Memphisreturns to the Forum to face their most formidable opponent so far this season with a disappointing road loss to Cleveland to atone for. Nearing the end of the most difficult stretch of the season for the Grizzlies the team is in desperate need of a momentum building win hopefully salvage the year before it even really begins. Another home loss (the Grizzlies are 5-4this season at home) could derailany hopes for the playoffs. Memphis’ bench has been reborn with the addition of O J Mayo to the2nd team but the starters have not yet established the success they had last season. The problem with the starters has been easy to identify. Mike Conley and Rudy Gay have seen thier numbers declining since the return of Zach Randolph who has once again fallen in love with his fadeaway jump shot instead of pounding the ball inside and Marc Gasolhas yet to show the mobility he exhibited last season since spraining his ankle before the start of the season. Until the interior players begin to dominate the paint again the team will struggle.
Los Angeles comes to town after a disappointing loss at Indiana and their second two game losing streak of the season. The loss was set up by Kobe Bryant trying to do too much (33 shots) and Pau Gasol too little (missed twice as many shots as he made). Los Angeles is the highest scoring team in the league and the 3rd best rebounding team despite Andrew Bynum’s slow recovery from off-season surgery. Their success early was built on Kobe playing more of a team builder role instead of superstar and Pau Gasol playing some of the best basketball of his career. Phil JAckson, the man who once described Memphis as “Dresden after the war” is using all of his Zen teachings to motivate the Lakers to get over the hump including calling out his team’s defensive effort. This game is themiddle gameof three games in four nights for the Lakers who travel to Houston tomorrow so the Grizzlies can expect the Lakers to come out hard in an attempt to end the game early so their aging and injured stars can get some rest.
Point Guards:Mike ConleyvsDerek Fisher
Mike Conley signed his new contract the day before the first Lakers game of the season. Matt Moore promptly called him the worst starting PG in the league, even worse than Derek Fisher. Conley outplayed Fisher in the first game and has played like he deserves that contract since averaging 14.2 ppg, 6.8 apg and 2.4 spg this season. However over the last five games Conley’s numbers have decreased. Over that time frame Conley is averaging 13.4 ppg, 5.8 apg and 1.8 spg. His numbers would be worse but Conley seems to have found his shot again hitting 6-14 three point attempts over that time frame. Fisher is regressing fromhis level of play also but he started at a much lower point. Fisher’s main role is defensive on the Lakers but he is expected to hit the open three. In the last 5 games Fisher is 2-11 from long range which isn’t getting the job done. If Conley remains aggressive he is too fast for Fisher to stay in front of.
Shooting Guards:Xavier HenryvsKobe Bryant
Welcome to the NBA. Xavier Henry has really enjoyed the last couple of months of his life. First the Grizzlies finally rescinded the questionable demand for playing incentives in his rookie deal. Then he gotto start playing basketballasan NBA professional. Then he is promoted to starting SG. Everyone knows he didn’t earn it but he is still starting at SG in the NBA as a 19 yr old. In his four NBA starts Henry has scored 6, 2, 6, and 9 pts and hit nearly 50% of his FG attempts (8-17) plus his first 3 pt shot. Kobe Bryant as different from normal SG’s as the NBA is from college ball. Kobe’s knee problems has slowed him at the start of the season but his 33 FG attempts against Indiana show he is capable of doing a lot more. Henry’s one saving grace is in the last five games Kobe’s attempts are up but his FG% is down. LA isn’t at their strongest when Kobe is off and especially not when Kobe tries to dominate when he is off. One important stat to remember. Kobe has scored 30 or more points six times this season and the Lakers are 3-3 in those games. When Kobe stays under 30 the Lakers are 10-1. Perhaps Kobe having a mismatch isn’t a bad thing for the Grizzlies.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Small Forwards:Rudy GayvsRon Artest
Ron Artesthas seenhis role on the Lakers diminish and understands but isn’t happy about it. Rudy Gay has seen his role diminish and no one understands why. Artest is 31 yrs old which isn’t ancient but he’s been hard on his body over that time so he plays much older. Ron is hitting only 39% of his FG attempts but he has always been more of a defensive player. The problem is his rebounds, steals and assists are all below his career averages not to mention his career highs. Rudy Gay has seen his average drop to 21.5 ppg and has broken 20 only twice in the last seven games after scoring over 20 ineach of the first eight and nine of the first10 games.What’s perplexing is that Rudy, the player who signed a huge contract this summer and wants to earn his pay, isn’t getting shot attempts. In the first 10 games Rudy had fewer than 18 attempts once. In the last seven he hasn’t had 18 attempts even once. Until the Grizzlies find a way to get Rudy more attempts the offense will continue to struggle. Going up against Artest isn’t a great way to get those extra attempts either. Still when Rudy shoots he is hitting nearly 40% of his FG attempts and 40% of his three point attempts.
