The Grizzlies and Bucks Showed How to Survive Without Your Best Player
It’s not easy to overcome the loss of stars like Ja Morant or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Memphis and Milwaukee found a way in must-win games. Here are five lessons (Warriors, take note!) from their performances.
The Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks entered Wednesday night in essentially the same situation. Both teams aspire to advance to the conference finals, or farther. Both teams lost Game 1 at home to a lower seed. And both teams, most crucially of all, were missing their best player, as both Ja Morant and Giannis Antetokounmpo were ruled out because of injuries suffered during collisions on drives in their first game.
And on Thursday morning, the Grizzlies and Bucks still find themselves in similar situations: They both evened their series at 1-1 with near wire-to-wire victories despite the absences of their stars. Memphis paved the path first, with a 103-93 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, while Milwaukee followed with a 138-122 beatdown of the Miami Heat that was much more lopsided than the final score suggests. The Bucks led by 33 points entering the fourth quarter.
The similarities aren’t perfect. Memphis was playing a full-strength Lakers team that, after a midseason glow-up, looks like a threat to win the conference; Milwaukee was playing a Heat team that had been outscored in the regular season, lost Tyler Herro to a broken hand, and benefitted from outrageous shooting luck in its Game 1 upset win. Those differences appear in the two games’ specific outcomes: a 10-point win for Memphis, a full-scale romp for Milwaukee.
But the ultimate result is the same, and while both teams surely hope their leading scorers return for Game 3 this weekend, they outlined a proof of concept to win without Morant or Antetokounmpo. Here are the five lessons from the playoffs’ first week for how to survive without a star:
1. Rely on Depth
This lesson is obvious, but no less impactful for that obviousness. With all its late draft finds and player development success stories, Memphis has built such a deep rotation that it can’t even keep all its useful role players, and the Grizzlies have tended to play well without Morant.
Doing so in a must-win playoff game, against LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and without Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke as well—because both big men were injured before the postseason—seemed like a tougher task. Yet, as Lakers coach Darvin Ham said in his between-quarters TNT interview during Game 2, “Ja in, Ja out, doesn’t matter. They’ve got more than enough over there.”
Six Grizzlies scored in double figures, led by center Xavier Tillman Sr., starting only because of the Adams and Clarke injuries. Tillman scored a career-high 22 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and shot an efficient 10-for-13 from the field.
The Grizzlies are so deep that they thrived even though the guard most expected to step up in Morant’s absence—Desmond Bane, who averaged 21.5 points per game this season—struggled after a hot first quarter in Game 2. Bane scored 10 points in the first, but made just one shot the rest of the way and finished with 17 points on 18 field goal attempts, and just one assist compared to five turnovers. (TNT announcer Ian Eagle might have appreciated Bane’s slump, as he seemed to exhaust his collection of Bane-the-Batman-villain puns early on. Sample entry after a Bane make: Not a joke, not a riddle!)
But that downturn didn’t matter, because of the contributions from the rest of Memphis’s roster. Tyus Jones, who might as well change his name to Best Backup Point Guard in the League Tyus Jones at this point, paced the offense with eight assists. Jaren Jackson Jr. recorded 18 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks while staying out of foul trouble. And off the bench, Luke Kennard and David Roddy nailed three 3-pointers apiece, while John Konchar added a pair of blocks, including one splendid stuff of an Anthony Davis dunk attempt …
… as revenge for Davis pinning one of Konchar’s layups on the other end.
Milwaukee did Memphis one better, as seven Bucks reached double figures in points and six of those players scored 16-plus. The usual suspects were comfortable stepping up in Giannis’s stead: Brook Lopez led the way with 25 points, Jrue Holiday added 24 and 11 assists, and Khris Middleton tossed in 16.
But the deeper role players excelled, as well. Joe Ingles scored 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting (5-for-6 from distance). And Pat Connaughton, who fell out of Mike Budenholzer’s rotation in Game 1, returned to make six triples and score 22 points for a new playoff career high.
