Tonight, the Lakers continue their current home-stand with one of their toughest matchups of this young season. The Memphis Grizzlies come in playing some of the best (probably the best) basketball in the NBA and the Lakers are coming off consecutive losses to the Mavericks the Nuggets.
The Nuggets loss was on Sunday, and with four full days off, the conversation during the week was largely about Kobe Bryant, his legs and the minutes he’s been playing. Byron Scott, when asked about reducing his minutes, responded with an alternative route to keeping Bryant fresh (via Mark Medina):
“Still kind of keep [his minutes] where it is,” Scott said. “It prompts me to give him more days off, if anything, so I can keep it in the 30-40 range.”
Scott would later say that if this new plan doesn’t work — and he’s willing to give this about two or three games — he’ll cut down Bryant’s minutes.
Scott seems to be missing the larger issue here, and it was one of the issues down the stretch of the Lakers loss to the Grizzlies in the first time these two teams met. This is a Lakers basketball team that is far from clicking on either end of the floor, but especially on the offensive end. Bryant is shooting shots at a ridiculous nightly clip, and a lot of his chucking is a direct result of a combination of a lack of talent and a lack of continuity on offense.
While practice during the off days isn’t going to help with the former, it’s only practice during the off days that will work for the latter of these issues. While there is some credit that should be issued to Scott for looking for new ways to help both Bryant and the team, him focusing just on Kobe’s individual struggles is akin to taking a glance at Picasso’s Guernica and focusing just on the horse and bull, completely ignoring the struggle painted across the full canvas. Kobe’s legs is one of the central themes for this season, but it’s only one of the problems causing the Lakers inability to add tally marks in the win column.
On the other end of the floor, the Grizzlies boast the best record in basketball (12-2) and have not lost a game against the tough Western Conference (8-0 heading into tonight’s game against the Lakers). They’ve maintained the same suffocating defense from seasons past, but are now one of the NBA’s best offensive teams. Memphis has a Top 10 offensive rating while still playing at one of the league’s slowest paces.
One of the reasons for the Grizzlies improved offensive efficiency: Courtney Lee. The Grizzlies, with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, have forced teams to clog the paint over the years to try to counter their luxury of having to bruising bigs who can play with their back to the basket. This has opened up wide open shots from the perimeter, that the team wasn’t able to fully take advantage of in seasons past. This season, Lee is shooting at an absurd .611 clip from 3-point range. While it’s risible to assume that he’ll continue to shoot the ball this well for the remainder of the season, he’s essentially closed the Grizzlies offensive circle: Great point guard who can get into the paint at will, a deft passing center who can play anywhere from 17-feet to the basket, a physical power forward who is nearly unguardable when defended by one man — and now they have a shooter to spread the floor.
Further more, they’re getting scoring from more guys, the bench is deeper. During the last calendar week (Sunday-Saturday), the Grizzlies saw 10 guys reach double figures in scoring, seven of them did it multiple times. They’ve become multi-faceted and less reliant on guys they know they can rely on.
For tonight, the Lakers are going to struggle defending the Randolph/Gasol duo, this is a given. They don’t have the size or the ability to guard two of the better big men in the NBA. What they can do is keep Conley out of the paint, close down passing lanes and run Lee off the three-point line. Although they’ve proven that they have multiple guys who can beat you, it’s going to have to be one of those other guys tonight if the Lakers want to win this game. If Conley, Gasol and/or Randolph gets it going, it’s going to be awfully tough to keep pace offensively against a Top 5 defense.
On the other end, Kobe is going to have to trust his guys. Carlos Boozer (shudders) had a fantastic game against the Grizzlies in the first meeting. Jeremy Lin was effective, but not great, and Wesley Johnson had what was probably his best game of the season. No one is going to beat this team playing Kobe ball. He’s been his most efficient this year when playing off the ball, letting someone else run the offense and getting his shots off curls and down screens. It’s going to take much more than just getting Bryant touches in sets where he’s not creating, but that’s definitely the starting point.
At the end of the day, it’s about getting stops for these Lakers, which they weren’t able to do in their losses to Dallas and Denver. This Grizzlies team is very good and have few flaws that can clearly be exploited. The Lakers are coming off four days rest, so there’s hope that the fresh legs can help them compete in the fashion that they did in the first meeting. A win is unlikely, but so were the other three.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.