Grizzlies up their physical brand of play to limit Anthony Davis, and other observations from Game 2

The Memphis Grizzlies returned serve Wednesday, bouncing back from a Game 1 loss to beat the visiting Los Angeles Lakers, 103-93, despite All-Star point guard Ja Morant watching from the sideline in street clothes due to a right hand injury. Here are five takeaways after a determined defensive effort that leveled the best-of-seven opening-round series at one game apiece heading to L.A. for Game 3 on Friday:

Memphis limits AD …

Anthony Davis was still incredible on defense Wednesday: five blocks, plenty of other shots altered, three deflections, the thing the Grizzlies are worried about on that end of the floor. But after scoring 22 points on 10-for-17 shooting in Game 1, Davis struggled mightily in Game 2, going just 4-for-14 from the floor on his way to 13 points in 38 minutes.

From the opening tip, Memphis’ defenders — chiefly center Xavier Tillman, who had himself a night, but also newly minted Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. and, on a couple of switches, Dillon Brooks — did a great job of bodying up Davis, playing physical with him on the catch and keeping him from getting deep position. When he did work his way into a shot, the Grizzlies committed to contesting those looks without fouling — AD’s only taken six free-throw attempts in 74 minutes in the series thus far — and making sure to have help defenders crash in to swarm him to prevent an easy look around the basket:

Davis got his shot blocked four times in Game 2; the last time he’d been swatted that many times in a game was January 2021. (Well, technically he got blocked five times in the Lakers’ play-in win over Minnesota. But those stats don’t officially count anywhere besides the pocket dimension that is the play-in tournament.)

It didn’t seem like Davis was playing tentatively or without aggression or something; he repeatedly got into the fray and wound up with some battle scars to prove it. But with that combination of physical point-of-attack defense and active help on the back end, Memphis managed to make everything harder on him, and harder shots don’t go down as often.

”Obviously I’ve got to be better,” Davis told reporters after the game. “Can’t have a night like I had tonight and expect us to win. … I liked the shots that I took. I just missed them. A lot of shots close to the rim that normally go in. Flush it and get ready [for Game 3].”

… which, in turn, limits the Lakers’ offense

L.A. managed a measly 75.9 points per 100 possessions in the half-court in Game 2, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s their worst offensive half-court outing of the season. Which, y’know, isn’t what you’re looking for when you’re trying to take a commanding 2-0 lead and give yourself a chance to finish the series at home.

A handful of sloppy turnovers hurt the Lakers early, both by short-circuiting their own possessions and by giving Memphis more chances to ignite the fast-break game it desperately needed to help create easy points without Morant. Errant shooting hurt them worse, with Davis’ aforementioned 4-for-14 mark and D’Angelo Russell going 1-for-6 inside the arc and 1-for-5 outside it, to fall to just 9-for-28 (32.1%) from the field through two games. The vicissitudes of 3-point variance hurt, too — just seven made triples after 16 in Game 1 — though the Grizzlies deserve credit for the tighter perimeter coverage and sharp rotations that held L.A. to just 26 attempts, 11 fewer than in Game 1.

With the exception of LeBron James (28 points on 12-for-23 shooting) posting up with an empty corner and Rui Hachimura (20 points in 32 minutes, his second straight game of 20-plus off the bench, which puts him in some awfully rarefied Laker air) hunting deep seals against Memphis’ guards, L.A. just couldn’t get anything going consistently enough to make the Ja-less Grizzlies sweat; that gave them the opening they needed to even the series.

Grizz realize they can go around the brick wall instead of at it

Through two games, JJJ has shot 3-for-11 from the floor against Anthony Davis, and 15-for-22 from the floor against every Laker not named Anthony Davis. With Jackson licking his chops every time he gets to isolate against Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and Co., the Lakers have leaned more on Davis as his primary matchup; the Grizzlies, in turn, are trying to use that to their advantage by moving JJJ around the floor in hopes of luring Davis out of the paint, where he’s been an absolute menace through the first two games of the series.

