Over the first five games of this seven game road trip, the Memphis Grizzlies are the worst team the Los Angeles Lakers will face before wrapping up the trip with a legit scrub in the Charlotte Bobcats, and the Uber-scrub Cleveland Cavaliers. Just three short weeks ago, Memphis would have truly belonged in the same discussion as those previously mentioned weaklings. At that time, they were four games under .500, and staring up at a few teams in terms of reaching the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and an inevitable first round evisceration at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
Now, the Grizzlies find themselves just a 1/2 game back of that final playoff spot, having won 8 out of their last 10 games and moved from 4 games under .500 to 2 games over .500 in a very short time period. Many of their recent wins have been of the healthy margin variety, including a 13 point victory over the Orlando Magic a week ago tonight. Actually, if we're honest, the turning things around period began quite a while ago for the Grizzlies, who started to play .500 ball a few weeks before this recent surge. You'll never guess which game served as a turning point for their season.
Author's Note: There's a Black Swan spoiler down below. You've been warned
I'm sorry, have you forgotten the last time these two teams met? Sadly, it is my duty to remind you of the 19 point beatdown the Grizzlies laid down on the defending champs in Staples Center, 104-85, on January 2nd. For me, it was the worst loss of the season for the Lakers. A similar home beatdown to the Bucks (without Brandon Jennings, even) might seem more embarrassing, a loss at home to the Sacramento Kings more disgusting, but in the context of recent previous results, both of those games smacked of let down potential. The Lakers had won 8 of 9 (and just concluded a long road trip) before jumping it up with the Bucks, and the Kings loss followed a 10 point victory in Denver and a 29 point annihilation of the Utah Jazz. The loss to Memphis, rather, was the fourth loss in six games, with all of those losses by double digits. I'm not saying the Lakers should be excused for any of these results, but let's just say I could see the other two coming. Only the loss to the Grizzlies was as mystifying a debacle as it was epic.
Point being, the Grizzlies are probably feeling pretty good about themselves going into tonight's contest. If the Lakers had any form of regular season self-consciousness regarding their play, they should be feeling the exact opposite. The purple and gold are 5-5 over their last 10 games, and every one of those five losses says something less than complimentary about the team. Two of the losses (to the Clippers and Kings) were to teams below .500, with Sacramento way below. The other three losses were to teams that currently have a better record than the Lakers. Five such teams exist, and the Lakers have played those five teams seven times. They are 1-6 in those contests, with only a victory over a Carlos Boozer-less Chicago Bulls team, which was still very early in the process of combining many new pieces and a new coaching staff, to hang their hat on. If you are like me, you take some solace in the competitive nature of the most recent loss vs. the San Antonio Spurs, but the fact remains that the Lakers are just about completely un-victorious against the league's elite.
There is some promise of resurgence, however, and that promise is Pau Gasol. Gasol went off in very un-Pau like fashion against New Orleans, scoring 34 points on 17 shots. 34 points is a very large number for our Spaniard (his high on the season), and to get 34 points on so few shots is quite impressive, but that 17 is the best number of all. He's taken that many shots recently (he had 20 FGA against Houston last week), but Saturday's game was unique to me in that I can never remember Pau Gasol attacking as if he knew that everything he did was going to work. Pau has had this kind of efficiency before, but it always comes within the context of the offense. That can be a very admirable quality, but every once in a while you want your stars to play a game that shouts "Fuck you and your team, there is nothing you can do to stop me." We see these games from Kobe on a regular basis that has only slightly diminished over time. I'm sure Pau has had this type of game before, but I honestly can't remember one. To wit, I can never remember Pau Gasol taking a shot I would label as a "heat-check", or at least, I couldn't remember it happening before Saturday. Black Swan indeed; Pau must have slept with Mila Kunis after the Celtics game, or at least pretended he did. Me likey.
And it's been a bit lost in the noise because of the Lakers last second loss to the Spurs, but Gasol seems to have slipped back into the "borderline MVP" shoes (which must have been lost the past two months) in the past week. In his last three games, Pau is averaging 26 points on 66% shooting, with 11 boards. Them be some big ass numbers folks, and if anything close to that continues, I expect the Lakers fortunes to improve dramatically, even as the competition steps it up a notch. Of course, we won't have to wait long to find out whether Pau has really turned the page, because the Lakers play the Boston Celtics this Thursday, and no team provides a better litmus test of Pau's resolve. A week ago, Pau had none as the Celtics dominated from the middle out.
But first the Grizzlies, and don't think that thought process isn't a bit of a concern regarding tonight's contest. The Lakers have already paid the price for looking ahead to the C's once this season, and besides, looking ahead didn't exactly do them much good. As for tonight's actual strategery, the game may very well hang in the balance of the very unusual relationship the Lakers seem to have on the Grizzlies outside shooting. On the season, Memphis is second to last in 3 point shooting, only connecting on an average of 33.1% of their shot attempts. And yet, in all three of their previous contests against the Lakers, the Grizzlies have not shot less than 50% from three point range. They have done so against the Lakers only slightly less than they have done so against the rest of the league combined, having shot 50% or better only four times against all the other teams in the league. Surely, the Lakers are due just a little bit of regression to the mean, right? It wouldn't hurt to cover Mike Conley behind the arc just this once. Rajon Rondo, this guy isn't. The prevalent strategy for beating the Grizzlies is not "Dare Mike Conley to beat you from the outside".
Limiting the three point damage (which, if overall season performance is any indication, really shouldn't be all that hard) should be a good first step towards victory. The other steps lie in containing Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay, and hopefully stepping up to the plate to do so are Ron Artest and Pau Gasol. Sorry for focusing so heavily on the Spaniard today, but Pau's importance on both sides of the ball are paramount in determining the result of tonight's contest. Z-Bo is literally the only guy on the Grizzlies who has had a strong season, and his All-Star "snub" is sure to motivate him even more to show those silly coaches what they are missing, although in truth he wasn't snubbed so much as a casualty of playing in the incredibly deep Western Conference. He and Lamar Odom fall into the same category, joining Lamarcus Aldridge, Steve Nash, and a host of other guys who would be All-Stars in many other seasons, or if their residence were part of the Eastern Conference.
Rudy Gay has not been an All-Star. On the season, he's actually been a rather large disappointment for Memphis. But he has been quite effective against the Lakers. His athleticism has given Ron Artest trouble in the past, and he will provide yet another indication of whether this very small turn-around for Artest (who has been very active defensively in the past couple games since the trade requests of unknown accuracy surfaced) is the real deal or not. Contain Gay, contain Z-bo, contain 3 point shooting, and tonight's contest will surely be a victory for the Lakers. Two out of three will get the job done if the Lakers play anywhere near average on the other side of the ball. Anything less, and the Lakers will find themselves in yet another uphill battle against a decent team.
As they have plenty of hills left to climb this season, it might be a good idea to make this one just a little less challenging.
Another Author's Note: Check back later as I will update with a stats table