You wouldn't think the Los Angeles Lakers have much in common with tonight's opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies. The Lakers are the league's most prestigious franchise, with a history of unrivaled success. Until last season, Memphis' history did not include a single playoff win, and as an expansion in the early 90s, were forced into the quickest relocation in the modern era. But, last season, both teams were linked by the same phenomenon. Both teams managed to catch lightning. Memphis just did so at a better time.
The Lakers only managed to catch their lightning in the regular season. Right after the All-Star break, LA lit fire to the league, going 16-1 against some of the toughest teams out there. Andrew Bynum turned the team into a dominant defensive force, and the playoffs were their oyster. But, even though nothing seemed out of the ordinary about that stretch (since the Lakers were, you know, defending champs at the time), that stretch turned out to be lightning that the Lakers were unable to bottle. Immediately after, they went back to poor, inconsistent play, and that inconsistency stayed with them until the bitter end.
Memphis caught their lightning at just the right time. Out of the playoff picture through the 1st half of the season, Memphis closed the season strong enough to nab the 8th seed in the playoffs, and then upset the San Antonio Spurs in the 1st round and gave OKC all they could handle in a tough 2nd round playoffs series. Based on that performance, and with a young team poised to continue their growth, lots of folks had Memphis pegged as a team to watch this season, one of the better Western Conference teams. It's a little early to give up on that prognosis, but their play this season leads one to believe that they, too, failed to bottle whatever lightning saw them do so well in last year's playoffs.
The Grizzlies still remain a tough opponent, one of those teams the Lakers always have trouble beating. The teams have split the last six contests they've played. Memphis is exactly the kind of team the Lakers don't really like to see, because they have tons of athleticism on the perimeter. Mike Conley is jitterbug quick, though he's not as threatening as most of the other guards with his kind of speed. Tony Allen and OJ Mayo tag team as an effective 2 guard pairing, with OJ capable of big scoring and Allen one of the most capable perimeter defenders in the league. And Rudy Gay is the type of mid range star that is capable of a huge night any time, though is not consistent enough to be truly elite.
The Grizz are an even tougher matchup for the Lakers than other teams with similar athleticism, because they also have the size to combat what is normally the Lakers' biggest advantage in any contest. Under normal circumstances, the front line of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is one of the most formidable the Lakers might face, but with Randolph out six weeks with a torn MCL, the Lakers should be able to take advantage, especially since the backup at that position, Darrel Arthur, is already out for the season with a torn Achilles. In their place, Memphis is starting Dante Cunningham, and typing his name is literally my first knowledge of his existence in the world.
On the Lakers side of things, hopefully there will be a bit more energy about the team than there was on Friday night against the Warriors. The season's blistering pace (which has been a bit more blistering for the Lakers than for anybody else) was clearly taking a toll on rotations that were previously crisp on defense, and on Andrew Bynum's ability to work in the post without fatigue. Against Gasol, Bynum is in the rare position of having more athleticism than his counterpart instead of more size, but no matter how you measure it, Bynum should have the edge, and Pau Gasol should have no problem taking advantage of the dude who's name I've already forgotten.
Kobe, on the other hand, has a pretty stern challenge facing him. As previously mentioned, there aren't many perimeter defenders better than Tony Allen, and he's forced Kobe into some poor shooting nights in the recent past. Kobe's shot the ball quite a bit over the last three games, but the last two have seen those shots get converted into an efficient performance. That reduces, but does not completely remove, the criticism that Kobe needs to get his teammates, specifically the really big ones, more involved. Against tonight's opponent, it really makes much more sense to pound the ball inside than for Kobe to try to force the issue from the perimeter.
Defensively, the Lakers should be a in a good position to cause the Grizzlies problems unless Rudy Gay goes off. Bynum is strong enough to prevent Gasol from being at his most effective, Tony Allen is a liability most nights offensively, so the only issues will be containing Gay, Conley and Mayo off the bench. If the Lakers can manage to turn Memphis into a jump shooting team, this should be an easy contest. Hopefully the Lakers can build a bit of momentum, and knock on a rain forest, Andrew Bynum can continue making progress towards breaking the Grizzlies curse.