Inconsistency still a major problem for the Lakers in Game 2 loss to Grizzlies

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Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) reacts during the second half of Game 2 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell (1) reacts during the second half of Game 2 in a first-round NBA playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday in Memphis. (Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

The opening game of this series showed what the Lakers could be. The second revealed what they are.

As much they upgraded their personnel at the trade deadline, these Lakers still have no idea which version of themselves will show up on any particular night, a reality of which they were reminded in a dispiriting 103-93 defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday at FedEx Forum.

With the Grizzlies playing without Ja Morant in Game 2, the Lakers should have returned to Los Angeles with this first-round series pretty much over.

The Lakers are 45-1 in best-of-seven series when leading two games to none, and LeBron James’ teams are 24-0, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

A win on Wednesday would have won them the series.

Instead, the Lakers are heading into Game 3 at Arena with the series level at one game apiece and their opponents revitalized enough to where trash-talking Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks was calling James “old.”

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“Both teams feel like they can win on each other’s floor,” James said. “It gives us no comfort that we’re going home. We shouldn’t feel comfortable with a 1-1 tie. Game 3 is the most important game of the series and if we’re not uncomfortable going into that game, they can very easily come into our hometown and our home court and take the series back.”

The Grizzlies’ increased confidence shouldn’t be the only reason for the Lakers’ discomfort.

When the series resumes on Saturday, the Lakers don’t know if they’ll have the Anthony Davis who dominated on both ends of the floor in Game 1 or the player who made just four of 14 shots in Game 2.

They don’t know if they’ll have the D’Angelo Russell who overcame his early shooting troubles in Game 1 or the player who continued to miss and miss and miss in the second half in Game 2.

They don’t know if they’ll have the Austin Reaves who was unstoppable in the fourth quarter of Game 1 or the player who finished with 12 quiet points in Game 2.

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“Can’t have a night like I had tonight and expect us to win,” Davis said.

Outside of James, the Lakers’ most dependable player suddenly looks like reserve forward Rui Hachimura, which can’t be a comforting thought for the organization’s brain trust. Hachimura scored 20 points on Wednesday to follow up his 29-point performance two days earlier, but the fourth-year forward’s career has been marked by inconsistency.

The postgame self-analysis by the Lakers was alarming in that it raised questions about their collective mindset.

“We came out lethargic in the first quarter,” coach Darvin Ham said.

“First quarter, they got the best of us,” Russell said.

“They came out and punched us in the mouth first and we didn’t respond well,” Reaves said.

Didn’t they know what was at stake?

Of course, this might not be entirely about intensity. This could also be about Xs and O’s. Ham noted that Davis was often double- and triple-teamed in the post.

“We’re telling our guys whenever you drive the ball and they collapse and you have two or three defenders around you, or you try to post up and you have two, three defenders around you, now you gotta go to the second or third option. Swing it quick and just play a little faster,” Ham said.

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The Lakers didn’t do that.

In recent weeks, the Lakers have been in a race against the clock, not only to win a sufficient number of games to reach the playoffs but also for an overhauled roster to learn how to play together.

Something to remember: That process had to start over when James returned from injury on March 26 after missing four weeks.

They were awful against the Clippers two weeks ago. They looked gassed against the Phoenix Suns. They were fortunate to win their play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“We’re relatively new to the competition that’s in the field,” James said. “So, every night when we step on the floor, now in the postseason, we get to see what we’re capable of and where we are as far as growth.”

By stealing one of the two games in Memphis, the Lakers remain well-positioned to win this series. Actually contending for a championship is another story. Right now, they’re not a championship team — and they don’t have much more time to turn themselves into one.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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