LeBron James leads late Lakers rally to beat the Grizzlies

Lakers forward LeBron James attempts a layup against Grizzlies center Gorgui Dieng in the first half of a game Jan. 3, 2021.
Lakers forward LeBron James attempts a layup against Grizzlies center Gorgui Dieng during the first half of their game Sunday evening in Memphis.
(Wade Payne / Associated Press)

The Lakers hadn’t been moving too well, their legs looking like they were slowed by Rendezvous ribs and Central BBQ brisket. Their early lead had quickly turned into a double-figure deficit with momentum in Memphis smoothly flowing in the Grizzlies’ direction.

But it was early — and Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins knew what was coming his way. Before the game, he called the Lakers the deepest team in the NBA, and that depth was about to keep the Lakers alive long enough for LeBron James to take over.

It was Montrezl Harrell feasting around the rim, then Wesley Matthews knocking down open jumpers and Talen Horton-Tucker doing a little of everything as the Lakers clawed back.


And then, with James fully engaged and totally activated, the Lakers surged and took control of the game, pulling away late for a 108-94 win over the Grizzlies.

“Coming off the bench with that energy and that effort just translates to the rest of us,” James said of his teammates.

The Lakers’ veteran star was supposed to be easing his way into the season, the short break between last season’s title run and this year’s training camp the shortest in NBA history. Maybe he’d sit out some games or maybe he’d pick his spots to look like the dominant player that he’s been for most of his career.

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May 18, 2020

But with the Lakers pushing late in the first half, it was James rushing to a loose ball, beating two Grizzlies players with younger legs who were closer to the rebound. James took the ball, started the one-man fastbreak and scored. The next possession, he ran the court after an Anthony Davis steal, and because of his hustle, he found a wide-open Matthews trailing the play for a three.

“He sets a tone for this Laker organization, this team. That’s the standard,” Matthews said of James’ effort. “When the best player is setting and exceeding that standard, I mean, obviously everybody else comes along.”

Sensing that the team needed their stars to finish the Grizzlies, who were without Ja Morant, James took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points on five-of-six shooting, including a triple from the edge of the center-court logo.


Davis wasn’t as efficient as he was in the Lakers’ most recent win in San Antonio, scoring six in the fourth, to finish with 17 points, three blocks and three steals.

“We were doing a lot of jostling with Memphis tonight and just going back and forth … So at the start of the fourth, I wanted to try to implement myself and my scoring a little bit more,” James said. “Get a little bit more in attack mode and see if I can kind of open the game up. And we were able to do that.”

Highlights from the Lakers’ win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday.

It wasn’t just the scoring — with James it rarely is. He grabbed 13 rebounds, all on the defensive glass, helping the Lakers lockdown the Grizzlies after Memphis’ hot first quarter, when they scored 36 points. Memphis had only 58 points the rest of the way.

“We’ll manage his minutes and all that stuff in a responsible way but when he’s out on the floor, that’s who he is. He’s as competitive as anybody in the league,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “And 13 defensive rebounds, like, that’s hard to do when you’re not a center. That’s just competitive spirit, wanting to win and being determined.”

The Lakers had to play without starting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who couldn’t go after spraining his ankle in the Lakers’ win Friday. The hope is that he’ll be able to return Tuesday against the Grizzlies. Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers’ designated swing starter, took his place in the lineup.


Even if Caldwell-Pope can return, the Lakers could still be without guard Alex Caruso, who is in the NBA’s health and safety protocol related to COVID-19. Vogel said he wasn’t sure when Caruso would be back.

Still, the Lakers continue to show that they’ve got more than enough, their bench outscoring Memphis’ reserves 40-31.

In a normal year, the Lakers would’ve buzzed with energy as center Marc Gasol played his first game in Memphis since his days with the Grizzlies. While the return was still special, the mostly empty arena robbed the moment of emotion.

So, in the middle of a four-game road trip, the Lakers had to find some. Luckily for them — and not by accident — they have options.

It was a collaborative effort, the Lakers’ energy coming from multiple places as they continued to try to navigate the realities — two games in three days in one city, limited people in the stands, the responsibility to create energy themselves and themselves alone.

“We kind of figured it out for ourselves,” Davis said.

In this pandemic season, that’s how it’s almost always going to be.