Records: Lakers 13-4 (2nd in West), Grizzlies 7-10 (11th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 115.5 (1st in NBA), Grizzlies 104.6 (23rd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.8 (11th in NBA), Grizzlies 106.1 (12th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers:Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Xavier Henry, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (out), Theo Ratliff (out); Grizzlies: Acie Law (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: Right now, you’d be hard pressed to find many people that think the Lakers are playing well. Two straight losses will influence any person’s thoughts on the matter, but really it’s a bit more than that. The Lakers just aren’t clicking on either side of the ball and have regressed in certain areas where this team looks like past versions of itself. Recently the outside shooting has gone cold (hello last season) and the defense continues to look mostly average with only occasional moments of high level play (hello 2008).
Don’t get me wrong, 13-4 is fantastic considering that Bynum has been missing and the Lakers bigs have been put in a position to play heavy minutes with Ratliff also out and a rookie PF the only player with legitimate size on Phil Jackson’s bench. But there can be a greater commitment to doing the little things better for longer stretches and putting more effort into defending and rebounding than what the team has shown in recent games. Putting in that effort will lead to wins when shots don’t fall or when the offense is flustered by strong defenses (like vs. the Pacers). Kobe and Phil said as much after Sunday’s game, so hopefully the Lakers will start to do those things tonight.
The Grizzlies Coming in: The Grizzlies are a bit of a middling team right now. Coming off of last season’s improved play, they’ve stagnated some and are having a hard time taking that next step forward from feel good story to playoff team. They’ve won 3 of their last 4 games (including a win over the Heat) but just had a disappointing road loss to the Cavs in their last contest. This is the latest example of a team that hasn’t quite found a formula to win each night and may be pressing some as they try to rediscover some of last year’s magic that can be then taken to the next level.
One difference you’ll see at the opening tip is that Coach Lionel Hollins has moved OJ Mayo to the bench in favor of starting rookie swingman Xavier Henry. This move has given the Grizz a punch off their bench but has taken a play maker out of the starting lineup and it will be interesting to see if this is a long term move or something done to simply shake up a team that’s looking for a spark.
Keys to game: The last time these two teams played the Grizz were without Zach Randolph so tonight’s contest will provide a different look with the Grizz finally back to full health.
With Randolph a sure go, the Lakers will need to concentrate on defending the interior against the dual threats of Zach and the younger Gasol. Both Zach and Marc have good inside/outside games and will try to bully Odom and Pau on the block with post ups on some possessions and pull them away to the high post and short corner on others. Both Pau and Lamar will need to be active in denying their bigs the post position they desire while also respecting their jumpers by closing on them hard and making them put the ball on the ground. When the Grizz big men do drive the second layer of defense must be there to step up and help because both players are crafty around the basket and can score if given angles to get their shots off.
Where the Lakers must also do well against Zach and Marc is on the boards. Both Memphis big men have a nose for the ball on the offensive glass and thrive off grabbing rebounds that can be put back up for easy baskets. So, Pau and Lamar need to bring good activity to the glass, find their men, and then attack the ball. If they stand and watch they will be beat to the ball and it will mean second chance points for Memphis. I’d actually like to see the Lakers guards help more on the glass rather than leak out looking for outlet passes after the shot goes up. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but the Lakers may be the worst team in the league at closing down the FT line and grabbing those rebounds that kick out to that 15 foot mark. Many of times the Lakers guards are either too sucked in to the paint or drifting away from the rim into open space. Tonight, they’ll need to stay home and help on the boards and secure those long bounces or Memphis will make the Lakers pay on their second and third attempts at scoring.
The other player that really needs to watched tonight is Rudy Gay. In the first game between these two teams, Rudy had a fantastic scoring night when he poured in 30 points through a diverse offensive attack. Rarely did he settle for the long jumper, but instead attacked off the dribble and posted up for turn around jumpers that were taken in rhythm. When Rudy did fire from deep, he made his shots – finishing 3 for 3 from downtown. Tonight you’d expect that Rudy wouldn’t be as hot, but the Lakers will need to defend him better by making him work harder to catch the ball and then forcing him to his left hand and then better contesting his jumper when he steps back. I’d also like to see the Lakers trap him more in order to prove that he can be a play maker when the defensive pressure increases.
Offensively, the Lakers biggest advantage lies with Kobe on the rookie Henry. He should be able to have his way with Henry both in the post and by attacking off the dribble after operating from the triple threat. If and/or when the double teams start, Kobe can then start to look more for his mates as slashers against big men that don’t move that well defensively. On a side note, the Grizz have Tony Allen on their roster but didn’t use him much to guard Kobe in the first meeting, instead using their best defensive wing on Artest and Barnes. If Henry get lit up early by Kobe (which is a distinct possibility) expect to see more of Allen on Kobe than we did in the first game.
The other offensive key is limiting turnovers. Memphis leads the league in opposition turnover rate, forcing turnovers on over 16% of their defensive possessions. The Lakers have been better at taking care of the ball lately, but have been known to get turnover happy at times this year. If they do give up the ball to this team, Conley and Gay can get easy baskets in transition and it also puts the Lakers’ defense in scramble mode as they try to change ends and find their man while still defending the advancing ball handler. So, the Lakers will need to be patient on offense and just work the ball around by running the offense. No need for risky or forced passes. Instead move the ball onto the open man and then cut/screen hard in order to free up another teammate. This will lead to open shots, even against a defense that’s in the top half of efficiency on that side of the ball.
Where you can watch: 5pm start time out west on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.