Lakers miss big opportunity in Game 2 loss

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina writes the Lakers missed a chance to take a commanding lead with Memphis' Ja Morant out.

Just when we think the Lakers might have championship material, we see that their foundation lacks some sturdiness.

Just when we think that Anthony Davis has become the dominant player we witnessed during the Lakers’ title run three years ago, we see that Davis can still shrink in big moments.

Just when we think that the Lakers have enough depth to make life easier for LeBron James and Davis, we see that their role players still have significant limitations.

Talk about a missed opportunity. The Lakers labored through a 103-93 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series. The Grizzlies simply tied the series at 1-1. The Lakers still have home-court advantage as the series shifts back to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Saturday. But as much as the No. 7 Lakers should feel proud for stealing a home game against the second-seeded Grizzlies, they should also feel disappointed for not finishing the job.

The Grizzlies played without star point guard Ja Morant, who stayed sidelined after injuring his right hand during a fall in Game 1. The Lakers had settled in Memphis for the past five days and had two full days to rest and recover without traveling. And for all the bravado the Grizzlies exude with their trash talking and youthful energy, the Lakers have enough experience and maturity to withstand it all.

None of those factors mattered.

Memphis managed just fine without Morant. The Grizzlies’ entire starting lineup cracked double figures, including Xavier Tillman (22 points), Jaren Jackson Jr. (18), Desmond Bane (17), Dillon Brooks (12) and Tyus Jones (10). After the Grizzlies nursed a 59-44 half-time lead, the Lakers cut the lead to single digits. But the Grizzlies then led by as much as 20 points before holding a 83-71 cushion entering the fourth quarter. And with the result cemented in the final moments, Grizzlies fans waved towels while chanting “Whoop That Trick.”

Davis became a complete no-show. He finished with 13 points while shooting 4-for-14 from the field. Though he had five blocks, Davis also had two of his shots blocked by Grizzlies reserve guard John Konchar. With the Grizzlies swarming him any time he touched the ball, Davis failed to make the defense pay with any aggressive moves or timely passes.

Austin Reaves (12 points on 5-for-12 shooting) and D’Angelo Russell (five points on 2-for-11 shooting) fell flat after having break-out performances in Game 1. Though James had a respectable 28 points and 12 assists, the Lakers need their role players to elevate their game so that the 38-year-old James doesn’t carry the burden. Rui Hachimura scored 20 points off the bench, while the rest of the reserves offered very little.

Granted, the Grizzlies should not have surprised anyone they would compete.

Memphis has fared remarkably well when Morant has sat in the lineup. The Grizzlies went 20-5 last season without Morant when he nursed various injuries. They fared 6-3 this season when Morant served a suspension for posting an Instagram Live video of himself carrying a gun in a nightclub. Jones has cemented himself as one of the NBA’s best backup point guards and respected leaders. Though they have often become overly consumed with playing physical and talking trash, the Grizzlies mostly bring a full effort in every game.

It might be unfair to expect James and Davis to thoroughly dominate when they didn’t have enough help. It might be unfair to expect role players to have star performances every game since they are role players, after all. That still doesn’t excuse how the Lakers executed, though.

The Lakers played with the lack of urgency reserved for exhibition games. They played with disjointed chemistry reserved for when they struggled with Russell Westbrook throughout the regular season before the trade deadline. They didn’t play with the kind of purpose they displayed following the trade deadline when every game bore strong play-in implications. They played as if they were satisfied enough with just stealing Game 1.

The Lakers can’t afford to have such a mentality. Not when they are given an opportunity to beat a team without its star player. Not when they face uncertainty on how durable James and Davis can stay throughout the playoffs. Not when they presumably will face stiffer competition later in the playoffs.

Maybe the Lakers don’t have to worry about those dynamics in Game 3. The presumed sell-out crowd could jolt them into action. The cheers and boos could easily drown out Memphis’ trash talking. Davis and the team’s supporting cast might excel in a warmer atmosphere. Perhaps the Grizzlies melt under pressure.

No one can guarantee those scenarios, though. Morant might return and play with additional motivation to put on a show. After the Grizzlies argued with FS1 personality Shannon Sharpe when they last visited LA, Memphis might compete with an even sharper edge. And after excelling without Morant in Game 2, maybe the Grizzlies’ role players still maintain their strong play.

How the Lakers compete in Game 3 can strongly influence how those variables play out. Presumably, they will treat the game much more seriousness than how they slogged through Game 2. But for a team that has championship aspirations, the Lakers shouldn’t need a post-season letdown game to change their behavior. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they allowed outside circumstances to negatively affect how they approached Game 2.

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.

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