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NBA playoffs: There’s a chance LeBron James is running on fumes, and other X-factors from the Grizzlies’ Game 5 win

The Grizzlies stayed alive on Wednesday, bouncing back from a pair of dispiriting losses in Los Angeles with a 116-99 win over the visiting Lakers. Here are five takeaways after Memphis extended the series, sending everybody flying back to L.A. for Game 6 on Friday:

How much gas does LeBron have left in the tank?

After that marvelous closing kick in Game 4 — the preposterous “tier 3” layup off the top of the window to tie it at the end of regulation, the perfectly scripted sequel on discarded discount would-be nemesis Dillon Brooks to give the Lakers a two-possession lead in overtime — you wondered what LeBron James might have in reserve to try to finish the wounded Grizzlies off two nights later. The answer, as it turned out: not much.

There were explosive moments, brief interludes of burst — the set-play backdoor alley-oop to open the game, the block on Brooks, the transition lob from Austin Reaves, the alley-oop dunk to start the second half — but not that many. Mostly, James just didn’t have it: Two nights after playing 45 grueling minutes in Game 4, he shot just 5-for-17 from the floor and 1-for-9 from 3, with five turnovers mitigating his five assists.

This was just the 15th time in James’ illustrious career that he’s scored 15 or fewer points in a playoff game, and his third as a Laker. In the other two, though, he played fewer than 35 minutes, and the Lakers won both by double figures. This time around, the Lakers lost — and, rarer still, lost his time on the floor, with James finishing minus-1 in 37 minutes of work.

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - APRIL 26: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts during the second half against Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers during Game Five of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at FedExForum on April 26, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)
LeBron James, right, struggled Wednesday night as Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Memphis Grizzlies thrived. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

“Tonight, I was s***,” James told reporters after the game. “And I’ll be better in Game 6.”

Every bit of energy he can conserve in pursuit of that goal helps … which is why Lakers head coach Darvin Ham took James out for good with 4:40 to go in the fourth quarter, even though the Lakers were in the midst of a 12-0 run. Sure, maybe there was an outside chance that one more full-strength push — especially against a Grizzlies team whose half-court offense had largely reverted to the state of constipation in which it has resided for most of this first-round series — could’ve gotten Game 5 back within a couple of possessions late. Ham clearly calculated, though, that the marginal possibility wasn’t worth pushing LeBron’s workload any further with the specter of another game looming in just two days.

As it turned out, the Lakers never got closer than 12, Ham pulled the rest of his starters three minutes later, and all parties involved began the process of preparing for a long flight back to the West Coast with Game 6 tipping off at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday — a pretty quick turnaround, as they all are once you reach the every-other-day portion of the opening-round slate.

Betting on a 38-year-old with more than 65,000 regular- and postseason minutes on his odometer and a torn foot tendon — who’s now just 10-for-45 outside the paint in this series — to suddenly look significantly more spry in just two days’ time seems like a fool’s wager. Then again, so does betting against one of the greatest players of all time rediscovering just enough of his form to eliminate an impudent upstart that dared call his reign into question.

“He has the most points scored ever,” teammate Anthony Davis told reporters after Game 5. “He’s the greatest to ever touch the court. He’s fine. He’ll be fine. He’ll adjust.”

Memphis’ 'best backcourt' shows out in the nick of time

Back in November, with the Grizzlies off to a hot start to the season, thanks largely to a suddenly super-charged offense, Ja Morant seized an opportunity. Asked by a reporter where he and his backcourt partner Desmond Bane ranked among NBA guard combinations, Ja did what he always does: go hard to the rack.

“Top two,” Morant said. And, just to be clear: “Not two.”

Morant and Bane hit some potholes on the way toward cementing themselves at the top of the heap this season — most notably a toe injury that sidelined Bane for five weeks and Morant’s late-season suspension after brandishing a gun on Instagram Live. But with the Grizzlies’ season in the balance, they renewed their claim to the title, combining for 64 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists with just four turnovers to keep Memphis alive … and doing it, in part, by showcasing the pages they’ve cribbed from one another’s books.

Given how dangerous Morant is once he gets into the paint — as a scorer, but also to himself and others — and the fact that he’s a 32.1% career 3-point shooter, defenses often choose to duck under the ball screens that Memphis sets for him. By putting more bodies between him and the rim, they hope to either cause him to hesitate long enough to give them a chance to recover and reset, or to nudge him toward firing the long jumpers he converted a lot less often than his acrobatic layups or doomsday-device dunks. In Game 5, though, Morant didn’t hesitate at all when L.A. went under on him, going 2-for-5 from deep to make the Lakers pay for one of the few coverages you can feel confident about throwing at such a dynamic shot creator.

Bane, for his part, wasn’t a particularly dynamic shot creator coming out of TCU, touted more for his skills as a catch-and-shoot marksman than for his off-the-bounce game. But while Bane’s superb shotmaking remains the foundation of his game, he’s expanded and diversified his skill set since entering the league. The Grizzlies have put the ball in Bane’s hands more and more reps and touches over the last three seasons, and he’s taken advantage of those opportunities, tightening his handle and sharpening his playmaking to become a high-end complementary ball-handler and, at times, even a primary facilitator. In each of Bane’s first two postseasons, he ran fewer than six pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum; against the Lakers, that’s up to 26.5 per 100.

He’s turning the corner to get downhill off the screen. He’s patiently dealing with the traps L.A. is throwing at him to get the ball out of his hands, sliding passes into open space to give Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman the chance to attack the basket with an advantage. He’s slinging cross-court lasers to open shooters, hitting rollers in stride — keeping the offense moving, if not necessarily humming. (Hard to hum too prettily with AD making all that noise that the Grizz have to deal with on most offensive possessions.)

Memphis might not get another night with 30-plus points apiece from its star guards Friday. Bane has now gotten hot in two straight games, but he’s still only shooting 44% from the field and 32% from 3-point range in this series. Morant, meanwhile, has seen his effectiveness fluctuate wildly, thanks partly to the injured right hand that caused him to miss Game 2 and partly to his unyielding predilection toward hurtling headlong into waiting Lakers defenders at the front of the rim.

Game 5 offered a reminder, though, that the Grizzlies could experience, and benefit from, that kind of explosion — that, when everybody’s healthy and locked in, they’ve got the kind of backcourt firepower that can tilt a game. Whether that makes them “top two, not two” is up for debate. Whether it makes them a nettlesome problem for the Lakers to solve come Friday, though, is not.

How much more can Anthony Davis give?

After a rocky offensive Game 4 — 12 points on 4-for-13 shooting, four turnovers against two assists — Davis bounced back in a big way Wednesday, pouring in a team-high 31 points on 14-for-23 shooting to go with a career-playoff-high-tying 19 rebounds, a pair of blocks, an assist and a steal. Repeating those sorts of numbers put you in pretty rarefied air in the ranks of Laker bigs:

In addition to using nearly as high a share of L.A.’s offensive possessions as LeBron in this series, Davis also has to serve as the anchor of the Lakers’ defense — coming up to trap Bane on the pick-and-roll, sliding over to show help behind every Morant drive, taking on the Jackson assignment when he needs some cold water thrown on him, tracking back to protect the rim and clean the defensive glass, and covering up for every mistake he can along the way. He’s been remarkably effective in that role.

Only Brook Lopez has contested more shots per game in Round 1 than AD. Nobody has blocked more than Davis, who’s also averaging nearly five combined deflections and steals per game. Only Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert have defended more shots at the rim in the first round than AD, who’s holding the Grizz to just 48.6% shooting on point-blank tries when he’s defending, according to Second Spectrum. He’s been a full-fledged menace on the defensive end and, at times, the Lakers’ most consistent source of offense.

That Davis finished plus-6 in 35 minutes in a game L.A. lost by 17 feels instructive. It also feels like at least a little bit of a problem.

The Lakers have outscored Memphis by 8.6 points per 100 in the 155 minutes that Davis played in this series and have been outscored by 9.0 points per 100 in the 42 minutes when he’s sat — periods when Ham has chosen primarily to deploy small-ball units with James and Rui Hachimura up front rather than turning to a more traditional backup center. It’s worth noting, though, that Ham tapped the athletic Wenyen Gabriel for a couple of stints in Game 5; the Grizzlies won those eight minutes by five points, but he grabbed a couple of offensive rebounds, scored a bucket on a duck-in and generally looked liked a live enough body that I wouldn’t be surprised if Ham called his number again Friday. (It would, at this stage, be a surprise to see reserve center Mo Bamba, who got 30 seconds of burn in Games 1 and 2, and hasn’t seen the court since.)

One adjustment Ham seems to be considering for the Lakers’ second chance at a closeout is to, you know, not sit Davis (and other key figures) so much …

… and, from the sound of it, Davis is on board:

Here’s where we note that Davis has only topped 40 three times this season, that he’s been nursing a hip injury (though he said after Game 5 that it felt fine), that he’s topped 37 minutes four times in the last 10 days, and that he’s alternated strong scoring performances (22 on 10-for-17 shooting in Game 1, 31 on 11-for-24 in Game 3, 31 in Game 5) with underwhelming ones (25 total points on 8-for-27 combined shooting in Games 2 and 4). If Davis can break that trend, it would go a long way toward ensuring this series never gets back to Memphis. If he can’t, it promises to be hard for the Lakers to score enough to finish the job on Friday.

If the Grizz are going down, they’re going down shooting

With the Grizzlies’ offense largely stuck in the mud in the series — third-worst in the playoffs entering Wednesday, nearly 10 points per 100 below their regular-season average and more than 10 per 100 below in the half-court — Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins made a couple of tweaks for Game 5 to try to decongest things.

For one thing, Jenkins flashed a small-ball look — Jackson at center with four guards, Morant, Bane, backup point guard Tyus Jones and reserve sniper Luke Kennard — that Memphis had played for all of four minutes during the regular season. That shooting-and-ball-movement-heavy group ripped off a 10-0 run late in the first quarter to help stake Memphis to a double-digit lead …

… and probably would’ve gotten more than two minutes of run if not for foul trouble and an eventual shoulder injury to Kennard. (More on that in a sec.)

“It’s tough,” Bane said of the small-ball look. “Everybody can push, everybody can shoot, everybody can play-make.”

Jenkins also shuffled his frontcourt rotation, going back to Santi Aldama over David Roddy as the primary 4 off the bench. Aldama got first crack early in the series before the stronger and more defensively stout Roddy supplanted him for the next three games. But after Roddy shot just 4-for-14 in Games 3 and 4, with Memphis getting outscored by 29 points in his 33 minutes of floor time, Jenkins turned back to Aldama to see if the Spaniard could provide a jolt — and maybe help draw AD out of the paint a little bit.

Aldama produced, chipping in seven points, five rebounds and three assists in 14 minutes off the bench. He made a three and was part of the floor-spacing unit that helped open up the court during the monster 26-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarters that put Memphis in front for good:

With points at a premium in this series, credit Jenkins for doing what he could to try to spread the floor, give Morant and Bane more space to operate underneath and give the Grizzlies their best chance of bowling over the visitors.

They might not be so successful in replicating that in Game 6, though, if Kennard’s unable to go.

Luke Kennard’s shoulder could be the X-factor

A little over a minute into the fourth quarter, TNT’s cameras caught Kennard — who had just collided with LeBron on a screen — heading back to the locker room, holding his left shoulder and grimacing as he walked. Shortly thereafter, the Grizzlies announced that he was doubtful to return to Game 5; when he returned to the bench, he did so wearing enough ice on that left shoulder to make Jacob the Jeweler blush.

In terms of individual production, the prospect of losing the 7.2 points per game that Kennard has scored in this series doesn’t seem overly significant. But the “can’t leave that guy” effect of having the league’s leading 3-point shooter on the floor has helped open so much up for Memphis’ offense overall: The Grizzlies have scored a scorching 120.3 points per 100 with Kennard on the court, compared to just 95.1 points per 100 with him sitting. And when he plays with a similarly nuclear movement shooter in Bane — as I highlighted in our series preview — the Memphis attack goes into the stratosphere:

It was Kennard’s insertion into the lineup that helped kickstart the late first-quarter run that put the Grizzlies ahead and the late third-quarter run that all but handed them the game. Without him as an “in case of offensive emergency, break glass” option on the wing, Jenkins might be forced to hand even more minutes to Brooks, who went 2-for-10 from long distance Wednesday, is now down to 30.3% from the floor and a rancid 21.6% from deep in the series, and is being wholly ignored on offense by a Lakers defense all too happy to let him shoot Memphis out of the playoffs.

This would be a nice time for the Grizzlies to be able to turn to 6-foot-8 swingman Ziaire Williams, the No. 10 pick in the 2021 NBA draft, who made 31 starts as a rookie and got rotation minutes in the playoffs. But after Williams missed the first month and a half of the season rehabbing a knee injury, and then played inconsistently and ineffectively for the next couple of months, Jenkins sent him to the end of the bench; exhuming him now and expecting him to shine with the season on the line might be a big ask.

According to Drew Hill of The Daily Memphian, both Jenkins and Kennard called the injury “a stinger,” with Kennard saying that the shoulder still felt sore and stiff after the game.

“I’ll get it looked at tomorrow and try to find out a little bit more,” Kennard said. “It’s all good right now.”

If it stays that way between now and Friday night, Jenkins will be able to break that glass in case of a spacing emergency. If it doesn’t, though, a Grizzlies team already struggling to score could find that task even tougher — an increase in difficulty it can ill afford with its season on the line.