It’s a bit confusing how the Memphis Grizzlies (and to a greater extent, the Sacramento Kings) still fail to command the respect a top-seeded team in the Western Conference deserves, but here we are. There’s been talk that the 3/6, 2/7 route to the Western Conference Finals is an easier path, and there’s certainly an argument to be made for it, but it seems like many are forgetting just how dangerous the Grizzlies are, even if they’re down two crucial role players.
In particular, the Grizzlies will definitely miss the services of both Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke against the Los Angeles Lakers, a team whose offense relies on getting easy looks at the rim and drawing fouls to function like a well-oiled machine. Adams would have given the Lakers fits on the offensive glass, while Clarke’s buttery touch and defensive versatility makes him such an important weapon to have when it comes to shapeshifting against playoff opponents.
But the Grizzlies have more than enough weapons still to make life a living hell for a Lakers team that struggled immensely against the depleted Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in game. The Timberwolves may have lost, but they proceeded to expose a lot of the Lakers’ deficiencies on both ends of the floor, much to the Grizzlies’ advantage.
Nonetheless, there will be no such thing as an easy series in the 2023 NBA playoffs. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two NBA champions, to make every game a toss-up even if the Grizzlies, from top to bottom, have the more talented squad. Thus, the Grizzlies will need this unheralded player to step up, especially with a few members of their frontcourt missing due to injury.
Here is the Grizzlies’ biggest X-factor in their upcoming playoff series against the Lakers.
Grizzlies’ biggest X-factor vs. Lakers: Santi Aldama
The Grizzlies have a lot of candidates for this distinction, from Dillon Brooks to Xavier Tillman and Luke Kennard. Brooks, in particular, will be called upon by the Grizzlies to take on the tough LeBron James matchup. And from the looks of it, Brooks is definitely eager to prove his defensive chops once more against one of the most decorated players of all time.
Brooks’ problem, however, has never been his ability to contribute defensively. It’s his groan-inducing shot selection that pains even the most diehard of Grizzlies fans, especially after he finished with the second-worst true shooting percentage among qualified players this past season.
Still, whether he’s bricking or not, Dillon Brooks will stay on the floor, as he is unquestionably the Grizzlies’ best perimeter defender. He could end up swinging a game or two if he manages to catch fire, but at this point, it’s better not to expect anything stellar from the Grizzlies’ master instigator on the offensive end.
What the Grizzlies should be looking at, however, is how the Timberwolves, for three quarters during their play-in game, managed to stretch out the Lakers’ defense from beyond the arc by putting five capable shooters on the floor. (Anthony Edwards, however, did not look like a competent shooter during that game.) The Lakers allowed one long ball after another, with Karl-Anthony Towns having whatever shot he wanted on the perimeter. Even Mike Conley and Taurean Prince couldn’t seem to miss.
This is why this could be a huge series for Santi Aldama in lineups where the Grizzlies decide to put five players on the court who could space the floor around Ja Morant. Xavier Tillman could have been of huge help in this regard as well, however, his three-point shooting has tanked since his rookie campaign. Aldama, meanwhile, shot a respectable 35.3 percent from beyond the arc while making 1.2 triples in only 21 minutes of action per night this past season.
The Grizzlies could end up throwing Jaren Jackson Jr. at the five instead, although that could mean a prolonged stretch with Jackson guarding Anthony Davis on the post. While Jackson is definitely a capable post defender, he’s at his best when patrolling the weakside, and there’s a strong possibility he gets into foul trouble (like Karl-Anthony Towns did) in a matchup against AD.
Thus, having Aldama act as the primary defender could be a smart move, especially if the young Grizzlies big man manages to hang defensively on the perimeter while making his open shots.
Head coach Taylor Jenkins is not someone to hesitate in pulling off a huge rotation move as well. Against the Timberwolves last season, Jenkins decided to bench Steven Adams in favor of Tillman by virtue of being a better matchup against Towns.
If Tillman ends up cramping the Grizzlies’ spacing, especially with Dillon Brooks guaranteed to play heavy minutes, then Memphis could very well turn to Santi Aldama, paving the way for what could be a huge series for the sophomore.