The Los Angeles Lakers have had a rather tumultuous season in 2012-13 but look to be rounding into form at the right time. They will put their impressive 24-12 home record to the test against the Memphis Grizzlies, who have already secured a berth in the Western Conference playoffs.
Every game from here on out is vital for L.A., as Mike D'Antoni's squad sits in the eighth and final playoff spot, just a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz.
Another heroic effort from injury-plagued superstar Kobe Bryant was most recently put forth as the Lakers thrashed the Dallas Mavericks by 20 points, thanks to the Black Mamba's triple-double. The Grizzlies are on a four-game winning streak of their own and have a formidable front line capable of giving even L.A.'s bigs headaches.
This should be an extremely intriguing showdown on Friday in the Staples Center, so here is some analysis and my predictions as to how this one will play out.
When: Friday, April 5, at 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: Staples Center; Los Angeles, Calif.
TV: Time Warner Cable SportsNet
Records: Memphis Grizzlies (51-24), Los Angeles Lakers (39-36)
Injuries (h/t ESPN)
Memphis—No injuries to report.
Los Angeles—Steve Nash (hip/back), day-to-day.
Key Storyline: Can Kobe Keep it Going?
A grueling 47 minutes defined Bryant's last sensational performance, and it seems that he is simply indestructible despite all the wear and tear he's endured. This is his 17th NBA season, and playing those kind of minutes at such a high level is simply staggering.
Bryant will need to continue his spectacular play against a Memphis defense that allows the fewest points in the league on average.
Those guarding him will include the lengthy Tayshaun Prince and perimeter defensive specialist Tony Allen, who is often tasked with shutting down the opposing team's top scorer.
In two previous matchups with the Grizzlies this season, Bryant averaged 29.5 points per game but shot just 39 percent from the field. The reason he was still able to score was because he's averaging 11 free-throw attempts thus far.
What's important to point out is that the Lakers lost both of those games, but Memphis also had Rudy Gay still in the fold.
The new look that the Grizzlies will provide and the potential absence of L.A. point guard Steve Nash will cause Bryant to run the offense and get his teammates involved rather than attack frequently. He has proved to be strong in the facilitating role, but it will take another Herculean effort to get the Lakers over the hump in this one.
Key Matchup: Zach Randolph vs. Pau Gasol
The last time Gasol was in the starting lineup facing Memphis his numbers weren't pretty: 28 minutes, six points (3-for-8 shooting), four rebounds, three turnovers and four fouls.
Gasol simply cannot be stymied to that extent by Randolph and his brother, Marc Gasol, this time around. The Lakers' star forward seems to finally be settling in to D'Antoni's offense after struggling all year to become acclimated.
Much of that can be attributed to the time he missed with injury, but Pau Gasol is finally back and looks to be hitting his stride at the perfect time.
Z-Bo averages 11.3 rebounds per game and can be one of the most devastating offensive post presences in the entire NBA. That makes it absolutely vital for Gasol to get physical with him and force the crafty veteran into mid-range and perimeter jumpers to get Randolph out of rhythm.
Now, Randolph is definitely capable of knocking those down, but it's more of a way to force him away from the rim and out of ideal rebounding position.
That will also help the Lakers' uptempo offense set the tone for the game and afford them valuable looks in transition. Memphis is suffocating in half-court sets, so L.A. should look to run as much as possible—especially with how the fast break can energize a home crowd.
That will largely depend on how well Gasol checks Randolph. He must continue being a wise passer when he establishes his own offense against the thicker, stronger Randolph.
X-Factor: Earl Clark, SF, Los Angeles Lakers
Clark has been strong off the bench and has even started at times this year. His 17 points and 12 rebounds—including five on the offensive end—afforded the Lakers valuable second-chance opportunities against the Mavs. He had a career-high five blocks as well.
Which sixth man will have a bigger impact on Friday?
The Grizzlies' bigs of Randolph and Marc Gasol are excellent rebounders—particularly Randolph. Clark's leaping ability and outstanding athleticism could help steal some of those away.
In the most recent loss in Memphis, Clark pulled down nine boards, and four were on the offensive glass. Howard and Gasol are going to have their hands full down low as it is, so any contribution that Clark can provide would be huge.
Plus, the matchup Clark has is vital to the team's success. He will have to contend with Prince, who has the basketball savvy and experience to give him problems. However, if Clark can overcome that and outplay Prince, the Lakers' chances of winning are all the more enhanced.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Mike Conley, Jr.
SG: Tony Allen
SF: Tayshaun Prince
PF: Zach Randolph
C: Marc Gasol
PG: Steve Blake
SG: Jodie Meeks
G/F: Kobe Bryant
PF: Pau Gasol
Since this game is in Los Angeles and not in Memphis, like the two previous occasions, it should be a tighter margin. The Lakers have so much at stake; every contest moving forward becomes the new most important game of the season.
Memphis is locked in as a playoff team, but this will be a good test for Lionel Hollins' team in preparation for what's sure to be a grueling Round 1 matchup—whoever the opponent is.
With how competitive the Western Conference is and how difficult it would seem to beat a team as talented as the Lakers three times in one regular season, I am partial to thinking that Bryant will once again be the driving force to another Lakers victory in front of the home crowd.
A lot should depend on the health of Nash. If he does return, how effective can he really be? Will Mike Conley Jr. have a field day thanks to his supreme quickness?
But even with Nash's status still up in the air, the Lakers should be slightly favored due to how critical this game is for them.
The window on another championship is closing, and Bryant knows it. So do the other veterans on his team. It's not that the Grizzlies don't want to win, but L.A. should have a more heightened sense of urgency to sneak into the postseason.
Lakers 95, Grizzlies 92