In the NBA, a star that goes up doesn’t always come down in the same condition, and when he doesn’t in the first game of a playoff series, the possibility of a winning outcome – for the game and the series –takes a hit.
With Memphis hosting the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday at FedExForum, the Grizzlies’ floor general, Ja Morant, launched a late fourth-quarter attack from the paint, dramatically aggravating a right-hand injury suffered a couple of weeks ago. That was Morant’s last play in what ended as a 128-112 win for the Lakers.
Seated at his locker after the game, Morant slowly put on his undershirts and a hoodie before fielding questions.
“I am in a bit of pain,” said Morant, who had 18 points and 6 points before he crashed to the floor, writhing there before getting up and sprinting off the court and out of the sight of fans for medical attention.
“It is hard, especially (with) what I have been dealing with this regular season. My main focus was to get out there with my guys,” said Morant, whose readiness for Wednesday’s Game 2 is – by his description – “in jeopardy.”
Dillion Brooks, who scored 15 points (4 rebounds, 2 assists) while mostly guarding LeBron James (21 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks) said, “We have his (Morant’s) back always. Whatever he needs we got him. We will see in a couple of days (about his status).”
With the win, the No. 7 seed Lakers seized home-court advantage from second-seeded Memphis. “We didn’t execute the priorities of the game plan,” said Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins.
“We didn’t get rebounds and did not do well in the half-court defense.” The Lakers outrebounded the Grizzlies 45-34.
With the FedExForum rocking with turned-up energy and excitement for the playoffs long before the opening tip, the Grizzlies got an early hint that the L.A.’s Austin Reaves might be a problem. Reaves, who ended up with 23 points and connected on 3 shots from beyond the three-pointer arc, got hot early, scoring 7 of the Lakers’ first 11 points.
Riding the effectiveness of center Anthony Davis, L.A. took its largest first-quarter lead with 2:11 to go. Doing what they did often during the regular season, the second unit of the Grizzlies made a run and cut into the deficit, with Memphis down five (32-27) to end the first quarter.
At that point, Davis, who finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds, 7 blocks and 3 assists, had 8 points. Memphis power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. countered with 8 of his game-high 31 points (5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks) in the quarter.
A 5-0 run that featured a three-pointer by Luke Kennard and a steal and dunk by Morant forced the Lakers into a timeout with 7:38 left in the first half and the Lakers clinging to a one-point lead (43-42). Memphis kept rolling and took a 65-59 lead into halftime.
Near the end of the quarter, Davis left the court assisted by the medical staff. He was diagnosed with a stinger and returned for the start of the second half.
The third quarter was a downer for the Grizzlies, who were outscored 37-25 and trailed 96-90 heading into the final quarter. Rui Hachimura had 12 of his career-high 29 points in the quarter, along with eight for James and six for Davis. Morant and Desmond Bane (22 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds) each had 8 points for Memphis.
The Grizzlies surged back and took the lead when Dillon Brooks’ two-point running finger roll layup made the score 99-98 with 9:47 to play. With 5:48 left and the Lakers leading 105-101, Morant attempted his ill-fated dunk over Davis, who drew the charging foul with Morant landed awkwardly.
As the Grizzlies forged forward without Morant, Jackson scored five straight points, pulling Memphis to within a basket (108-106) with 4:38 to play. When he drained a three-pointer with 3:04 left, the gap was down to a single point (113-112).
Memphis did not score again.
Jenkins took note of the load Jackson shouldered.
“He played extremely well,” Jenkins said. “They are going to start throwing double teams at him. When he got to his spots on the floor, he found his angles. He got separation and (had) a good finishing game. He was huge for us.”
Hachimura’s franchise-tying scoring performance off the bench largely offset Jackson’s yeoman work.
“I was just going with the flow,” Hachimura said. “The way they guarded me, I had to be ready. In the second half, we spread the ball. Those shots just came to me.”
(Tipoff for Game 2 is set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday (April 19) at FedExForum. The game can be seen on TNT.)