7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Lakers -1, Over/Under: 226.5
After a wild string of opening games, the NBA playoffs rage on into Graceland, where the shorthanded Memphis Grizzlies hope to avoid falling into an unenviable 0-2 hole to the Los Angeles Lakers, who are surging in this first round matchup from FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee. Though they have endured various stretches without their superstars, this season can be split into two very distinct halves for the Lakers (43-39, 7th in Western Conference), whose fortunes turned at the Trade Deadline. Prior to the deadline, Los Angeles was on the outside looking in at the postseason, meandering away with a 25-31 record. However, (General Manager) Rob Pelinka managed to pull a number of rabbits out of his hat in early February, working several deals that would have a profound effect on his roster. First, they acquired the services of (young Forward) Rui Hachimura in a relatively under-the-radar trade with the Wizards to add some much-needed size on the wing along with shot creation off the bench. Then came the blockbuster, as the Lakers managed to finally offload the proverbial albatross that was the much-maligned Russell Westbrook in a three-team exchange with the Timberwolves and Jazz, netting them (veteran Point Guard) D’Angelo Russell, (three-and-D extraordinaire) Malik Beasley, and (defensive stopper) Jared Vanderbilt, effectively adding depth, shot creation, and some sorely needed perimeter shooting to a rotation starved for it. As a result, (Head Coach) Darvin Ham’s troops went 18-8 down the stretch, booking a spot in the play-in where they outlasted the Timberwolves in a grueling 108-102 overtime affair last Tuesday. It appears that they enjoyed having the ensuing four days off as they looked like the better side for long periods of play in Sunday’s triumphant 128-112 victory over the Grizzlies; the visitors shot a blistering 53.3% from the field, including 16-of-37 from beyond the arc (43.2%), while bullying them on the glass (45-34), and totaling a staggering ELEVEN blocks as they took full advantage of the hosts’ lack of size in the frontcourt. This one was decided in the second half, folks, as Los Angeles netted 67.5% of their attempts overall, including 11-of-19 from downtown (57.9%), with fourteen assists in comparison to committing seven turnovers. On a day in which (four-time MVP) LeBron James wasn’t particularly dominant (21 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists), it was the supporting cast that rose to the occasion; (Sophomore Guard) Austin Reaves (pictured above) erupted for a team-high twenty-three points on 8-of-13 shooting (61.5%), including 3-of-5 from three (60.0%), along with three rebounds and four assists, while aforementioned Hachimura turned the most points scored by a Laker coming off the bench in a playoff game since Magic Johnson did it nearly forty years ago, totaling twenty-nine points on 11-of-14 shooting (78.6%) and a torrid 5-of-6 from distance (83.3%). (All-Star Forward) Anthony Davis had an injury scare shortly before halftime, suffering a stinger in his right shoulder, though eventually returned to lead the Lakers’ defensive charge with seven of their eleven blocks, along with twenty-two points, twelve rebounds, three assists, and three steals to boot. It’s been discussed ad nauseum, but the key to any successful playoff run for this team begins with Davis, who when healthy has been a dominant force for Los Angeles this season, averaging 25.9 points on a career-high 56.3% shooting, 12.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals, and 2.0 blocks in fifty-six appearances this season. With the Grizzlies missing the likes of Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke (more on them shortly) in the paint, the eight-time All-Star MUST make an impact so that his side can take advantage of this fortuitous turn of events. From a betting perspective, the Lakers are a middling 41-41-1 against the spread this season and are just 5-5 in that regard over their last five outings regardless of the venue despite winning eight of them straight-up. Ham’s charges are 6-4 against the spread in their last ten trips away from the City of Angels, while failing to cover all but one of their last five contests when favored by the oddsmakers. They have also haven’t covered the spread in three consecutive meetings with Memphis in which they’ve been giving up points. Furthermore, they’ve are riding a seven-game losing streak against the spread after scoring more than 125 points in the previous game, which is the case tonight.
Meanwhile, the basketball gods can be cruel at times and the Grizzlies (51-31, 2nd in Western Conference) are finding that out at the worst possible time as their rotation in threatened to be decimated coming into this crucial Game Two against the Lakers. Despite enduring an embarrassing saga centered around (All-Star Point Guard) Ja Morant that saw the dynamic superstar step away from the team and serve an eight-game suspension, Memphis nonetheless secured the second seed in the West for a second consecutive season and figured to have as good a chance to come out of the conference as any of the plethora of talented, yet flawed teams. However, (Head Coach) Taylor Jenkins’ troops would have to do so without two BIG pieces of their frontcourt, namely the aforementioned Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, two major components of what had been the top offensive rebounding side in the Association. Adams, a throwback to the enforcers of NBA past, has been sidelined since late January due to soreness in his right knee, even receiving stem cell injections in an effort to get him back on the court, while Clarke unfortunately tore his left Achilles in early March. Together, the duo accounted for a combine 18.6 points per game, 17.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.8 blocks. Furthermore, they were responsible for 6.7 of their team’s 12.0 offensive rebounds per game (4th Overall). Without them, this is noticeably smaller team, particularly in the frontcourt where (newly minted Defensive Player of the Year) Jaren Jackson Jr. is the only true big that has regularly provided over twenty-five minutes a night in the playoffs. Why is this a big deal, you ask? Well, Taylor’s charges THRIVE on second-chance opportunities, which primarily occur due to offensive rebounding, with the Grizzlies securing the glass on that end of the court on a healthy 26.5% of their shots. If you take that factor out of the equation then this becomes a seriously less-efficient attack, which was the case in Sunday’s loss to the Lakers. The hosts shot a solid 47.2% from the field, including 13-of-36 from beyond the arc (36.1%), but were pummeled on the glass (-11) and managed to grab just SIX offensive rebounds, while their twelve turnovers were manufactured into twenty-two points, playing a sizeable role in their -9 deficit in fast break points. With that said, there was more bad news to be found in this one, as Morant (pictured above) left the affair altogether after attempting to brace his fall following another chaotic drive to the basket, apparently injuring his hand in the process. The 23-year-old finished the afternoon with eighteen points on 8-of-14 shooting (57.1%) but didn’t attempt a single free-throw while committing more turnovers (6) than assists (2) as Los Angeles’ Defense swarmed throughout the contest. It remains to be seen if Morant will suit up for tonight’s second entry in this series, though the initial diagnosis ruled out any broken bones or structural damage, meaning that his availability could very well be decided at game-time. Injuries aside, Jackson authored a very strong performance in Sunday’s opener, posting a game-high thirty-one points on 13-of-21 shooting (61.9%), along with five rebounds, four assists, a steal and a pair of blocks, though (sharpshooting Guard) Desmond Bane struggled to reach his twenty-two points, netting just 6-of-18 attempts (33.3%), including 3-of-10 from downtown (30.0%), though made up for the poor shooting display with five rebounds and a team-best six assists. From a betting perspective, the Grizzlies have underperformed in the eyes of bettors, owning a mediocre 37-44-2 record against the spread, while struggling more so of late with a 3-7 mark against the spread over their last ten outings regardless of the venue. Jenkins & Co have matched the record in their last ten games at FedEx Forum and as an underdog, failing to cover three consecutive games when receiving points from the oddsmakers. With that said, they’ve covered four of their last five meetings with the Lakers as an underdog, which is the case tonight. Furthermore, Memphis is 4-0 in their last four postseason games as an underdog of 0.5-4.5 points, which again appears to be the case in this latest matchup.