LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are back in the NBA postseason, and the league’s all-time leading scorer couldn’t be more ready.
James and the Lakers missed last year’s playoffs, and Phoenix bounced the then-defending champs in just six games in 2021. These Lakers had to win 10 of their final 12 and rally from 15 down to beat Minnesota in overtime Tuesday night to clinch the No. 7 seed.
Asked about facing the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first-round of the Western Conference playoffs, James started ticking off the roster, calling two-time All-Star guard Ja Morant: “obviously the head of the snake.”
James even mentioned Luke Kennard, Memphis’ big trade deadline acquisition who led the NBA by making 49.4% of his 3-pointers this season. Kennard is also a fellow Ohio native who broke James’ career scoring record in high school.
“Obviously, I haven’t thought about Memphis one minute,” James said to laughter.
The franchises haven’t faced each other in the postseason until now, and Game 1 is on Sunday in Memphis. The Lakers won the season series 2-1, with Morant sitting out the final meeting on March 7 for what wound up as an eight-game suspension by the NBA.
Memphis just posted its second straight 50-win season and sixth in franchise history at 51-31. This is the Grizzlies’ third straight playoff berth and second in a row as the West’s No. 2 seed.
They’re determined to prove how much they’ve matured. Their last playoff run ended in the semifinals; Morant was sidelined for the final three of six games in the loss to eventual champ Golden State.
“Obviously, an opportunity for us to go out and prove ourselves, and we got a chance at going for our ultimate goal, which is a championship,” Morant said. “So definitely exciting.”
First-year Lakers coach Darvin Ham and Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins know each other well: They were assistants together under Mike Budenholzer in both Atlanta and Milwaukee.
“It sucks that somebody’s going to have to lose in this matchup, but it won’t affect our relationship,” Ham said of his close relationship with Jenkins. “I love that dude.”
James became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in the regular season in February, and the 19-time All-Star also has more postseason points than anyone else. He starts his chase of a fifth NBA title after leading the Lakers with 28.9 points per game in his 20th season.
Dillon Brooks, the guy whom Memphis asks to defend an opponent’s best player, said he wanted this matchup even before the Lakers won their play-in game.
“The legacy is there,” Brooks said. “First time back in the playoffs, knock him out right away in the first round. That’ll test us good. They got good pieces, good players.”
SLOWING JA DOWN
Morant set a franchise record this season by averaging 26.2 points a game, and his drives to the basket for high-flying dunks or acrobatic assists are a key to why the Grizzlies are the NBA’s third-best team scoring in transition and best in the paint.
Ham’s defensive plans include throwing lots of bodies at the speedy guard: “We’re going to have our hands full. Our job has to be not to let them get inside of our defense consistently.”
BIG MAN SHOWDOWN
Memphis will be without center Steven Adams, sidelined since late January with an injured right knee. That means a showdown between eight-time All-Star Anthony Davis and Jaren Jackson Jr., who was just named a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year in his fifth season for Memphis.
Davis averaged 25.8 points and 12.9 rebounds a game since the All-Star break, bouncing back strong from the stress fracture in his right foot that limited him to 56 games this season.
Jackson has blossomed. Since his first All-Star game, the NBA blocks leader for a second straight season averaged 21.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and four blocks a game. He also has Xavier Tillman Jr. to help fight for rebounds.
Memphis posted the NBA’s best home record at 35-6 for the first time in franchise history — the most home wins by any team since Golden State went 36-5 in 2016-17. The Warriors won their second title in three years that season.
The Lakers tied for the third-best road record in the West at 20-21. The Grizzlies are ready to see lots of Los Angeles fans inside the FedExForum.
“If I win, then they’ll hear about it,” Morant said.
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