NBA playoffs: LeBron James' 1-man show, aided by Grizzlies' silly decision-making, pushes Lakers to 3-1 lead

LOS ANGELES — Dillon Brooks isn’t wrong, but being right doesn't always matter in a court of law, let alone a basketball court.

LeBron James isn’t the same player he was in Cleveland or at his height of heights in Miami. The ability to dominate a 48-minute game isn’t there anymore, as there are more signs of physical slippage that confirm he is indeed 38 years old.

But this version is still good enough in spurts, in those moments where he can leverage his greatness against his body and hope the former wins — and he’ll pay the price another day.

That day likely won’t occur any time soon, as he pushed himself and the Lakers to a 3-1 first-round series lead with a 117-111 win over the Memphis Grizzlies after 53 minutes of grueling playoff basketball.

If Brooks stuck around in the postgame to comment, he could’ve given his assessment on James’ 20-20 game, adding to the impressive lore of playoff feats. He had a front-row seat to James’ last bucket, a roaring drive in overtime Brooks couldn’t get the right angle on as James flexed and preened to the crowd as victory was secured.

“You know how momentum plays are made,” James said. “And I’ve been a part of moments where you know you can kinda get a dagger play or a kill shot. And I felt like that play right there, after I was able to make that and-1, I wouldn’t say closed the door, but it sealed it. There wasn’t much light at the end for the rest of the game. I was just letting the emotion come out.”

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James reacts after making a basket against the Memphis Grizzlies in overtime of Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoff series on April 24, 2023, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 117-111. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James reacts after making a basket against the Memphis Grizzlies in overtime of Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoff series on April 24, 2023, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 117-111. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

As for Brooks, he and Ja Morant exited Los Angeles without speaking to reporters and without a win, tucking tail headed back to Memphis where the only thing they have to hold onto is hope.

Because they couldn’t hold onto much as James snatched a career-high 20 rebounds, pushing the game to overtime with a driving layup past Xavier Tillman Sr. and over the outstretched arms of Jaren Jackson Jr.

James called it part of the “tier 3” layup packages he works on, then referencing a shot he made in the Finals over Kevin Durant during one of those Cavs-Warriors tilts that feels like yesteryear.

There were long stretches where he relied too much on deep shots, going 1 for 7 from 3. And luckily for him, he didn’t force the action too much — just happened to be in the right place at the right time, timing those bursts of energy at critical junctures.

When Morant did his first acrobatic act near the rim, James laid his body on the line for a charge. Then later, when Morant was auditioning for the Olympic Games in the track and field category, the 100-meter hurdles, James was again thrusting those old bones into Morant’s path while Morant was looking upside down in midair.

“Whatever it takes for the team to be successful and just trying to be as great as I can be offensively,” James said. “But even more important on the defensive end. That was kinda the mindset tonight. And I was able to make a couple plays to make us successful.”

It was that type of silly decision-making by the Grizzlies that put them in this position, one game away from elimination. The Grizzlies were 9 of 42 from 3, finding it hard to muster consistent offense early and late after the Lakers began to tighten up.

Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins believed his team had the right character and confidence coming into Game 4, knowing full well a win would tilt home-court advantage back in their direction with two games back in their building.

And for most of the night, they seemed up for the challenge, picking themselves up after another early deficit to come within two at the half. Anthony Davis fell hard a couple of times on his hip and looked worse for wear as the night went on, nowhere near the all-encompassing force he was in Game 3, but finished with 4 blocks to go with his 12 points and 11 rebounds.

Anthony Davis headshot
Anthony Davis
PF - LAL - #3
4/24/2023 v. MEM

The opportunity was there, and before James’ layup, Jackson swatted Rui Hachimura at the rim and Bane scored a layup with 6.7 seconds left to put the Grizzlies up two.

Bane recovered from his shaky Game 3 to put the Grizzlies ahead and a few moments away from tying the series. His triple with 5:12 left gave him 30 points (36 total) and put the Grizzlies up seven.

Usually, this is where James will take over, bending the game to his will. But the Grizzlies opened the door to D’Angelo Russell, who found Jackson switched on him. The Defensive Player of the Year cheated a little too hard on Austin Reaves, then Russell caught daylight for his first of three straight triples.

To that point, the Lakers might as well have been gasping for air — including James, as his jumpers were coming up short. But he grabbed nine of those rebounds in the fourth, including four on the offensive end.

Call it will to win, desperation or recognizing how fleeting these moments are for him, but he seized it on a night that called for someone to take advantage of everything the Grizzlies were leaving on the floor.

If the Grizzlies were more healthy, and certainly more mature, they could have a better say in this series. Being without Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke is no small feat, but Tillman has been better than serviceable in their stead — and perhaps a little better considering the work he’s done defending James.

But like last season, they still haven’t taken blank opportunities in front of their faces. They could easily be in this same spot if they played Golden State in Round 1, so it’s not just a bad draw.

The Warriors have Stephen Curry who inspires and manipulates the game to his style similarly to James. And there’s no doubt they’d get all wrapped up in a war of words with one Draymond Green — the man who occupies so much real estate in both the league office and in Memphis, he might as well pay rent.

But here, James is the man they have to deal with and they aided in him working himself into a classic night when everything in the first 48 minutes said it would be one of those exhausting and costly “good job, good effort” nights from him.

With games every other day and the travel being a considerable distance, it was just as much a must-win for the Lakers as it was the Grizzlies. The longer this series goes, the harder it is for the likes of Davis and even James, who had to call a late timeout in overtime because he was “gassed,” going 45 minutes.

The Grizzlies may not lament their big talk when all this is over, but they’ll leave Los Angeles knowing they let one get away, knowing they were an unwilling co-star in another LeBron James one-man show.