The Lakers haven't played many high-end opponents this young season, much less many outside the cozy confines of Staples Center. Tonight, they'll get a serious taste of both. The Memphis Grizzlies are playing as well as any team in the NBA. At 8-2, they boast the Western Conference's best winning percentage, along with its top point differential (+7.6). On both sides of the ball, the Griz are putting in quality work. If the Lakers want to redeem themselves for Wednesday's "Muppet Time" fiasco in Sacramento and keep alive the chance of a winning three-game roadie, they'll need to sharpen their efforts.
For more perspective on the Grizzlies, I sent some questions to Chip Crain, among the hosts of the True Hoop Network's 3 Shades of Blue blog. Below are his responses.
Andy Kamenetzky: Memphis is off to a seriously hot start. They were obviously very good last season as well, but what accounts for the seemingly upgraded play this year?
Chip Crain: The Grizzlies have developed the team chemistry missing from last season. Rudy Gay is more focused. Zach Randolph is healthy. And the bench is stronger despite the loss of O.J. Mayo. Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington, Quincy Pondexter and Marresse Speights all working together with a full training camp has allowed the team to build on the past two seasons. With Mike Conley and Marc Gasol both hitting their prime years, the team is suddenly deep and on the same page. The results speak for themselves.
AK: Conley will be matched against Darius Morris, and while the veteran has the distinct edge in skills and experience, Morris is a very big point guard, and does a nice job using that frame, especially defensively. How does Conley tend to fare against bigger guards, and how do you see this matchup playing out?
CC: Conley struggles defensively against bigger scoring guards, but offsets that somewhat with his speed and anticipation. Conley knows he has some big men behind him as well, so he can play more aggressive on the perimeter knowing Gasol, Gay and even Randolph have his back. Offensively, Conley isn't expected to penetrate as much as other point guards. The offense runs though Marc Gasol as much as Conley, and when Conley's man doubles down to help, he's become much more efficient from behind the arc. Conley has also found easy lanes to the hoop when he does penetrate, since Gasol sets strong picks.
AK: A common knock against the Griz, fair or not, is that Randolph and Gay can't play together. How are they looking as a tandem this year?
CC: This is one of the most common misunderstandings about the Grizzlies. Rudy and Z-Bo have had tremendous success together on the court and make a very solid tandem. Gay benefits from the attention Randolph (and Gasol) draw to match up one-on-one against his defender. This season especially, Gay is using his height and leaping ability to get great looks close to the basket. When Gay has the ball on the perimeter, teams have to respect his range, which gives Randolph room to operate on the baseline, especially when establishing rebounding position.
The idea that the two don't play well together is a mystery to me. When both are healthy, which hasn't happened often the last two seasons, the team is nearly unbeatable.
AK: On the other hand, nobody would deny how well Z-Bo and Marc Gasol operate in tandem. Which frontcourt -- Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol/Dwight Howard -- has the edge tonight?
CC: Zach and Marc have the best two-man game among bigs in the NBA. It doesn't hurt that Gasol is probably the league's best passing true center. From the high post, Gasol can hit the shot if his defender drops off or give Randolph the ball where he can score. Howard and Gasol are very similar in this regard but have yet to show the understanding of each other that Randolph and Gasol have after playing together three years. I'm giving the Lakers the edge because of their size advantage and Pau's understanding of Marc's strengths and weaknesses, but the matchup is much closer than a lot of people realize.
CC: My bias is towards the Grizzlies, of course. Objectively, I give the Grizzlies the edge at point guard and small forward. I give the Lakers the edge at shooting guard and center. Power forward is a push as both Pau and Z-Bo have scored at ease on one another. The bench could be the major determining factor. If Ellington and Bayless can hit the open shots, the Lakers will struggle. This also means Tony Allen can focus solely on stopping Kobe and not force himself too much on the offensive end.
This game will be fun to watch. The Lakers are coming together after a disastrous early start. The Grizzlies have to maintain the chemistry that helped them sweep the Heat, Thunder and Knicks last week. I expect a playoff intensity to the game and hope the Grizzlies can pull out the win.