Lakers vs. Grizzlies: What to watch with 3 Shades of Blue

The Memphis Grizzlies haven't been a playoff team since the 2005-06 season, but last year Lionel Hollins' crew quietly took some steps toward respectability, pushing its record as high as 38-33 before a 2-9 finish. At the very least, it was competitive enough to require one of Kobe Bryant's best games of the 2009-10 campaign last February in Memphis.

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The Grizzlies have been a little better since they decided to put OJ Mayo on the bench, but are still struggling to meet this season's loftier expectations.

This year, in a Western Conference with a little less depth, the Grizzlies were considered by some to be dark horse candidates in the race for the final playoff spot. Not a team to be ignored, at least not simply because the front of the jersey says "Memphis" and they draw about 19 people to FedEx Forum for a typical home game. But after Saturday's 98-92 loss in Utah, the Grizzlies are 14-19, three games behind an 8-seed. Not out of it, but not at the level of, say, Houston, another team currently on the wrong side of the postseason cutoff but playing good ball after a horrid start.

The Grizzlies have, though, already knocked off the Lakers this season, with a 98-96 win on their home floor, so while Memphis' record may not leap off the page, the champs ought to be acutely aware of how possible it is to lose to them. (L.A. also rolled the Grizzlies -- playing without Zach Randolph -- on Nov. 2, back in the salad days of the eight-game win streak.)

To get a better feel for where the Grizzlies are these days, I hit up Chip Crain from 3 Shades of Blue, the top-shelf blog dedicated to all things Grizzlies.

1. How has the dynamic on the floor changed with OJ Mayo coming off the bench? Has the move accomplished what it set out to do?

Good question. The team has a better balance when OJ is coming off the bench with Xavier Henry or Tony Allen providing better defense at the two guard with their size. Unfortunately Mayo hasn't always provided the scoring off the bench the team has hoped to see. When he has, the team is able to keep two scoring threats on the court at all times, but when Mayo struggles the second team doesn't provide enough spark to give the starters much rest.

The Grizzlies have Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol as scoring threats, so there are plenty of players capable of scoring when Mayo is out of the lineup. Mayo is the only true scoring threat coming off the bench right now. Defensively, he struggled against opposing shooting guards earlier in the season. The team is better on that end with Mayo coming off the bench.

You have to expect a player like Mayo to struggle at times scoring, and adapting to coming off the bench is a difficult transition when a player has started his entire career. Since his days in West Virginia, Mayo has been a starter and a star, so the ups and downs are understandable. To his credit, Mayo seems to have accepted his role, and it can be a potent one.

Since Mayo became the sixth man, the Grizzlies have played .500 ball, whereas the team won only four times in 13 games when he started at the beginning of the season. The Grizzlies haven't accomplished what was expected of them with or without Mayo in the starting lineup, so you can't say that the move has accomplished what the Grizzlies desired. But they are closer to being the team the owner and fans expected with Mayo coming off the bench.

2. Zach Randolph shocked a lot of people last year (us included) with his solid play, and more importantly, what appeared to be a solid dose of citizenship (and even some attempts at defense). On the floor, how has he looked in Year 2? Is he perceived as a franchise building block, long term, given his expiring deal?

Zach has been a major surprise to everyone since arriving in Memphis. The immature behavior has disappeared and he became a major leader of the team on the court, in the locker room and in the community. This season has been no different. Randolph started slow after suffering a severe lower back bruise on opening night, but has picked things up considerably of late, averaging 21.8 ppg and 14.4 rpg in the last 10 games (before Saturday's loss to Utah). He's been consistent in his effort since recovering from the injury.

Randolph's scoring has dropped a bit this season, from lack of effort as much as the team's desire to get everyone involved on offense, costing him some shots. Like Mayo, Randolph has accepted this without complaint, soothing a major worry of the team entering the season, particularly with Randolph playing the final year of his contract. The Grizzlies are the league's youngest team, so it's hard to say Randolph is a building block, more a rare veteran member among a young core. The Grizzlies want Randolph to remain in Memphis for at least the next three or four years, but some reports have indicated Randolph wants to be paid on the level of Pau Gasol.

The Grizzlies signed Gay to a near max deal this past summer and extended Conley at the start of the season, so it is difficult to imagine Memphis being able to afford another deal the size of Pau Gasol's on the roster, especially with Marc Gasol a restricted free agent this summer, and Mayo due for a contract extension this offseason, as well.

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To the shock of, well, everyone, Zach Randolph has been not just a great player, but a model citizen in Memphis. They love this guy!

3. Depending on who you ask, the Grizzlies are either right where they should be, or a disappointment. How good do you think this team should be? Does it consider itself playoff quality?

First of all, the Grizzlies are leading the league in games decided by three points or fewer, and their record in those games is less than hoped. Those are games in which the team's youth is obvious. Losses at Cleveland, Washington, Golden State and Sacramento, not to mention throwing away a game in Phoenix earlier this season (the Grizzlies held a two-point lead with 0.4 seconds remaining) and a horrible home loss to New Jersey have put the team behind the pace required to be a playoff contender. Fortunately, the schedule eases up after January, and if the Grizzlies are within a few games of the eighth playoff spot heading into February, they have to be considered a threat to play this postseason.

But getting there won't be easy. The Grizzlies began the new year at Utah last night and after the Lakers on Sunday return home to play Oklahoma City and Utah before heading back to Oklahoma City to face the Thunder, finishing a brutal five-game stretch. Those sloppy losses earlier in the season have made it imperative for the Grizzlies to beat teams they aren't supposed to in order to make the playoffs. While the Grizzlies have been around .500 since the opening part of the season, they haven't defeated many teams with winning records. Teams incapable of beating winning opponents don't belong in the playoffs.

4. It's no secret Pau Gasol doesn't particularly enjoy matchups against his brother. How does Marc see these games?

Marc doesn't think of the games as a matchup against his brother so much as a game against a team the Grizzlies need to defeat. Pau was not popular in Memphis because of the perception he dislikes physical contact. Marc is all about physical play.

When Pau moves to power forward it doesn't get any better for him. Randolph is a physical 4 who loves the challenge of playing against Pau. Both players have had huge games against each other, going back to the days when Pau was wearing Memphis colors and Randolph played in Portland. Neither is very effective stopping the other. What makes the Grizzlies tough for Pau is the ability to force him to defend Randolph but then put Marc against him on the other end of the court. Memphis is one of the few teams that have that combination of players able to attack Gasol on both sides of the floor.

Still, Pau is one of the most talented PFs in the league, and despite their strengths, he remains a difficult challenge for the Grizzlies. For the Lakers, if they can keep Marc Gasol on Andrew Bynum defensively, it will allow Pau Gasol to operate from a position of strength against Randolph. If Bynum is ineffective or otherwise lets Memphis get away with guarding Gasol with Gasol, Pau will be forced to exert himself physically, which isn't his strong point.

That the Grizzlies played in Utah on Saturday night benefits Pau as well. Memphis' bigs will be fatigued, somewhat. But if he has his legs, Marc's knowledge of his brother's strengths and weaknesses combined with Randolph's ability to score inside and out against Pau means the Grizzlies are as well equipped as any team to deal with him.

Thanks again to Chip for his help, and be sure to check out 3 Shades of Blue.