“He was AD again”: Lakers tame the Grizzlies, advance to the Conference Semi-Finals

In a series full of trash-talk, largely from the other side, the Lakers let their elimination-game blowout serve as their final response.

The Lakers didn’t want to just win, they wanted to send a message; a message that this thing is just getting started.

In front of an especially star-studded crowd — super fan Jack Nicholson attended his first Lakers game since October 2021, with Larry David, Dr. Dre, Adele and Kyrie Irving among others also in the building — the Lakers closed out a playoff series on their home floor for the first time since 2012.

The Lakers made history on Friday, becoming the second No. 7 seed in the best-of-seven first-round era to beat a No. 2 seed and just the sixth No. 7 seed to win overall. They also became the second Play-In Tournament team to advance to the second round, joining the Miami Heat, which did so earlier in the week when they shocked the Milwaukee Bucks in five games.

Los Angeles set the tone from the game’s opening minutes — particularly on the defensive end, which is where the Lakers won this series.

Jarred Vanderbilt hounded Ja Morant around screens. Davis blocked and altered any shot within six feet of the rim. James was locked in, playing with a verve and physicality defensively that he didn’t have in Game 5. Austin Reavesmirrored Desmond Bane around screens and did his best to absorb body blows. D’Angelo Russell was in the right spots.

The Grizzlies were led by Desmond Bane’s 15 points, but no one played well. Morant shot 3-of-16 for 10 points in what was easily his worst game of this series. Jaren Jackson Jr. added 14 points but shot 3-of-12. Heck, Bane was only 5-of-16 from the floor. Against those numbers, Dillon Brooks’ 4-of-11 didn’t look so bad. It was 100-67 Lakers after the third quarter and all the Memphis starters were out of the game for good with 9:37 left.

A defensive master class all around for the Lakers. Led by Anthony Davis (the real DPOY.)

After starting the season 2-10, the Lakers are arguably the hottest team in the NBA right now, having won 14 of their last 18 games.

They open the Western Conference semifinals on the road Tuesday against the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between the Sacramento Kings and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Regardless of their opponent, they’re confident this playoff run is going to last a while.

“This thing is just getting started,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “We passed Level 1. Now we’ve got to start shifting our focus to whoever comes out of that game on Sunday.”

Coach Ham has a point too. The old tale that defense wins championships is one that gets passed down generation to generation because it is true. Defense is skill combined with effort. When the Lakers are locked in on that end, there’s not a team that should strike fear into their heart.

Their bounce-back performance in Game 6 was a couple of days in the making. Following the Lakers’ disappointing Game 5 blowout loss, Ham, James and Davis reconvened, and Ham observed what he felt was a “switch that had come on already” with his stars. James and Davis later texted about adjustments and the requisite focus they needed to discuss with their teammates to close out Memphis.

When Ham arrived at the arena at 3:10 p.m. — over four hours before the 7:30 p.m. tip-off — James was already there, getting shots up and going through his pregame routine. Davis arrived shortly after.

“It was one of those things where you knew,” Ham said. “You felt the vibe. … That focus, those guys being ready to go.”

James and Davis improved to 5-0 in playoff series in which they are both healthy. Furthermore, when James and Davis both finish a postseason game, they are 22-8. They remain elite, even if they’ve visually lost a step offensively. With their bolstered supporting cast — in addition to James and Davis, four other Lakers already have scored at least 20 points in a postseason game — the Lakers are looking like a group that can make a conference finals or NBA Finals run despite their No. 7 seed standing.

James, who vowed after his lackluster Game 5 performance that he’d be better in Game 6, kept his promise, leading Los Angeles with 16 points in the first half. He finished with 22 points, six assists and five rebounds.

He was an efficient 9 of 13 from the floor and even uncorked a vintage reverse dunk in the half court.

The series win was the 40th of his career, tying James with Derek Fisher for the most all time in franchise history.

“It’s unreal, man,” Ham said of James. “I’m telling you, man, it’s unreal. Like, Kobe was nothing short of amazing. You know, Giannis. I’ve been around some top-tier, elite top-five NBA talent. But Bron, man, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Davis, meanwhile, concluded his defensive masterpiece of a series. He was once again the most impactful player on the floor — without being the leading scorer.

He amassed 16 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks, giving him 26 blocks across the series’ six games (4.3 blocks per game). Davis altered nearly a dozen other shots in the paint, and Memphis began to second-guess challenging Davis during the second and third quarters. He put fear in the once-fearless Grizzlies.

“I think he was AD,” James said. “I think he was AD. I think we all know it, the world knows it, the basketball guys know, the competition knows … how dominant AD is defensively. So, he was AD. He was spectacular.”

“Huge,” Russell said of Davis’ defense. “I don’t want it to go unnoticed with everything that’s going on, but the fact that he was not scoring some games but always dominating the game defensively is huge for our team, and he’s more than capable when he’s on the floor.”

James and Davis were able to rest for the entire fourth quarter, in part because of the avalanche of 3s Russell made in the third quarter (four) to fully bury the Grizzlies.

Russell, who had never shot 50 percent or better in a playoff game, scored a playoff career-high 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting, including 5-of-9 shooting on 3s. His knack for making momentum-swinging plays kept escalating as the crowd reached a state of pandemonium in the second half.

From a tactical perspective, arguably the most pivotal change came from Ham paring down the rotation and finally countered the non-Davis minutes, which had been a struggle all series.

Ham inserted Wenyen Gabriel, who briefly played in a successful stint in Game 5, at center, forming a frontcourt of Gabriel, James and Rui Hachimura. He also kept Troy Brown Jr. and Malik Beasley on the bench most of game, instead going with a backcourt of Dennis Schröder and Reaves.

The starting lineup, as a whole, continued to dominate. Reaves put up 11 points, six rebounds and eight assists. Vanderbilt drained three 3s and helped hold Morant to a 3-of-16 shooting performance.

“We didn’t want to go back to Memphis, to say the least,” Reaves said. “We wanted to end it here tonight on our home court.”

The Lakers refrained from responding to Dillon Brooks’ trash-talk toward James, but they got the last laugh.

When they got back to their locker room, they started chanting Memphis’ victory song, “Whoop That Trick!” from the movie “Hustle & Flow.” The Memphis coaches and players, speaking in the Lakers’ typical postgame news conference room (the Lakers were in a larger room Friday), could hear the entire celebration.

Once the festivities calmed, James imparted some wisdom on his teammates, many of whom are under 30 and in their first or second postseason run.

“As hard as this series felt, as hard as this series was, it gets even harder when you move a level up. So, we was able to conquer Level 1, and now we move to Level 2. And it gets harder and harder. So, they understood that, and they’ll be ready for it.”

The Lakers will take off Saturday before regrouping on Sunday to practice and watch Game 7 of Kings-Warriors.

The next series will be a different type of challenge, as they’ll be facing opponents with much greater offensive talent than the Grizzlies. Sacramento and Golden State have elite offenses that thrive on movement, screening and 3-point shooting. In many ways, it’s a stylistic 180. The Lakers will likely need to shoot better and defend at an even higher level.

The greatest challenge, however, might be the grueling nature of the schedule; once Game 1 tips off Tuesday, the series will be every other day.

The Lakers’ fairytale turnaround will continue for at least another week. Just under three months ago, they were out of the Play-In Tournament and appeared to be on the brink of back-to-back disaster seasons. Now, they’re in the Western Conference semifinals, with a legitimate chance against both Sacramento and Golden State.

We could be watching LeBron’s version of the Last Dance unfold right before our eyes.

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