No longer among the ranks of the winless (it’s all you now, Philly!), the Lakers have the reward of starting a two game, back to back road trip tonight. If that’s not enough, they start in Memphis to face the rugged Grizzlies. If that sounds like not much fun, you are correct. The Grizz are currently tied with the Rockets for the best record in the west, boasting only a single loss in their first seven games.
As usual, the Grizzlies are doing their damage on defense. They have the league’s 2nd best defensive efficiency and, as their “grit and grind” motto suggests, are stifling teams with an physical attack that forces bad shots and turnovers in bunches. So, while the Lakers are playing surprisingly well offensively, tonight they face a real challenge with this team gearing up to slow them down.
It starts on the perimeter with the Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, and Tony Allen trio. All three are more than capable defenders, all combining strength, smarts, and speed to counteract whatever opponents throw at them. It figures to be a long night for Kobe and Jeremy Lin dealing with these guys so both will need to be reasoned, steady, and deliberate in how they try to find creases and get to their preferred spots.
For Kobe, his match ups with Allen have long been some of the best one on one battles in the league and tonight I expect no different. Allen will try to force Kobe into difficult shots and will stay with him relentlessly by contesting everything. Kobe, then, must be economical both in his movement and his shot selection, not forcing too much against one of the players around the league who knows his tendencies best. For Lin, Conley’s craftiness and ability to stay in front of him will pose a particularly tough challenge. Lin would do well to stay aggressive with his dribble, but would help himself a fair amount by starting out the game hitting his jumper consistently enough to force the types of hard closeouts and tight defense that he can take advantage of with quick darts to the rim.
Even if Kobe and Lin get by that first level of defense, however, they must be aware of the ever lurking Marc Gasol. The former defensive player of the year is one of the smartest positional defenders in the game, possessing instincts that sniff out the opposition’s plays like he’s in their film sessions. Kobe and Lin will need to be smart, then, in their shot/pass decisions once they find their way to the paint. What can help in this area is smart movement by the Lakers’ bigs. Gasol is a fantastic defender who can seemingly be in two places at once, but well timed cuts and crafty positioning by Ed Davis and Jordan Hill should free them up for makable shots if Kobe and Lin can occupy Gasol. How this plays out will be a key factor in how close the game is.
As for the Lakers’ defense, the Grizzlies do not offer a dynamic attack, but do well to play to the strengths of their best players. With that, expect to see a fair amount of Zach Randolph posting against Carlos Boozer early in the game, to see if points can be produced from the low block. After that, expect a fair amount of pick and roll between Conley and Gasol, where Conley can offer the threat of scoring off his jumper, getting into the paint for a floater or lay-in, or passing to either a popping Gasol or to a wing shooter to get the Lakers into their rotations. If the Lakers can do a good job of limiting Conley’s scoring chances, it will go a long way in muddying up their offense even further. But if Conley gets it going, expect to see him start to get the rest of his teammates involved and then the floodgates can open. Even though the Grizz are not a particularly strong offensive group, they are at home and playing against the league’s worst defense.
The Lakers surely want to carry over some of their momentum from Sunday into tonight’s game to keep their good feelings going. But in facing one of the early season’s better teams, that seems quite unlikely. The Lakers’ best hope is for Kobe and Lin to start the game hot which will open up good shots for Hill, Davis, Ellington, and Boozer. If that can combine with Conley struggling and the Grizz becoming over-reliant on their bigs to create all the offense, the game may be close for long enough to steal a win. Again, though, this seems like wishful thinking. The Grizz are simply that much better than the Lakers right now.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.