It was about as good a chance as the Lakers were hoping for.
On their sixth night in Memphis, the Lakers faced a Grizzlies team without their top player and leading scorer Ja Morant, another blow for a team already playing without two of their top three big men.
The Lakers had two days to rest after winning Game 1, two days to allow LeBron James and Anthony Davis to recover. Of course, the Grizzlies would play with plenty of energy, but if the Lakers could keep up they would have virtually every other advantage, a shot at a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series more of a possibility than a possibility.
The problem was that’s how the Lakers played — a team acting with premature satisfaction after opening the playoffs with a stellar performance. After losing 103-93 in Game 2 on Wednesday, the Lakers return to Los Angeles for a crucial Game 3 this weekend.
Another game like this where they don’t execute, get shoved around and overpowered and overplayed and the Lakers could hand control back to their overpowered opponent.
Morant, who was struggling with a right hand injury, injured his hand again late in Game 1 in a fall onto the pitch. His status was unclear ahead of Game 2, Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said he would make a game-time decision despite showing an improvement since Sunday.
However, Morant watched from the bench and avoided using his gloved right hand for anything while Memphis fought without him.
It was a familiar position for the Grizzlies. Last season, the team won 20 of 25 games without Morant in the regular season and one of three in the playoffs. This season, Memphis has won 11 in 21 games without the all-star point guard, thanks in part to Tyus Jones, one of the top backup point guards in the NBA.
“We’re set,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said before the game when asked about Morant’s status. “We have a plan A, plan B. We’ll see what happens.”
What happened was that despite a miserable shooting start, the Grizzlies set the terms of action, knocked the Lakers out of their spots and made the most hitting plays.
Anthony Davis, desperate for an easy bucket, had blocked two shots from 6ft 5 reserve guard John Konchar.
With the Grizzlies swarming over Davis at every touch, he wasn’t a factor most of the time. He missed 10 of 14 shots and scored just 13 points while blocking five shots.
While LeBron James scored 28 points and Rui Hachimura came off the bench for 20 points, the Lakers didn’t get any closer than six in the second half — a climb they made even tougher after falling 20 behind in the third.
The Lakers were flat-footed when Memphis sealed the game on the offensive glass. Grizzlies reserve big man Xavier Tillman, who averaged seven points and a season-best 20, finished the tournament with 22 points and 13 rebounds, while Jaren Jackson Jr. had 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
The Lakers’ chance to snag the series in a bear hug was over, the team unsure if a similar title would come along.