Power Forwards:Zach RandolphvsLamar Odom
This is the most difficult matchup to call. Randolph is power personified but has started to fall in love with his fade-away jumper a bit too much this season. Odom is skill and grace at a position that rarely sees those two words used together. Odom has begun to show the strain of being an 11 year veteran averaging 4 minutes a night more than he used to with LA after playing all summer with the USA national team. Z-Bo is starting to hit his stride after injuring his tailbone in the 1st game of the season. Odom’s rebounding is strong and benefits from playing next to a 7 ft star who commands double teams. Z-Bo still rebounds with the best despite a distinct disadvantage in both height and leaping ability. Odm is starting to slow down from the terrific pace he began the season playing which is a good thing for Memphis. Z-Bo didn’t play in game 1 between these teams and hopefully his presence will stem the tide toward Memphis’ side.
Centers:Marc Gasolvs Pau Gasol
It’s a true blood brother battle at the center position with Pau andMarc finally squared off aganst eachother. Oh sure theywent head to headin LA but that wasn’t here, in Memphis, in front of the fans who cheered and booed Pau for so manyyears. That wasn’t here were both of their parents live, their younger brother playsball and well itjust wasn’t here. Somehow it’s different. Marc has been slowed all season by a high ankle sprain that makes it difficult for him to get lift off his foot. Marc can play without pain but he can’t get off the ground like he used to. Being 7-1 helps grab some rebounds but if he could get that extra lift he would be getting more, and players like Andris Beidrins wouldn’t be getting 22 boards either. Pau has come close to averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds in a season but has never actually made it. This season he just might. He’s averaging 21.5 ppg and 11.9 rpg while hitting 54.5% pf his field goal attempts. Probably the most skilled offensive interior big man in the game today, PAu has improved his defense and rebounding with the Lakers.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Benches:Memphisvs Los Angeles
The Grizzlies bench has emerged as a dominant force since Mayo was moved to the bench having outscored all four teams they have played since Mayo became the 6th maN and the team is 3-1 in those games. It isn’t simply because Mayo is on the court either. Sure Mayo is hitting better since the move was made and despite the reduced minutes has actually seen his scoring remain about the same. However Darrell Arthur has been re-energized since the move as well averaging nearly 10 ppg since the move was made and reaching double figures twice. Sam Yojng and Tony Allen have alternated depending on the team needing more scoring or better defense and they seem to understand and appreciate their roles as well. The big losers have been Thabeet and of course Acie Law who was replaced by Greivis Vasquez as theback up PG. Los Angeles’bench is improved over the one that helped the Lakers to the2ndconsecutive NBA championship last season. However that bench has begun to lose someof their luster. Shannon Brownis 0-4 from beyond the arc in the last two games after torching Chicago and Golden State in LA. Matt Barnes has cooled off a bit after his hot start. Steve Blake is as well. Still the Lakers bench is solid and experienced.
Advantage: Los Angeles