for the next few weeks.
The most glaring problem was the Lakers’ 26 turnovers, which Memphis ruthlessly converted into 41 points. The Lakers rarely looked on the same page offensively, throwing the ball to sidelines of empty space and shouting at each other.
It was always going to be a challenge to blend a team with six new players acquired since mid-January – it’s harder without James or injured point guard D’Angelo Russell, who missed his second straight game and is expected to miss at least one more.
When asked about the giveaways, the team’s key figures used the word “indecision.”
“We held it, I felt like, for too mant extra seconds, too many extra dribbles,” Coach Darvin Ham said. “It throws off the rhythm and timing allows their defense to catch up. And they’re a tough, physical ball club. There’s a reason why they are who they are.”
Report: Lakers’ LeBron James could miss weeks with foot injury
Is Jarred Vanderbilt the Lakers’ missing link?
Lakers rally from 27 down in Dallas as Anthony Davis closes with force
Lakers’ LeBron James injures right foot, guts it out against Mavericks
NBA still wonders if Kyrie Irving and the Lakers will wind up together
The Lakers did get a big two-way effort out of Anthony Davis, who had 28 points, 19 rebounds and five blocked shots to glue together what was looking like a strong defensive team effort. The Lakers had held the Grizzlies to just 33% shooting through the first half, leading by three points.
But Morant found another gear after the break, connecting on 10 of his 12 shots on the way to his franchise-record third-quarter point total. The Lakers attempted to counter him with Dennis Schröder, Austin Reaves, Troy Brown Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt – but none could backpedal fast enough to keep the speedy All-Star in front of them.
Morant’s flurry of shots were a combination of high-arcing floaters that kissed off the glass and zig-zagging drives that allowed him to finish at the rim. Even Davis, one of the most respected defenders in the league, could hardly keep up with Morant’s high octane moves. His passes to his bigs were also a huge factor in the 86 points in the paint that nearly doubled L.A.’s total (48).
Guards were getting screened, bigs, we were too far back,” Davis said. “He left that floater. And then at times when we did step up, he dumped it off to the big rolling. It’s tough. … The paint is what killed us. And it was Ja.”
The Lakers’ starting lineup struggled to hit shots around Davis, combining for just 28 points on 11 for 33 shooting. The Lakers’ second- and third-leading scorers were reserves: Lonnie Walker IV had 21 points, and Reaves had 17. Schröder had a team-high 10 assists.
The internal dialogue got chippy especially toward the end, when Schröder coughed up the last of his six turnovers, and looked bemused as the Grizzlies ran it back on the other end. But the Lakers insisted that their locker room chemistry is holding strong, and they feel like they have the tools to work it out within the group that’s healthy.
“I’m a person who likes to do it in the back and talk where nobody (sees), and I told that to AD on that last turnover I had,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re brothers. I feel like when everything is always good, something is wrong. So we had a conversation. We talked it out. And we’ll try to get that win tomorrow. It’s an important one.”