With two wins in their last six games, it’s fair to say the Lakers are somewhat improved of late. Much of that can be tied to the resurgent play of Kobe Bryant who has regained his status as the team’s best player. He’s not what he once was, of course, but what he is — at least lately — is a player boasting a PER north of 20 while anchoring the team’s offense with a combination of scoring ability and deft playmaking.
That level of player isn’t enough to carry a good team, but it’s good enough to keep the Lakers in more contests for longer stretches than early in the season. There are still long stretches of bad play — the OKC games and the first three quarters of the loss to the Clippers on Christmas are prime examples — but those stretches are being broken up by some classic Kobe and some good play from the assortment of kids and veterans who flank him.
With Kobe playing this way, Byron Scott has become even more reliant on him though even he admits a better balance must be struck. In the past week Scott spoke of still needing the ball to move and for the team to not settle into simply giving the ball to Kobe to let him work. He noted part of that is on him to continue to get Kobe into spots where he is most effective, but the other part of that is the young players (especially) not deferring as much to him.
Those are nice soundbites for sure, but in practice this is sloppy. Against the Clippers the team’s best play — outside of a Kobe led charge in the 2nd quarter — came from a unit led by Russell and Randle while Kobe sat on the sidelines. The two young bucks seized control of the game offensively while heady veteran work from Brandon Bass and Marcelo Huertas helped steady the ship. This wasn’t enough to win the game, but they did make it interesting and after the contest there was almost universal praise (Scott was not as complimentary) for how those young guys competed.
In any event, the close to that game is being billed as a moment of growth, but at this point we should know that no growth really comes without there being some setbacks too. We know these young players have talent and can impact a game. Getting them to be able to do this consistently is why investing in them now is important. Getting them to do it with Kobe on the floor and mixing their abilities with his improved play is on the all parties (the coach included).
This is the backdrop for Sunday’s game against the Grizzlies — a team doing their own soul searching and going through their own transition. Grit and grind isn’t quite dead, but like your dad’s old leather recliner, it has been moved to the small room at the back of the house and out of the living room. It is no longer the centerpiece, swapped out for the sleeker modern sitting chair that all the hip families have.
If you have not been paying attention, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have been moved to the bench in favor of Jeff Green and Matt Barnes. The latter two try to provide better spacing and more athleticism for an offensive attack built around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The results have been mixed, but head coach Dave Joerger insists this style is here to stay — for a time, at least. This move does feel a bit like fishing for solutions for a team which may have run its course, but when the Grizzlies are 18th in defensive efficiency, maybe working on the offense is the only viable option anyway.
Even though the Grizz are 2-3 in their last 5 games and 16-16 on the season, they are firmly in the playoff mix. This makes them worlds better than the Lakers, so perspective of their struggles must still be placed into the proper context of Sunday’s game. Yes, they played on Saturday (a loss in Charlotte). And, yes, the Lakers will have arrived in Memphis before them. Still, though, it would be silly to expect the Lakers to win. They can compete, though.
Doing so will depend on winning some key matchups. The first is Jordan Clarkson against Mike Conley. The latter isn’t having his finest season — his 15 points and 6 assists on 41% shooting is not at the level we’ve become accustomed to — but he’s still very dangerous. Clarkson will need to be at his sharpest defensively, but will also need to challenge Conley on the other end to make sure he’s making his life as hard as possible. Quick darts into the lane and some made jumpers (both from the mid-range and from beyond the arc) are important.
Roy Hibbert will also be very important when battling Gasol. The big Spaniard leads the Grizzlies in scoring, but his splits in wins and losses pretty much tell the story of this team’s season. When Gasol is aggressive and hitting shots, Memphis wins. When he hangs back and isn’t getting buckets, they don’t. If Hibbert can influence Gasol to be the latter, the Lakers’ chances of winning skyrocket.
Lastly, with the Grizz shuffling their lineup the bench units become even more important. Julius Randle will get a lot of time against Randolph and will need to hold his own. This means working the backboards and using his quickness and athleticism to his advantage. Russell, meanwhile, will need to show well against Mario Chalmers who was acquired from the Heat earlier this year via trade. Chalmers has played well in Memphis and given their bench a nice boost. He can be crafty on defense and hit shots when left open. Russell will need to be smart on both ends of the floor and resemble the player who went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul in the 4th quarter on Friday.
Where you can watch: 3pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM Los Angeles.