LeBron-less Lakers can’t keep pace with Ja Morant, Grizzlies

Lakers forward Anthony Davis tries to power his way to a basket against Grizzlies forward Xavier Tillman Sr.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis, trying to score over Grizzlies forward Xavier Tillman Sr., had 28 points, 19 rebounds and five blocked shots during a loss Tuesday night in Memphis.
(Karen Pulfer Focht / Associated Press)

Late in the first quarter, LeBron James emerged from the Lakers locker room with a baseball cap on backward and a knee-high walking boot on his right foot, the first tangible evidence of the grave situation the Lakers find themselves in during the NBA season’s final quarter.

No one is saying what the exact injury is, what the treatment plans are or even if a return this season can be assured, so the mystery swirls around James and what’s known is pretty limited.

He’s out now. No one can say for sure if or when he’ll be back.

And the Lakers? They’ve got to figure this out without him.

“He’s not coming back any time soon,” forward Anthony Davis said.


“So we can’t feel sorry for ourselves, we can’t put our head down and say, ‘Oh we miss Bron.’ We have to go out and compete.”

The competing? They did that Tuesday. Next, they better execute.

With the player most capable of staring down a star and going hoop-for-hoop with one of the NBA’s best unavailable, the Lakers couldn’t do enough against Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies, losing 121-109 to stop a three-game winning streak.

Soreness in his right foot will sideline LeBron James for the Lakers game Tuesday night at Memphis, and there is concern he will miss several others.

Feb. 27, 2023

Morant scored 39 to go with 10 rebounds and 10 assists and he did the most damage in a sublime third quarter in which he relentlessly attacked a rotation of Lakers defenders with his unmatched speed and athleticism.

Possession after possession, Morant went to whichever gold jersey stood in front of him, flying past or over the defense with a mixture of floaters and layups, making him unstoppable for 12 straight minutes.

“We pride ourselves on our shifts and activity. Really clogging the paint and guarding the paint well,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “And with Ja, we wanted to live with him shooting it from the perimeter. But they set great screens. We couldn’t get under the screens in screen-and-rolls or [dribble handoffs], and we just have to be better in that regard.”

In the quarter, Morant made 10 of 12 shots from the field and eight of nine free throws to score 28 points. He also had three assists leading to eight more Grizzlies points.


“Damn,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said when he learned of Morant’s stats from the third quarter. “That’s a lot of points.”

The Lakers didn’t adjust quickly enough and Morant kept beating their coverage, the All-Star guard getting more and more comfortable by the play.

Memphis Grizzlies Ja Morant heads up court in the first half against the Lakers.
Memphis Grizzlies Ja Morant heads up court in the first half against the Lakers on Tuesday in Memphis.
(Karen Pulfer Focht / Associated Press)

Led by him, Memphis outscored the Lakers 86-48 in the paint.

In a perfect world, the Lakers would’ve had James to fire back — to bully his way to the basket and get to the line to slow momentum.

He could only watch — a down-the-road reevaluation the only known next step at this point.

“We don’t want to go home early, but what I don’t want is him to rush back really early, and it’s still bothering him and he can’t be himself. Knock on wood,” Davis said as he tapped his fist against his locker. “I want him to get completely right and healthy before he steps on the floor. Like I said, it’s on us, other guys in the locker room to step up and continue to win basketball games and let him take care of what he needs to take care of until he’s back and able to start rolling again.”

Without James, Davis, anchored the defense for most of a scrappy first half and his attacking basket right at Jaren Jackson Jr. and free throw cut the Grizzlies’ lead to four.


Davis would finish with 28 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks, but the Lakers never got closer, the Grizzlies firing right back with an 11-3 run to close the Lakers out.

Lonnie Walker IV had 21 points and Reaves had 17 off the bench.

Like it was all night, Memphis got aided by 26 Lakers turnovers leading to 41 Memphis points, the frustration among guards like Dennis Schroder obvious as the Lakers couldn’t get a win while they begin an uncertain final path without James.

Cameras caught Schroder and Davis talking on the bench — an exchange Schroder said he’d prefer to keep privately, but one that doesn’t represent any deeper discontent.

‘Just trying to keep building in that right direction as we keep progressing,’ said Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt after win at Dallas on Sunday.

Feb. 27, 2023

“It was too many turnovers ...” Schroder said. “Of course there’s frustration. But at the end of the day, we stayed together. We got a must-win tomorrow, we believe, in this locker room. So we just got to get to OKC and try to win.”

And even without James and even after losing to Memphis, confidence is still pretty high.

“We got a great team, more than enough to get wins, more than enough to get a win tonight,” Davis said.

“More than enough to get a win tomorrow.”

Reaves said the same, echoing no sense of panic despite James’ murky future.

“The energy is really good. Obviously you never want to see any of your teammates [hurt] and obviously LeBron is a big part of what we do —- pretty good player,” Reaves said with an understated grin.


“You never want to see that happen. … But we have a lot of talent in the room. And even tonight shows that we can play with anyone if we just control basically the turnovers. It’s a very winnable game.”