2. Care to Share
One common observation from watching these games Wednesday night is how well both teams moved the ball, and how confidently they cut and dished. That’s not to say that the ball doesn’t move well when Morant or Antetokounmpo is on the court—but some teams stagnate without their stars to command the ball and the defense’s attention, while the Grizzlies and Bucks still played freely.
Perhaps entering the game knowing those stars wouldn’t play—as opposed to losing them midgame—helped with the adjustment, or perhaps both teams’ prior history playing without the two stars helped prevent stagnation. The Grizzlies played a bunch without Morant last season, due to injuries (including in the playoffs), and this season, due to an in-season suspension. And while Giannis seems as indestructible as anyone in the league, he’s now missed playoff games in three of the past four postseasons.
The Grizzlies tallied 24 assists on 38 made field goals, about the equivalent of a top-five assist rate in the league. (They ranked 19th in assist rate in the regular season and had a similarly mediocre figure in Game 1.) And Milwaukee shared even more, collecting 35 assists—the franchise’s most in any playoff game since 1978.
3. Score Inside
Despite missing their best, most fearless driver, the Grizzlies still scored 50 points in the paint in Game 2, matching the Lakers’ total exactly. The most fearsome forces inside, for at least one game, weren’t LeBron or Davis—they were Tillman and Jackson, the Michigan State duo sharing the frontcourt on a brighter stage.
Similarly, the Bucks scored 52 points in the paint, and took special care to pound the paint early and set the tone. All of Lopez’s 12 made field goals—including seven, for 14 points, in the first quarter—came within 11 feet of the basket, as the veteran big man returned to his Nets-era roots as an adept scorer near the rim, rather than the stretch big into which he’s transformed over the years.
Look at Milwaukee’s first-quarter shot chart, and it’s clear that the Bucks were able to successfully navigate wherever they wanted on offense even without their best scorer and two-time MVP:
4. And Score From the Outside
A couple of bench players aside, Memphis survived despite a poor overall shooting game from 3-point range (11-for-36, or 31 percent). Milwaukee, though, found so much success inside early on that it stretched Miami’s defense to the breaking point, and rained fire for the rest of the night.
The numbers are astonishing. The Bucks made 25 3-pointers in the game, tying the NBA playoff record. They shot 51 percent from distance (25-for-49). Until garbage time, they connected on at least half their 3s in every quarter (3-for-6 in the first, 9-for-15 in the second, 9-for-14 in the third).
Forget the rest of these lessons—that shooting display alone would have been sufficient to coast to an easy victory. The Bucks became the 10th team in playoff history to take at least 40 3-pointers and make at least half. Those teams are now 10-0 with an average margin of victory of 21 points. (In the regular season, to expand the sample, such teams have a record of 110-5.)
5. Have Another Star Play Even Better
Let’s turn away from Memphis and Milwaukee for this final entry, because a third team won a recent playoff game despite missing a star. With Paul George in street clothes, the Clippers stole Game 1 in Phoenix, and while Tyronn Lue’s squad benefitted from a number of advantages—Chris Paul’s 2-for-8 shooting, Russell Westbrook’s frenetic defensive energy, the Suns’ lack of depth—the biggest was the simplest: Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the court, giving the Clippers the game’s brightest star.
This last lesson isn’t an option for some teams; Morant is Memphis’s only superstar. But it’s certainly viable for another team currently in dire straits, as Steph Curry and the Warriors prepare for a must-win Game 3 with Draymond Green suspended for his stomp of Domantas Sabonis’s chest.
Green is suspended, not injured, but the Warriors need to save their season without him regardless, just as Memphis and Milwaukee did on Wednesday. The Warriors might have the most difficult challenge of all these teams, as the Kings beat them twice with Green—but it can be done. If Xavier Tillman Sr. can lead a team to a playoff triumph, then Curry certainly can, too.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Ja Morant was Memphis’s only All-Star. Jaren Jackson Jr. was also named to the team this season.