The Los Angeles Lakers are on a three-game losing streak, and the hill isn't getting any less steep. The team is set to face the Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum next, and Los Angeles has gone an underwhelming 5-14 on the road.
This will also be the second time that these teams face off this season, with Memphis having defeated the Lakers back on November 23.
Sadly, not much has changed since then. The Lakers are still struggling mightily in coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system, and the Grizzlies are continuing to establish themselves as a tough defensive team in the Western Conference.
This will all come into play from the opening tip up until the final buzzer. Los Angeles has yet to find true and consistent team chemistry outside of getting the ball to Kobe Bryant, while the Grizzlies' frontcourt offense has been of a great help to them all season long.
Throw in some rowdy Memphis fans, and you've got the recipe for an intense Western Conference matchup.
Time: Wednesday, January 23, 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: Time Warner Cable Sportsnet, SportSouth
Records: Los Angeles Lakers (17-24) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (26-14)
Betting Lines: Not available as of Tuesday, January 22, 2:40 p.m. EST
Injuries: Steve Blake (abdomen, day-to-day), Jordan Hill (hip, out), Quincy Pondexter (knee, out)
Key Storyline: Can Lakers Get It Together Against Grizzlies' Defense?
The Lakers may be slumping, but the Grizzlies are not exactly flying high. Memphis has lost four of its last six, and has averaged just 81.5 points scored per game over that stretch. Granted, Memphis is the second-worst scoring team in the league, but the Grizzlies still manage to put up 92.9 points per contest.
Los Angeles will need to take full advantage of this slump in spite of the fact that Memphis also ranks second in points allowed, at 89.4 per game. The Lakers are fifth in scoring and can use their fast-paced approach to take advantage of the Grizzlies' struggles.
But wait, what about the fact that Memphis has already beaten the Lakers once this season, on November 23?
This is definitely something to consider, as the Grizzlies did win that game 106-98 on the back of 21 points from Rudy Gay and a double-double from Zach Randolph. Kobe Bryant turned in a 30-point performance for the Lakers, but the team struggled thanks to poor performances from most everyone else, plus the absence of point guard Steve Nash.
Nash is back in the lineup for this game, but not even he might be able to quell the Grizzlies' defensive attack. The Lakers are going to have to win this game one of two ways: either the old-fashioned way, or on a prayer that Memphis' struggles continue.
Key Matchup: Dwight Howard vs. Marc Gasol
The Grizzlies may rank second in points allowed, but are not as good a rebounding team as the Lakers. Los Angeles ranks third in that category compared to Memphis, who is 12th.
That said, the battle of the centers is going to be one to watch once the game is underway. Los Angeles will, of course, be looking to three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard to turn in a fine performance in the paint.
Howard has posted 17.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, but has not necessarily been the explosive center Lakers fans hoped he would be. He has not demanded the ball as much as he should and has averaged just five field goal attempts per game during Los Angeles' current losing streak.
That simply cannot be the case against Marc Gasol tonight. Gasol has averaged just 13.3 points and 7.5 rebounds to go with 1.8 blocks, but has more size than his opponent at 7'1", 265 pounds.
It also doesn't help Howard that Gasol is more of a high-post center, which could mean the Lakers getting torched on the boards. Howard thrives in the paint, but Gasol can take away one of the Lakers' greatest weapons by making their center play out of his comfort zone.
Thus, Howard needs to force Gasol into the low-post, where he does not fare as well. This means sticking to him like glue from start to finish, and not letting him get any free opportunities in the high post or anywhere on the floor.
This will make their battle so much closer and more critical to the game, and the fact that it could end in a stalemate makes it all the more important to the final outcome.
X-Factor: Steve Nash
The Lakers did not have Steve Nash against the Grizzlies earlier this season, and they'll need him to be great against this tough defensive squad. Mike D'Antoni's offense relies on a solid point guard to run the show, and Nash must do everything from creating plays to contributing some points of his own.
Despite missing close to two months with a leg fracture, Nash has posted 11.2 points and 8.6 assists per game this season. He has also been remarkably accurate with his shot, shooting 52 percent from the field and 39 percent from long range.
Nash's three-point shooting is below his career mark of 43 percent, but he cannot let that get him down tonight. He is going to be guarded by the young and dynamic Mike Conley, who is second in the league with 2.4 steals per game.
The two-time MVP needs to simply use his superior experience to drive by Conley and create plays in spite of the defense. More importantly, he cannot hesitate to create his own shot if his openings are limited.
The fact of the matter is that in Round 2 against the Grizzlies, the Lakers have no excuses. Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are all present and healthy, and there is no reason that the run-and-gun game should not be in full force.
That starts and stops with Nash, who needs to get everybody involved and not let Bryant take over early in the game. He is there to be a floor general, and it is time for all of his targets to be utilized.
On paper, the Lakers should lose this game. However, I am not one to subscribe to such a standard, so hear this.
Los Angeles will enter FedEx Forum on a three-game losing streak, and walk out with a win. Yes, Memphis is the better defensive team, but the Lakers will be fully stocked and ready to play.
Who will win?
The Grizzlies will put up a good fight, but their offensive struggles will continue to dog them. Rudy Gay will have another subpar shooting night, as will Zach Randolph. Those two are the team's best scorers, and an off night from them is enough to result in a loss.
On the Lakers' end, Steve Nash will be in full playmaking mode and finding everyone for offense. Kobe Bryant will have a great game, as will Pau Gasol off the bench. Even Dwight Howard will show shades of his usual self, dominating the pick and roll and the boards.
A win like this may not be enough to permanently turn the tides for the Lakers this season, but one thing is certain. It could be enough to light a fire under the entire team moving forward.
Los Angeles Lakers 106, Memphis Grizzlies 95