Five things to watch in Lakers-Grizzlies matchup
1. The Lakers' split performance this season against Memphis shows their inconsistency with putting teams away early. A 124-105 victory Nov. 3 against the Grizzlies reflected the Lakers' strong 8-0 start where everyone played as a team and prided themselves on fine-tuning nuances. The Lakers' 98-96 loss Nov. 30 at Memphis was part of the team's first three-game losing streak of the season. And the Lakers' matchup at 6:30 tonight at Staples Center against Memphis (14-19) comes at a time with the defending champs (23-10) in flux in rebounding from their recent struggles and restoring their championship-caliber play.
The Lakers responded to their second three-game losing streak last week with an impressive double-digit victory against New Orleans but followed up with a mail-it-in effort against Philadelphia. The Lakers have a two-game winning streak, but their performance against the Sixers revealed a mixture of boredom, small but significant spurts of offensive lapses and poor transition defense. The split series against Memphis perfectly illustrates the difference between the Lakers' playing with the right amount of effort and execution versus mixed assessments in those areas.
2. Memphis struggles in close games, but one of those games didn't include the Lakers. 3 Shades of Blue's Chip Crain outlined in detail to ESPN Los Angeles' Brian Kamenetzky how the Grizzlies have compiled plenty of games decided by three points or fewer, including losses to Cleveland, Washington, Golden State, Sacramento and Phoenix, the latter opponent managing to beat Memphis despite having a two-point deficit with .4 seconds remaining.
The Lakers' victory against Philadelphia illustrated the difference between a young and hungry 76ers team and a veteran and bored Lakers squad, as Bryant scored 10 of his team-high 33 points in the fourth quarter, Pau Gasol made a significant block that prevented the Sixers from tying it and the Sixers couldn't take the lead despite having five attempts to do so in their last two possessions. The Lakers have shown their ability to win close games, but the second game against Memphis this season wasn't one of them.
With 8.6 seconds remaining, Bryant appeared to pull up for a jumper. But after noticing Zach Randolph racing nearly behind him to block the shot, Bryant passed in mid-air to the far end toward Ron Artest with 3.3 seconds remaining. Instead of throwing the ball back to Bryant at the top of the key, dumping the ball to Lamar Odom right behind him or swinging the ball on the near end to Derek Fisher, Artest pump-faked Rudy Gay, dribbled right and pulled up for a three-pointer only to have Gay block it as time expired.
3. How will the Lakers' front line match-up with Memphis? This is always interesting because it involves the Gasol brothers (Pau and Marc) going against each other, a matchup Pau usually wins. It's also intriguing because Odom and Randolph represent significant contributions to their respective teams. But this is also the first time this season the Lakers will have Andrew Bynum against Memphis.
Bynum has progressed tremendously since returning to the lineup Dec. 14. After shooting 21.4% in the first three games after rehabbing from offseason surgery on his right knee, Bynum has averaged a 70.9% clip in the next five, a rate Jackson attributes to Bynum's improved base and jumping. In two starts, Bynum scored 18 points on eight-of-12 shooting in 30 minutes against New Orleans and he snagged 15 rebounds in 31 minutes against Philadelphia. Despite his progress, there are certainly plenty of Lakers fans who are worried about tonight's game. January games against Memphis have not been good to Bynum.
Barely five minutes into a Jan. 31, 2009 game against the Grizzlies, Bryant collided with Bynum, who immediately yelled, pounding the court with his fist as he stayed down for about two minutes. Bynum sprained his right knee, an injury that ultimately sidelined him for 32 games. On Jan. 13, 2008 against the Grizzlies, Bynum hurt his left knee and missed the final 46 games of the regular season.
Jackson said last season that Bynum overcame the psychological component of suffering injuries, incidentally just before he strained his left Achilles' tendon against Minnesota, an injury that sidelined him for the final 13 regular-season games.
4. How does Gay's illness affect the Grizzlies' dynamic? Gay remained sidelined during the Grizzlies' 98-92 loss Saturday to the Utah Jazz because of a stomach virus, but he told The Memphis Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery that he will. It will be interesting to see how much to what degree Gay's illness may still linger against L.A., and how this affects Memphis' dynamic. In one respect, the Grizzlies won't fully reap the benefits of the team's top three-point shooter and it relieves some pressure into Ron Artest guarding him, an effort that's proven to be a mixed bag in the first game as well as last season. Still, Artest has played solid defense but has lacked a signature lockdown performance and it's often come at the expense of him solely worrying about an individual matchup at the expense of making sure the team's defensive rotations are all in unision. Artest does his best work when he has an assignment solely to focus on, but it may be a good thing that may not be necessary this time around.'
5. Will Bryant surpass Dominique Wilkins on the league's all-time scoring list? Bryant's all-time scoring total (26,626) remains 42 points shy of Wilkins' mark (26,668) meaning it's going to require Bryant to put together a signature performance to break the record against Memphis. For the sake of team balance, it's probably best for Bryant to surpass this mark Tuesday against Detroit. With Bryant's 44-point effort that incidentally broke Jerry West's all-time scoring mark last season against Memphis and his recent 33-point effort against Philadelphia, it's definitely not past Bryant to do this to ring in the New Year.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, center, is fouled by Memphis guard Tony Allen as he tries to shoot during a Lakers' regular season game on Nov. 30, 2010. Credit: Jim Weber / Associated Press.
Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom tries to beat Memphis guard Mike Conley to a loose ball during a regular season game on Nov. 3, 2010. Credit: Danny Moloshok / Reuters