Chess match, duel, and/ or a shootout? No matter the label put on the matchup between LA’s LeBron James and Memphis’ Ja Morant, it amounted to thrilling basketball in a game that yielded a 104-99 win for the Grizzlies over the Lakers at FedExForum on Wednesday night.
James, who continues to push the envelope on greatness, and Morant, who is knocking hard on the door of his first All-Star game, put their teams on their backs as they vied for the W.
James made a career-high eight three-pointers. Morant had a career-high six three-pointers in his second-highest scoring game during a regular season.
“I was taking what the defense gave me, and it turned out good for us,” Morant said, fielding a question about trying to match James’ scoring.
“That is normally how I attack everything. Just continuing to play my game, continuing to be aggressive and make the right reads from whatever the defense gives us. I felt like tonight was my night.”
The Grizzlies (22-14) handled the Lakers (17-19) for the second time this season, with Morant going for 40-plus points each time.
Morant put his big outing in a game against James in this perspective: “I grew up watching LeBron …. He’s one of the greatest to ever touch a basketball. My focus is going out there to get a win. That is how I attacked this game and how I attack every game.
“It just so happened that it was one of those nights where him and I were going back-and-forth. It is just special to get the win. I’m thankful for my teammates. They got us some big stops, big rebounds, and also helped me. They put me in position to score. Most of the credit goes to them.”
Desmond Bane, who has been soaring as a backcourt running mate with Morant, had an off-shooting night while he still managed to score 20 points. He went 6 for 18 shooting, grabbing 4 rebounds, with 2 assists. Jaren Jackson Jr. finished with 15 points (4 rebounds, 1 assist).
The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook had his second consecutive triple-double game: 16 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. With plenty of LA-gear-clad fans roaring approval, the Lakers jumped out to an early double-digit lead before the Grizzlies closed within seven points (30-23) at the end of the first quarter.
Making shots and consistency just did not go together for Memphis in the first half. Still, they emerged from double-digit deficits multiple times in the second quarter and trailed by six (54-48) at halftime.
Head coach Taylor Jenkins had an upbeat assessment of the Grizzlies’ first-half play.
“I told the guys at halftime that I was so encouraged by our first-half play. I thought, defensively, we were doing some really good things. LeBron (James), what a night by him. He was rolling everywhere on the floor. He was taking some tough shots, and they were taking some tough shots in that first half,” said Jenkins.
“We couldn’t buy a shot in the first half, but yet we were down by single digits and I told the guys, ‘I’m so encouraged. I love our defensive activity. I love how we’re playing. We’re going to take advantage of this halftime and figure out how to clean up a few things, but find that spark in the second half.’”
James started the third quarter like the first, on fire, as the Lakers built the lead to double-digits. The Grizzlies burned two timeouts trying to slow the Lakers’ roll. Jenkins said the players then did what they know – “go out there and just keep staying the course. …
“We just kept scrapping and came up with some loose balls in the second half, big ones in the fourth quarter. Ja (Morant), what an unbelievable night by him. The tone he was setting throughout the game. I thought he did some good things defensively in rotations and one-on-one defense.
“When he got going, it fueled everyone else, and we broke loose there in that third quarter,” said Jenkins.
“What a back-and-forth fourth quarter? Great execution down the stretch. Some situational stuff that you don’t get a lot of time to practice, and our guys — on the fly — had to figure out matchups, coverages, side- out-of-bounds defense, underneath out-of-bounds defense. Heck of a game.”
The Lakers built the lead to as many as 14 points in the third quarter, with the Grizzlies scrapping to within five (83-78) as it ended.
With eight minutes left in the game and down by seven points, the Grizzlies manufactured a surge. Over the next four minutes, the Grizzlies flipped the deficit into a seven-point lead (99-92) with 4:28 left in the game.
The Lakers were down three (102-99) and possessed the ball with 22 seconds to go. Dialing up their defense a notch, the Grizzlies did not allow the Lakers to get off a three-point attempt and forced a turnover.
Memphis forward Kyle Anderson (8 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists) said in close games down the stretch, “it feels like we have been there before. I feel like my job is to get stops and get the rebound. Dez (Desmond Bane) and 12 (Ja Morant) knew they had to help us out on the offensive end.
“We just all knew what we had to do the stretch. It was winning time; we had to get stops. I wanted to try and make that happen.”
Down the stretch, that meant Anderson guarding James.
“I grew up playing on the playground. When a guy is getting off on you like that, you want to get a stop. You want to do everything in your power to try and get a stop. He is obviously a great player,” Anderson said.
“I tried to make it tough on him, make him uncomfortable, give him (a) different look and hope he misses, honestly. It took me back to the park, with the older guy getting off on me and I’ve got to get a stop. It is what it is.”
The Lakers were coached by former Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, who is subbing for Laker’s head coach Frank Vogel (out because of the COVID-19 protocols).
Pre-game, Fizdale said the game plan against Morant was to “do our best to slow him down, make it tough on him, try to make him inefficient, but understand at the same time that a guy like that is very difficult to just stop.”
Post-game, he said, “We let him (Morant) get into a rhythm. … I said it before the game, that guy is a superstar flat out, no doubt about it, 100 percent bona fide. He is a tough-cover superstar.”
Morant thanked the Grizzlies’ fans.
“It was a good game. We appreciate the fans rooting for us. We had a lot of energy we could feed off during the game, in the big moments when we needed (it).
“It is even better to send all of those yellow, gold – whatever color you want to call their (the Lakers’) jerseys – home sad. You can take that back to L.A.”
(Next up for Memphis will be a New Year’s Eve game at FedExForum as the San Antonio Spurs and the Grizzlies meet for the first time this season.)