The storylines running through the Grizzlies-Lakers first-round playoff series are so plentiful and somewhat precarious that a key to Memphis emerging in the winner’s role is to not get entangled in needless drama.
The No. 2 seed in the NBA Western Conference playoffs, Memphis hosts L.A. – and LeBron “King” James – in game one of the best-of-seven series at FedExForum on Sunday. Tipoff is at 2:30 p.m. The game can be seen exclusively on ABC.
The Lakers, who forged their way into the playoffs by capturing the No. 7 seed with a play-in game win (in overtime) against Minnesota’s Timberwolves, won the season series with the Grizzlies two games to one. Memphis lost the two games in Los Angeles, including the 122-121 loss that went viral because of the bad-optics encounter between the Grizzlies and former NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe, now a television sports-and-debate show host and podcaster.
Oh yeah, Sharpe is a huge “King” James backer and is expected to be sitting courtside for the series.
“He shouldn’t even be there,” said Memphis’ Dillion Brooks, who is no stranger to controversy. “He is just a podcaster. He has his own show. We have to keep it appropriate and focus on the game. No distractions.”
Good game plan!
The Western Conference’s No. 2 seed for the second straight year, Memphis seeks a deeper run into the playoffs. Last season, they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals.
“We are a little more seasoned,” said Brooks. “We know more about the playoffs and different situations. Never get high or low, just keep it even-keel.”
Finding that balance point involves putting in their review what was a rollercoaster regular season. Winners of 51 games while capturing their second consecutive Southwest Division title, Memphis – arguably one of the most likable teams in the NBA last season – has become a reference point for when national media members declare that a team should just shut up and play basketball.
That task is complicated by ongoing questions directed toward the Grizzlies’ two-time All-Star point guard Ja Morant. On Wednesday, Morant’s lawyers filed a countersuit against Joshua Holloway, a Memphis teenager suing Morant in conjunction with an altercation during a pickup game at Morant’s home last July.
Morant’s countersuit accuses Holloway of slander, battery and assault. It asserts that Holloway damaged Morant’s reputation and put him at risk of losing millions of dollars both in his contract and in potential endorsement deals. Morant declined to comment Thursday when asked about his countersuit after practice.
Last July, Morant signed a five-year, $193 million contract that includes a $38 million bonus for making the All-NBA team this season. The NBA suspended Morant for eight games in March for “conduct detrimental to the league” for displaying a firearm at a suburban Denver club on March 4.
More about the roller coaster season
Memphis started the season accounting for adjustments, notably back-up guard De’Anthony “Mr. Do Something” Melton moving on to Philadelphia and Kyle “Slow-Mo” Anderson applying his forward-guard skills in Minnesota. And near the All-Star break, center Steven Adams suffered a knee injury that likely will cause him to miss the playoffs.
Added to the rotation have been Santi Aladama, David Roddy and Luke Kennard, a three-point sharpshooter acquired with an in-season trade. Aladama has been a consistent player since beginning the season as a starter while Jaren Jackson Jr. was recovering from an injury.
Kennard has shown he can be the pure outside shooter the Grizzlies have been seeking for the longest. decades. Along with shooting guard Desmond Bane, he opens up the inside play for Morant and Jackson, who increasingly has become a monster in the paint barring foul trouble.
Despite Jackson missing the first 16 games, Morant’s eight-game suspension and other key players losing significant time in the rotation because of injuries, the Grizzlies battled upward.
At one point, the team won 11 straight. They followed that with a 10-game losing streak. Last year they were road warriors. This season they were a powerhouse at home, recording the best home record in the NBA (35-6).
Honors and tidbits
*Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins was named the coach of the month for March/April for the Western Conference. Memphis went 14-8 during that period. It was the first such honor this season for Jenkins.
Asked to assess the difference in his coaching this season compared to last, Jenkins said that experience “has guided me. We are going to turn over every single rock to figure out every different outcome. The season has helped me a lot. It allowed me to figure out the priorities. How am I going to make my decision-making quicker and better.”
*In a roster move, the Grizzlies signed two-way player Kenny Lofton Jr. to a three-year contract. The move was to shore up the size of the team with the loss of Adams and Brandon Clarke, who suffered a season-ending leg injury. Released was former Briarcrest point guard and University of Tennessee star Kennedy Chandler.
“I was happy and excited to be signed,” said Lofton, who learned of the development before Memphis’ regular-season finale against Oklahoma City. “I am ready to play.”
Lofton scored 42 points against OKC in his first NBA start. “It was great overall. I had a great flow. We didn’t win the game, but it was a great overall experience.”
*In a team meeting before learning that the Lakers would be their first-round opponents, the Grizzlies focused on things they needed to do as a team to get better, specifically lessons from the season and their last run in the playoffs.
*Lakers’ coach Dervin Ham and Jenkins both coached in Atlanta under Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer.