2023 NBA Playoffs: Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers series preview

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Opening Price: Memphis Grizzlies (-125) Los Angeles Lakers (+105)

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If you need any more evidence that the Western Conference is wide open, look no further than this series. 

Despite Los Angeles finishing seventh, and needing a comeback victory in the play-in tournament over Minnesota to make it into the first round, the market has deemed Memphis is only a -125 favorite in this series. In other words, the team which won 51 games and finished second in the Western Conference only has a 55.6% chance of winning this series.

That price might seem extremely short on the surface, but given the state of the Grizzlies’ frontcourt this price might actually be somewhat accurate.

Memphis was dealt massive blows in its frontcourt due to injury. Both Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke were lost for the season, and in a series that will force the Grizzlies to defend a frontcourt of Anthony Davis and LeBron James, those are two massive losses. Xavier Tillman and Jaren Jackson Jr. were a fine frontcourt pairing to end the regular season, but in a series in which your frontcourt defense is going to be at a premium Memphis could find itself in a bind.

With both Jackson and Tillman on the court the Grizzlies outscored opponents by just 1.9 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass. Their defense was well above average with those lineups, limiting opponents to 111.5 rating while forcing turnovers on 16.1% of opponent possessions. Their rim defense was superb as well, as opponents shot just 59.0% on attempts within four feet. Those numbers paint a very nice picture of that frontcourt pairing, but there are quite a few things that work against them in this series.

Tillman has played center in these lineups, but at 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds he is not a true five. Defensively, he will be hidden elsewhere when on the floor, likely on Jarred Vanderbilt where he can just crash in and help contest shots. The onus of defending the duo of James and Davis will fall on Jackson and Dillon Brooks. Brooks gives away about two inches and 25 pounds to James, so the physical aspect of that matchup goes to Los Angeles, despite what Brooks might think, and it has massive strength which plays on one of Jackson’s biggest weaknesses.

The Lakers made 23.0 free throws every 100 shot attempts in the regular season, a mark which was the third best in the NBA. With Jackson on the floor, opponents made 21.9 free throws every 100 field goal attempts. Jackson is a great defender, but he has trouble not fouling while defending. He averaged 3.6 personal fouls per game this season, and in three games against Los Angeles that average went up to 5.0 per game. Not only does that play into the strength of the opponent, but it could put their thinnest position group at risk. That would mean more possessions on defense as a true center for Tillman, or more minutes for small frontcourt options like David Roddy or Santi Aldama. If Jackson can defend without fouling it will go a long way, but we have little evidence to show that he can.

Memphis also has to play much better on the offensive end of the floor.

The Grizzlies were 22nd in halfcourt offensive efficiency in the regular season, averaging only 96.9 points per 100 plays. That is the worst halfcourt offensive rating of any team which finished in the top six of their respective conferences, and the third worst in the field if you include the play-in participants. Even if you specify the possessions with Ja Morant on the court, that offensive rating dips ever so slightly to 96.8 points per 100 plays. If the Grizzlies aren’t scoring in transition, they are not scoring efficiently and that will be a problem in this series.

Over the course of the final 26 games of the regular season, or from the time Los Angeles revamped its roster, the Lakers led the league in overall defensive rating in non-garbage time (111.5) and ranked third in halfcourt defensive efficiency (96.0). Morant will never be shutdown by a single defender, but Los Angeles does at least have Jarred Vanderbilt who is a solid perimeter defender that can keep up with Morant while also providing a size advantage. 

This has been a very pro-Lakers article up to this point, so those reading up to this point can probably tell where I’m leaning for this series. Before we get to the betting analysis though, I should point out that this is not a perfect series for Los Angeles.

As bettors saw on Tuesday night, there is still some inconsistency with the Lakers’ offense. 

Over the same span in which Los Angeles leads the league in defensive rating it ranks 21st in halfcourt offensive efficiency (98.3) and 15th in overall offensive efficiency (116.6). Memphis is still an extremely talented defensive team. When Jackson is on the floor they allow only 109.6 points per 100 possessions overall, and 91.2 per 100 plays in the halfcourt. Brooks is a very good on-ball defender, and Jackson is an elite rim protector. There is certainly a universe in which Los Angeles cannot score effectively throughout this series.

The Lakers are also a somewhat inconsistent shooting team. With this new roster they’ve taken only 32.7% of their attempts from beyond the arc, and only hit at a 36.5% clip. That is a low rate of 3-point attempts at an average rate of accuracy. Memphis is more than happy to allow perimeter shots in order to protect the rim. In the regular season the Grizzlies allowed the second highest rate of wide-open 3-point attempts (21.3% of opponents attempts), and whether the Lakers can take advantage of that remains to be seen.

Betting Analysis

In projecting this series price I came up with Memphis -120 so this price is right in line with what I expected. With that in mind, there is no massive edge in playing the series one way or another, but I do believe that if anyone was to play this based on matchups it would be the Lakers.

As mentioned above, the pressure in this series is going to be on Jackson to limit his fouling issues, and there is nothing that tells us he will be able to do that. Los Angeles forces the action at the rim with their style of play, and they will likely be able to get to the free throw line with regularity as they have been all season. They also have an ability to defend the Grizzlies unlike some other opponents in this postseason. It’s going to be a tight series, as the price indicates. 

Bet Recommendation: Lakers To Win Series (+105)