Records: Lakers 23-10 (3rd in West); Grizzlies 14-19 (11th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.5 (2nd in NBA); Grizzlies 105.0 (19th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.7 (10th in NBA); Grizzlies 105.3 (12th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Sam Young, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: Theo Ratliff (out); Grizzlies: Xavier Henry (questionable), Rudy Gay (probable)
The Lakers Coming in: Even with two consecutive wins, it’s still too early to say that the Lakers are back on track. Philly just pushed this team in a close game into the closing minute and the Lakers still haven’t fully hit their stride where they’re firing on all cylinders. However, there are encouraging signs and the team does look much better than they did during their losing streak (and even before). Offensively the team is running its sets with improved focus and results. The return of Bynum has brought back more ball reversals for easy post ups and have put Kobe in more ball handling situations where he’s shown better explosiveness. And on defense the team is protecting the paint better which has also led to more aggressive perimeter defense and better rotations on the wings. So even though turnovers remain a problem and the three point shooting has fallen off, the Lakers look to be improving going into a home-heavy part of their schedule where they should be able to get some traction going.
The Grizzlies Coming in: Memphis just can’t seem to put a positive run together to get them back at the level they played at last season. After what looked to be a strong string of 4 consecutive wins in the early part of December, the team has now lost 2 in a row and 5 of their last 7 contests. Included in that stretch are losses against the Nets and the Kings, the latter game providing one of the crazier endings you’ll see in any NBA game.
Even without the team winning at the rate it would like, the Grizz do have some individual players playing well. Zach Randolph has been on a tear of late, averaging 20 and 14 in the month of December and putting up ridiculous lines of 35 & 17 and 27 & 16 in his last two games. Marc Gasol has also played pretty well lately, scoring the ball well and grabbing the rebounds that Zach hasn’t gobbled up. And even though he missed their last game with a stomach virus, Rudy Gay has continued to put up very good numbers in what is shaping up to be the best year of his career.
Where the Grizz continue to struggle, though, is with their bench. While OJ Mayo’s move to a reserve role has helped give Memphis a scoring punch off the pine, he’s their only real threat off the pine (and considering the Grizz don’t consistently get production from the guys that have replaced Mayo in the starting line up, they’ve seemingly just swapped out one issue for another). But outside of OJ, the Grizz just don’t have much of a reserve group. Former #2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeet continues to struggle and guys like Darrell Arthur, Greivis Vasquez, and Tony Allen give solid contributions but really are replacement level players at their best.
Keys to game: The last time that these two teams faced off the Lakers went away from running their offense to instead play isolation ball. The result was sloppy offensive play, missed shots that led to run outs by the Grizz, and ultimately a two point loss where the Lakers couldn’t slow Mike Conley’s open court wizardry (yeah, you read that right). If the Lakers are to have better results tonight, they’ll need to go to the game plan they’ve shown in their past two games where an emphasis on post ups and crisp offense are the story.
So, I expect to see a heavy dosage of Pau and Andrew in the post against Memphis’ front line. Bynum missed the last Grizzlies game and that left Pau going one on one a lot against a tag team duo of his brother Marc and Zach Randolph. Getting banged around by those two guys left Pau relatively ineffective but tonight should be a different story with Pau likely seeing a lot of Zach – a defender that isn’t known for being a much of a “stopper”. And with Bynum showing improved touch and movement around the basket since his return as a starter, I also hope to see big ‘Drew get some post up chances against the younger Gasol, especially on ball reversals where he can use his strength to duck in on the weak side to establish good post position.
After the Lakers look to establish the post, I also hope to see them make some of their outside jumpers. I fully expect that if the Lakers do go into the post early that the Grizzlies wings will do a lot of digging down off Artest, Fisher, etc to give interior help. That should give the Lakers good looks from the outside that – if they convert – should give them a decent cushion to create separation from a scrappy Memphis group.
Defensively, the Lakers will need to get a better handle on the Grizz transition game. A better Laker offensive attack will help with that as less long jumpers and better spacing should create better transitions from offense to defense, but the Lakers will still need to make a concerted effort to get back and build a wall against Conley. He will push the pace at every opportunity and will try to get to the rim off isolations in the open court or off drag screens with Marc and Zach trailing the play looking to pick off the Lakers guards. Hopefully, the Lakers big men will be back on D to discourage penetration and help out on those picks.
From the standpoint of individual match ups, the Lakers will need to know where Rudy Gay is at all times. Coming off his successful Summer with team USA, Gay has really taken it to the Lakers putting up an average of 22 points in their two match ups this year. His improved mid-range game and ability to go into the post has really aided his efficiency so Artest and Barnes will really need to be on their games with Rudy looking to come back strong from his bout with a stomach virus.
Tonight is a really chance to build momentum for the Lakers. The Grizz haven’t been playing good ball, so the Lakers should be able to establish their tempo in this game and wear them down over the course of the evening. If the Lakers can get this win it will set them up to really start to make a push this month, and with other contenders (save the Spurs) dealing with injuries and starting to come back to the pack, the Lakers can potentially start to improve their record in respect to the rest of the league. So, go out and get a win tonight and look forward to a month where they can live fat and happy with a lot of home games.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time over on Fox Sports. For your listening pleasure tune into ESPN Radio 710am.