Davis knows JJJ’s a threat he can’t really ignore when he’s spaced to the perimeter or the short corner; stationing him there draws AD a step or two further away from the rim than he’d prefer to be. Put JJJ in the dunker spot while Tillman’s setting a ball screen for Tyus Jones or Desmond Bane up top before short-rolling to the free-throw line, and you’re making Davis choose between stepping up to stop the ball and giving up a lob or hanging back to take away a dunk but giving up a short floater or half-hook. Involve Jackson in some action on the weak side of the floor — a pindown for Bane or Luke Kennard, a flare to the corner behind a Dillon Brooks exit screen — and maybe you get Davis thinking so much about being ready to stay connected to JJJ through the traffic that he’s a step slow to realize that, actually, the whole point of that was to remove JJJ from the middle and open up space for a slot cut or a dribble drive.

The Lakers don’t really have any rim protection to speak of without AD — when he went out in the first half, they tried a zone, which Bane promptly punctured with a corner 3 — so it seems like a pretty good idea for the Grizz to, y’know, try to just get him out of the way as much as possible. Considering the fact that the Lakers won a game where Jackson scored 31 but nobody else really got off, and lost the one where he scored 18 but five other guys scored in double figures, I’m guessing head coach Darvin Ham might wind up moving AD back off JJJ more often in Game 3, prioritize locking down the paint over turning off Jackson’s water, and live with the results.


The Grizzlies went 20-16 and outscored opponents by 2.6 points-per-100 after starting center Steven Adams suffered the right knee sprain that has kept him sidelined for three months. They went 13-7 with a plus-3.8 net rating after key frontcourt reserve Brandon Clarke ruptured his Achilles tendon. There were several reasons why Memphis didn’t totally buckle amid their injuries and the Ja drama: Jackson’s offensive surge, steps forward from young forwards Santi Aldama and David Roddy, Bane’s growth as a playmaker and Kennard’s scorching shooting, etc. One big one, though: Xavier Tillman was quietly pretty awesome.

The third-year man out of Michigan State went from playing 11 minutes a night as Memphis’ third center to suddenly being tabbed to start and playing more than twice as much … and he responded, averaging about nine points, seven boards, two assists and two stocks per game on 63% shooting over the final two-plus months of the regular season. On Wednesday, with Memphis short-handed and in need of a spark in Game 2, Tillman responded again, scoring a career-high 22 points to go with 13 rebounds and three assists:

Tillman pounded the offensive glass and punished switches in the paint. He dove hard off screens and ran the floor in transition. He took advantage of opportunities — like, say, when Davis left him alone at the 3-point arc, not thinking he’d let it fly, only to find out that he would, in fact, let it fly — and did it all while spending most of his time on the other end defending AD and LeBron.

That’s one hell of a tall order, and Tillman filled it beautifully. For the last three years, the Grizzlies have boasted as much depth as any other team in the league; on Wednesday, they knotted the series in large part because their third-string center proved he was good enough to start in the playoffs.

Both teams got what they needed

The Lakers exit Tennessee with a bad taste in their mouth, but they also head home with a split, and the knowledge that they can grind Memphis’ offense down; Taylor Jenkins’ club has scored just 111.4 points-per-100 through two games, which would’ve ranked 27th in the league during the full season. The Grizzlies go on the road with renewed confidence having found fresh proof of their Ja-less concept — defend like crazy, win the turnover battle, score in transition, play through JJJ and Bane, scratch out enough possessions to win — and the possibility of getting Morant back in the lineup for Game 3 on Friday.

And as if the chance to take the upper hand in a hotly contested series wasn’t enough of an incentive, it sure seemed like Brooks and LeBron found themselves some extra motivation in the second half:

If you can’t wait to see what Brooks does to back up his talk, what James does to shut him up, or just how venomously the L.A. crowd welcomes an opponent that’s become persona non grata all over the league … well, you’re not alone.

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