The Lakers decided to praise rookie sensation Ja Morant and the young, desperate Memphis Grizzlies and accept their own shortcomings in the process Saturday night.
Unable to match the energy and effort the Grizzlies exerted at the FedEx Forum, the Lakers lost 105-88 even with LeBron James playing after missing Thursday’s game at Golden State because of a sore left groin.
James had 19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds against a Grizzlies team missing starting forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and top reserve Brandon Clarke. But James couldn’t make the difference for a Lakers team that shot worse than the Grizzlies in every category and topped them only in turnovers.
Anthony Davis, whose big second half at Staples Center lifted the Lakers to a 117-105 win over Memphis on Feb. 21, couldn’t duplicate that effort, finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds while getting to the free-throw line just once.
James was impressed with how Morant worked over the Lakers for 27 points and 14 rebounds and how Dillon Brooks (24 points) and center Jonas Valanciunas (22 points, 20 rebounds) contributed.
“They just ... played a great game,” James said. “They shot the ball extremely well from the perimeter. Ja made four threes. Dillon was really good all game and Valanciunas, he had like 50 rebounds in the last two games. So, they just played a really good game and Ja kept us at bay.”
After the game, Morant and James swapped jerseys.
“I didn’t even know I was getting his jersey, actually,” James said. “I gave him mine for sure, but I didn’t know he was returning the favor. It’s pretty cool. The kid is super special and like I said when we just played them in L.A., Memphis has a great one; they got a great one. The sky is the limit for the kid.”
Morant was feeling so confident that he tried to dunk over the 6-foot-10 Davis, but was called for an offensive foul.
“I saw him come down the lane, had an opportunity to take a charge,” said Davis, who has been dealing with a sore left elbow. “I’m not sure, but I think he probably would have tried anybody that was right there. He’s done that a couple of times this year. So I just tried to get my body in front of him and make him run me over.”
The Lakers sliced a 22-point lead in the third quarter to nine on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s three-pointer, forcing the Grizzlies to call a timeout to regroup. And they did, leaving the Lakers in the dust.
The Grizzlies snapped a five-game losing streak and opened a 2½-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
When Kyle Anderson squeezed between James and Rajon Rondo for a layup to put the Lakers in an 18-point hole, James just patted Rondo on the chest.
“When you’re trying to come back from 20, every possession, you have to either score, get to the free-throw line, make shots and then you have to get continuous stops,” James said. “We weren’t able to do that.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel called a timeout with 3 minutes 4 seconds left to pull James and Davis from the game. It was clear the Lakers were going to have their seven-game win streak snapped and it was clear Vogel wanted to save his two stars for Sunday’s game at New Orleans.
The Lakers turned the ball over 16 times and gave up 15 offensive rebounds.
“We know they are fighting for the eighth spot,” Davis said. “Tomorrow we are going into an arena where another team is fighting for the same spot. It’s a precursor to what we are going to see tomorrow. If we don’t fix and change what we did tonight, then we’ll have the same results tomorrow night.”