Ja Morant questionable for Game 2 vs. the Lakers: What does it mean for the Memphis Grizzlies?

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) - Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) - Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /

Ja Morant (hand) is a game-time decision for Wednesday’s pivotal Game 2 matchup vs. the Lakers. He aggravated an existing soft tissue injury in his right hand late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 128-112 Game 1 loss. The Grizzlies’ official injury report lists Morant as questionable.

The injury occurred when Anthony Davis drew a charge on Morant as he drove to the basket. Morant caromed violently to the floor and landed awkwardly on his outstretching shooting hand. The X-rays on Morant’s hand were negative, but MRIs confirmed further bruising. Morant initially injured his hand in his final game of the regular season on April 7th vs. Milwaukee.

Is Morant likely to play?

Head coach Taylor Jenkins said Morant is “progressing” and that “it’s kind of a tolerance thing.” It appears that Morant’s status will depend on whether he is able to manage the pain in his dominant hand well enough to be effective. He did shoot and dribble with the injured hand at practice Tuesday but had it heavily wrapped by the end of practice.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that he “does not sense a great deal of optimism” around the Grizzlies that Morant will ultimately play on Wednesday.

On the other side, Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian pointed out that questionable usually meant available for the Grizzlies this season.

The Grizzlies want to keep the Lakers guessing, so Morant’s status likely won’t be clear until about an hour before tipoff.

How important is Game 2 for Memphis?

Though the Lakers’ preparation will be affected by Morant’s questionable tag, Memphis also has to go into a must-win Game 2 uncertain about whether their star point guard will play.

A 15-0 run by the Lakers in the final three minutes of Game 1, all with Morant off the floor, turned a 113-112 thriller into an embarrassing 128-112 defeat that handed homecourt advantage over to the seventh-seeded Lakers. For the third consecutive playoff series, the Grizzlies dropped Game 1 at home.

Wednesday’s Game 2 is now the most important Grizzlies game of the season. Dropping the first two games at home would likely spell doom for a team well below .500 on the road this season. But evening up the series amidst an NBA landscape that has largely given up on the Grizzlies – Stephen A. Smith declared the series over – would shift the momentum back to Memphis’ side and remind an aging Lakers team that they are in for a long, grueling series.

Can the Grizzlies win without Morant?

Tyus Jones is the best backup point guard in the league and put up the highest assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA for the fifth consecutive season. He averaged 16.4 points and 8.1 assists in 22 games as a starter this season. The Grizzlies went 13-9 in those games.

It would take an egalitarian, all-hands-on-deck performance to win without Morant. The Grizzlies average more assists per game this season without Morant available (27.1 to 25.7). Whereas Morant is the engine for the Memphis offense when available, Jones is more of a table-setter. He would need to get Desmond Bane (22 points on 6-18 shooting in Game 1) involved and efficient. The Grizzlies would also need to significantly win the three-point battle, something they could not do in Game 1 as the Lakers hit 16 threes to the Grizzlies’ 13 triples.

All that said, Memphis might have its best player on the court even if Morant is forced to sit. Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. led all scorers with 31 in Game 1.

Could Morant’s injury lead to rule changes in the league?

Morant’s fall, coupled with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s back injury on a similar play that same day, ignited a debate over charges and whether defenders should be incentivized to create such dangerous plays at the rim.

The Grizzlies would particularly benefit from this rule change, as they rank just 23rd in the league in charges drawn per game. They also have charge-prone players in Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane, all of whom sometimes attack the basket with reckless abandon.

What are the keys to Game 2 for Memphis?

1. Get out in transition

The Lakers have one of the worst transition defenses in the league, but the Grizzlies couldn’t take advantage of it in Game 1. The Lakers won the fast break points battle 26 to 17. Anthony Davis and LeBron James controlled the paint on defense in Game 1, combining for 10 blocks. The Grizzlies must combat that by getting easy buckets before the Lakers half-court defense is set.

2. Run Lakers shooters off the three-point line

The Grizzlies followed the game plan defensively in Game 1, limiting Davis and James to a combined 43 points. It was the other guys who beat them, as Rui Hachimura put up 29 on 5-6 shooting from beyond the arc and Austin Reaves scored 23 points on perfect shooting in the second half. You have to give up something defensively. In Game 2, the Grizzlies should close out hard on Reaves, Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, and the rest of the Lakers role players. Force them to put the ball on the floor and become playmakers. If they beat you that way, too, there’s not much you can do.

3. Explore different lineups.

The Grizzlies utilized a 9-man rotation in Game 1, but ninth-man David Roddy played only sparingly (9 minutes). “Big Body Roddy” was +7 in those minutes despite not scoring a point and was a part of some of the Grizzlies’ best lineups. His strength allows him to guard up and play the four in certain lineups. His energy gives the Grizzlies a spark they were lacking in the second half Sunday.

John Konchar played only a single minute in garbage time, but his rebounding ability could limit the Lakers’ massive advantage on the offensive glass.

Luke Kennard was just 1-4 from three but still had the highest +/- on the team in Game 1 at +11. While Kennard was thought to be a defensive liability in the playoffs, the Grizzlies were 21.5 points per possession better defensively in his 26 minutes. This doesn’t mean he’s suddenly an ace defender. It just shows that his spacing provides value even when the shots aren’t falling, and the Lakers don’t truly have the personnel to take advantage of him defensively.

Those three guys should see more minutes in Game 2 regardless of Morant’s status.

If Morant is available…

Then watch out. According to Stat Muse, Morant has the highest Game 2 scoring average in NBA history.

Knowing the Grizzlies’ usual caution with injury, Morant is likely only playing if he is both effective and not at serious risk of reaggravation. Given his history in Game 2s, the Lakers are certainly hoping to see Morant in street clothes Wednesday.