Thanks to a Nugget victory in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, the Lakers (39-36) have sneaked back in the 8th spot in the west. They are now a half game ahead of the Jazz but will still need to win most, if not all, of their remaining 7 games — including tonight.
The Memphis Grizzlies (51-24) come in to Staples Center as the Western Conference's hottest team with the longest winning streak of 4. They traded away their best perimeter player in Rudy Gay a few weeks before the trade deadline in order to help alleviate some of their salary tax burden now and in the seasons ahead. However, the loss of Gay hasn't exactly slowed this team down as they've won 22 of their 31 games following the trade.
Memphis has taken the first 2 meetings with the purple and gold. But with Gay no longer with the team, they could have a tough time matching the Lakers' perimeter output tonight.
Then again, the Lakers aren't exactly the same team they faced in those games.
In a do-or-die mode, the focus of the Lakers are now directed at winning every single game until the end of the regular season.
Versus Dallas on Tuesday, L.A. put on one of their best defensive effort of the season led by Pau Gasol's tremendous defense on Dirk Nowitzki, who finished with just 11 points on 4-out-of-13 shooting. In fact, no Maverick scored more than 14 points the entire game.
The Lakers are playing better defense as a team lately because their ball movement on offense has improved in their last 2 victories. Credit Kobe Bryant for that.
In the last 2 games, Bryant has a combined 25 assists, but more importantly, just 5 turnovers. He's also taken just 18 shots in each game but has increased his defensive intensity averaging 3 steals per outing.
We've seen Kobe step up defensively and dish out a ton of assists before. The difference in these past 2 games is he's being more patient and has been doing a remarkable job at fighting that urge to score when presented with a double-team around the perimeter. In other words, Bryant is now forcing his teammates to help him instead of allowing them to stand around and watch him on offense.
As a result, Sacramento and Dallas could not prevent the rest of the Lakers — especially Dwight Howard — from hurting them.
And speaking of Dwight, his offensive production tonight could mean the difference for the Lakers.
In the previous 2 meetings, Howard only managed a total of 10 points. With his back and shoulder a lot healthier these days, there's no reason why he shouldn't dominate the paint against anybody Lionel Hollins decide to put on him — including Marc Gasol.
This the 3rd and final meeting of the season for these 2 teams. The Lakers haven't beaten the Grizzlies at home since Jan. 8, 2012.
Matchup of the Game
Zach Randolph vs. Pau Gasol: If Memphis wins tonight, this matchup is probably one of the biggest reasons why. Randolph has dominated the power forward position against L.A. all year long averaging 14.5 points and 11 rebounds. What makes him a tougher customer than Nowitzki for Pau to deal with is, not only can he make that mid-range jumper, but he's also good at using his wide body to score inside and grab those rebounds. Gasol will need to be aggressive on offense as well and use his length on the defensive end to challenge Randolph's shots. Oh, and Pau has to make sure he puts a body on Zach on either basket.
Keys to the Game
> Pau and Dwight: What makes Randolph and Gasol so effective for the Grizzlies is they can take turns operating in the low or high post because both guys can hit mid-range shots. Look for Marc to open the paint up for Randolph by taking a few jump shots to force Dwight out of the paint to help out on Pau on defense. But they're initial strategy on offense is to get either Pau or Dwight in foul trouble early so the Lakers' inside presence is softened up for Conley's drives or for offensive rebounds. It's crucial for both Pau and Dwight to be aggressive but smart at the same time on defense. Offensively, they need to work together and feed off of one another in order to have the Grizzlies' strategy backfire on them.
> Contain Mike Conley: This guy has hurt the Lakers this season more than any of his teammates. In the prior 2 games, he's getting 19 points, 6 assists, 3 steals and 60.7% shooting from the field. With Metta World Peace out, don't be surprised to see Kobe guarding him tonight.
> Turnovers: As a team, Memphis is averaging a league 4th-best 8.6 steals a game this season. They also happen to force an average of 14.8 turnovers a game, as well. The Grizzlies only average 93.8 points per game, so defense is their bread-and-butter. This is the one area where they'll try to continue to try to expose the Lakers all night long, so the Lakers can't afford to be careless with their passing. Not only that, expect Conley to dart into the paint to strip either Gasol or Howard the ball from time to time.
Watch Out For
GRIZZLIES: Tony Allen: Other than being an absolute pest on defense, Allen thrives on garbage plays, getting to those 50/50 balls and snatching a huge rebound on occasion. Since he isn't naturally a threat on offense, it's likely that the Laker points guards will be guarding him. It's important for Steve Nash (if he plays) and Steve Blake to not ignore him and make sure they box him out, also.
LAKERS: Earl Clark: With MWP out for the rest of the regular season, expect Clark to continue to put the energy and hustle each time he's on the floor. He only played 1 game against the Grizzlies this season and had 11 points and 9 boards as a starter. It's clear that Earl is more effective coming off the bench, so he just might have another double-double tonight.
vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Jordan Hill (hip) and Metta World Peace (knee) are out for the season. Steve Nash (hamstring, hip) is doubtful.