The Lakers coming in: For a team that didn’t have a lot of external expectations, losses like the one to the Nuggets can still feel disappointing. The circumstances were not in the Lakers’ favor – the 2nd night of a back to back plus traveling to Denver from the west coast is an almost guaranteed loss – but that doesn’t change the fact that the team was right there the entire night yet couldn’t find a way to get over the hump and win the game. Some of the more frustrating aspects of the loss – Wilson Chandler finding himself open so often out of pick and pop situations, Timofey Mozgov’s career night, some sloppy execution right when the team seemed on the cusp of being able to tie or take a lead – shouldn’t completely overshadow some of the things the Lakers did well, though.
The new starting group, for the second straight game, had a nice rhythm together and was able to produce good efficiency numbers during their time on the floor together. Jordan Hill and Wes Johnson have provided an athleticism and energy to this group and combined with the more fundamental based play of Gasol and Steve Blake, forms a nice mix that can score on one end and defend at an adequate level on the other.
Another positive was the assertiveness of Pau Gasol in looking for his own shot, even if he didn’t finish with the best percentages. On more than one occasion Pau turned down open mid-range jumpers in favor of putting the ball on the ground to get better position for a closer look at the basket. Combine Pau’s movement towards the rim with Jordan Hill’s lurking on the offensive glass and you have a formula that puts a lot of pressure on the opposing team’s big men to defend the rim while still protecting the glass. This isn’t the easiest proposition and, as the Nuggets’ game showed, this can lead to some easy baskets for the Lakers inside.
This doesn’t erase the fact that the Lakers are 4-6 or that their bench can run hot and cold to the point of frustration. But there are things to build on that can hopefully become staples for this team that can stick when Kobe returns from his rehab, whenever that may be.
The Grizzlies coming in: If the Lakers are a team in transition with few expectations to contend, the Grizzlies come into this season on the opposite end of the spectrum. After making a run to the Conference Finals last year, the team hoped to take the next step and become one of the elite franchises that could compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy. That, however, hasn’t happened early in this campaign.
The Grizz sit 2 games under .500 (3-5) and haven’t been able to build on their identity as a grind it out defensive team who can make opponents wilt under combination of extreme ball pressure and cerebral big man defense behind it. What occurred instead is a team ranking in the bottom six in defensive efficiency and searching to rediscover that “grit and grind” style that they built under the now departed Lionel Hollins.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any bright spots on this team. Mike Conley has taken another step forward to become one of the better lead guards in the league, averaging over 20 points while dishing out 5 assists a night. I’m sure the team would like for him to get a few more assists a night, but that scoring punch he’s providing is needed while Zach Randolph deals with a slow start (12.6 points and 8 rebounds a night). Marc Gasol is also putting up good numbers – 16 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists while going to the FT line 5 times a night – and is still active on D, throwing his big body around as a deterrent in the paint.
All in all, though, the Grizz have to find better balance on O and need to find some production outside of their top 3 players. Outside of that trio, no player is averaging double digit points and if that crew cannot play the defense they’ve built their names on, this team will continue to struggle to find wins.
Keys to the game: It’s cliché, but this game will come down to effort and execution. When the Lakers play hard and run their offensive sets competently, they produce on both ends of the floor and stay competitive in any game. When they don’t, the losses get ugly and do so quickly.
The Grizz don’t offer a lot of fire power, but they do offer a very good point guard and a pair of big men who can score well inside and from mid-range. These are ingredients that have given the Lakers issues this year and finding a way to limit the effectiveness of Conley, Gasol, and Randolph are priorities one, two, and three defensively. This comes down to playing well in the P&R and understanding tendencies. Conley is a master at going away from the pick and the help behind the screen must be aware that he’s just as likely to turn down the screen as use it. He’s effective driving to the rim with either hand, so shading him to go one way isn’t always effective. Further, both Randolph and Gasol can pop or roll to the rim, so they too much be accounted for as dual threats in this action. Because the Grizz don’t have a lot of shooters – Jerryd Bayless and Mike Miller are their big threats – I hope to see wing defenders sag into the paint and take away the lane to force guys to hit shots.
Offensively, the Lakers must attack the paint via penetration, dives out of the P&R, and in the post. Pau doesn’t have a big advantage tonight, but he must work to establish position and be a threat that the D accounts for. In the P&R, Hill must continue to dive hard where he can either score on the roll or suck in defenders in order to open up the Lakers’ outside shooters. And when those shooters get open shots, they must knock them down. It’s obvious to say, but if Henry, Johnson, Meeks, and Blake are hitting outside shots, this team is very difficult to slow offensively.
Before the year started, this game was probably seen as a loss. But with the data we have based off the games played, this game really is a toss up and with the Lakers playing at home, they need to look at this as a very winnable game. The Grizz aren’t just going to give it to them, though. The Lakers must put in the work and focus on every possession to not turn the ball over and to provide the needed attention to detail defensively. Here’s to them following through with what’s needed.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.