Records: Lakers: 30-18 (3rd in West), Grizzlies: 25-21 (6th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers: 104.7 (15th in NBA), Grizzlies: 102.8 (21st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers: 101.8 (10th in NBA), Grizzlies: 101.5 (8th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Ramon Sessions, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Grizzlies: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Injuries: Lakers: none; Grizzlies: Darrell Arthur (out)
The Lakers Coming In: Euphoric. A team that was already experiencing more success than the eyeball test would have suggested has addressed its most glaring deficiency and now looks not only like a lock for a top-3 playoff seed, but a legitimately nightmare matchup once the playoffs begin. As we’ll see momentarily, the Lakers have played some solid ball all season, but it’s rather quickly become obvious just how hamstrung this squad was by woeful point guard play in the season’s first three months. Thanks to wins in 16 of their last 22 games, including 7 of the last 10, the Lakers have bypassed the Clippers (loser of 10 of 17 since the All-Star break) for the top spot in the Pacific (now leading by 3 games) and tonight’s opponent as well (the resurgent Memphis Grizzlies), who now trail Kobe & Co. by 4 games.
Now, it would be crazy to suggest that Ramon Sessions will maintain the incredible 58%-shooting, 50%-from-3, near-26-PER form we’ve seen in his first five games as a Laker, but what fans are justified in banking on are the skills he’s brought to this team – namely top-shelf foot speed and quickness, along with an ability to pose a multi-dimensional threat coming off of a screen. It’s a bit early to get too deeply analytical about the long term impact of Sessions on these Lakers – extrapolating off this small sample might lead to a slightly premature Hall of Fame induction and the aggressive tempering of expectations is just no fun – so, as we’ve done in recent days, let’s revel in the fact that we’ve now got a lead guard, and enjoy our own irrational, Linsanity-esque ride for as long as it lasts, knowing full well that if the Ramon Sessions we get in the long haul is even 60% of this Ramon Sessions, the coming weeks are going to be a blast.
The Grizzlies Coming In: The Grizzlies, like the Lakers, had been playing some excellent ball of late. Since a 10-point home loss to the Jazz on February 12 dropped them to 14-14, the Grizz have prevailed in 11 of 18 and, until this week, appeared to be cementing their place in the middle of the West’s playoff seedings.
However, while Memphis, now back at full strength following the return of Zach Randolph, is still a safe bet to finish among the conference’s top eight, losses in each of their last three, including a convincing defeat at the hands of Clippers yesterday, has dropped them into the dogfight at the bottom half of the West bracket. Though currently sixth and just a game behind the Clippers and Mavericks for #’s 4 and 5, the Grizzlies are in a virtual tie with the hard-charging Jazz and and a half game up on the Nuggets in the final three playoff spots, with the Rockets and invigorated Suns breathing down their necks.
As can reasonably be said of many teams in similar situations, the Grizzlies simply cannot afford to allow this current slump to extend much further. The Lakers will need to approach this contest with a bit of caution, as evidenced by the absences of Rudy Gay for the entirety of the fourth quarter and Mike Conley for the final 19 minutes against the Clippers, rather than exhausting all of their resources in what likely would have been a futile comeback attempt, the team is likely to see the very best the Grizzlies have to offer.
Keys to the Game: This game is a treasure trove of fascinating matchups. For starters, Ramon Sessions will face the toughest head-to-head matchup of his Laker tenure, when he squares off against a rested Mike Conley. On the wings, each squad’s top perimeter scorer will lock horns with the opponent’s top perimeter defender, as Tony Allen will check Kobe Bryant, while Matt Barnes/MWP attempt to keep Rudy Gay quiet. However, the determining factor in this one is likely to be the battle in the trenches.
While the Grizzlies limited (to some extent) Z-Bo’s minutes following his return from injury, he saw the floor for nearly 38 minutes against the Clippers. With the exception of his 25-minute, 25-point outburst off the bench in his first game back, Randolph’s game has yet to reach its max potential. With that said, he is beginning to look like his old self and is likely not far from a vintage, ground-bound Z-Bo 25-18. It will be vital that Pau Gasol check him aggressively and carry that aggression to the offensive end to make Randolph work on D, preferably out of prime rebounding position.
Meanwhile, the best big man battle in the Western Conference will be waged on the other side of the paint, as Andrew Bynum and Pau’s “little” brother, Marc (one of the only bigs in the NBA capable of matching Drew’s strength) square off. Again, aggression will be the order of the day, as Bynum, in what should be an excellent challenge, will be called on to bring max effort both at the defensive end and on the boards, while controlling his aggression to avoid foul trouble, as he will have to give the Lakers at least 20-12, and no fewer than 35 minutes.
On the heels of a potentially epic Heat-Thunder clash, this ought to be another must-watch. At the end of the day, the Lakers will probably have too much length up front and enough backcourt firepower to prevail, though a blowout would come as something of a surprise.
Where you can watch: 7:30 PM start time on ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.