When a team goes up against the Los Angeles Lakers, it would be understandable to be worried about the star power on the defending champs’ roster. After all, contending with LeBron James and Anthony Davis often seems a fool’s bargain, their combination of size and skill nearly overwhelming. Looking over the box score of Memphis’ 108-94 loss to the Lakers on Sunday, one may think that the Lakers’ all-star talent sealed the game for good. However, look below the surface and you’ll find the true reason that the Lake Show reigned victorious: brilliant coaching.
I’m not being sarcastic when I call Frank Vogel’s gameplan a masterclass. It’s clear that his staff is doing anything but coasting through the regular season, as they demonstrated how to pick apart the Grizzlies roster with surgeon-like precision. With a plan tailored to perfectly exploit Memphis’ flaws, the Purple and Gold were able to coast to a victory despite having to withstand a 36 point first quarter barrage. Let’s examine those weaknesses and see exactly how Vogel was able to utilize them to crack the game wide open.
Though Taylor Jenkins probably preaches defensive habits to the teenagers bagging his groceries, he hasn’t quite instilled a system that keeps opponents away from the free throw line. Though his teams average the fifth-least fouls per game, the Grizzlies can still be reckless contesting shots, giving up the fifth-most free throws last season (around 25 per game). But Adam, you say, the Lakers only shot 19 free throws against Memphis. Surely that counts as some improvement. That notion comes crashing down when one considers that LA was unable to get to the line until 6:23 left in the second quarter. This means that over the rest of the game, the Grizzlies gave the Lakers free throws at a pace that would’ve yielded 30 free throws over a full game.
How does one coax this out of such a defensive-minded team? My guess is that Frank Vogel started blasting Olivia Newton John in the second quarter hustle, as the Lakers got real physical real fast, often going the extra mile to ensure a friendly whistle. Watch as James extends his jump into Jonas Valanciunas here just to eliminate all ambiguity for the sideline official.
Sometimes the best way to get points is also the easiest. After all, if you’re the defending champs, why make life any more difficult than it has to be?
It’s not a great sign when your best three-point shooters are a rookie and your backup point guard. For what it’s worth, I mean no disrespect to Desmond Bane, a rookie bucket-scorcher who’s nailed multiple threes in his first six games (the second longest stretch ever for a rookie). It’s clear that the coaching staff loves the TCU product as well: “[he’s] just energy. Going out there competing, sharing the ball on the offensive end…it’s only the beginning of a really long career for [Desmond]”.
However, the rest of Memphis’ shooters have failed to impress thus far. Kyle Anderson’s hot hand from downtown careened the other direction–his 12.5% night from distance certainly didn’t help an anemic offense. Cut Grayson Allen a bit of slack for returning off of an injury, but shooting 1 of 6 in a spot-up role is a great way to test the patience of fans, coaches, and teammates alike. As a whole, the rest of the squad wasn’t much better either, shooting a combined 27.3% from three. Against a team as talented as the Lakers, that simply won’t cut it.
In turn, the Grizzlies’ spacing began to collapse on itself as the game progressed. They get a lucky putback from Jonas Valanciunas here, but look how many Lakers are able to swarm the paint to cut off Dillon Brooks’ attack.
By completely ignoring shooters at times, the Purple and Gold cut off the Grizzlies’ supply of easy buckets, suffocating any potential for a comeback in the clutch.
Where are all the Playmakers?
On the injured reserve, of course. Still, without Ja Morant, De’Anthony Melton, or Justise Winslow, Vogel and company did an excellent job forcing the Grizzlies’ secondary ball handlers to try and play like point guards. Kyle Kuzma commits everything to the shooter here, and the result is pure desperation–note how Allen ignores the wide open Xavier Tillman just a pass away.
The Lakers also did an excellent job committing to weak-side help, forcing the Grizzlies into situations where the open man was several passes away. Given that Memphis only gave minutes to one true point guard, one would think that this would have resulted in turnovers aplenty. Credit the feistiness of Memphis’ ball handlers, who withstood heavy pressure to only cough up the ball 11 times. However, it’s very possible that turnovers may not have been Vogel’s endgame. Instead, the Lakers focused on limiting the quality of Memphis’ shots, only allowing 58 points through the final three quarters.
All of this isn’t to place undue blame on Taylor Jenkins–aside from working with one of the league’s most injury riddled teams, he’s also coaching the NBA’s youngest roster. Fortunately, he’ll be receiving some cavalry for Tuesday’s rematch. It was announced Monday that the Grizzlies signed Tim Frazier, a veteran point guard out of Penn State who’ll step in and give Memphis an immediate playmaking option off the bench. Though he may not move mountains, he could certainly help the Grizzlies patch their weaknesses as they head into a rematch with the Lakers on Tuesday. Coaches make their money off adjustments, and if Taylor Jenkins’ record is any indication, expect a bounce-back game from Memphis’ rejuvenated roster.
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