What to watch: Lakers at Memphis

As John Hollinger noted Monday afternoon (Insider required), the Western Conference has gone a little squishy as teams for a variety of reasons have piled up losses. Denver, the Clippers, Dallas, Houston, Portland, and Utah have all suffered either significant bouts of mediocrity or full on slumps at points over the last few weeks, pulling the lower rungs of the playoff ladder a lot closer to .500 than typically seen in the W.C.

Even the Lakers, winners of seven in ten, lost to the Pistons and Wizards last week, and nearly dropped a game to a Kevin Love-less Timberwolves squad.

A quiet exception to this southward inertia has been the Memphis Grizzlies, who have gone 21-10 since a 3-6 start despite the fact star power forward Zach Randolph has played only four games thanks to a knee injury. (This after losing key frontcourt backup Darrell Arthur to an Achilles injury before the start of the season.) On any floor, tonight's matchup against Memphis would be a tough game for the Lakers. In what is sure to be a raucous FedEx Forum, where the Grizzlies are 15-5, it's an even bigger challenge, particularly given how the Lakers are so flippn' awful away from Staples.

To gain a little extra insight into Lionel Hollins' crew, we hit up Red Coleman of 3 Shades of Blue, a great resource for scratching your Grizzlies itch.

1. The Grizzlies aren't at all impressive offensively, but are very solid at the other end. What accounts for their success, and how do you think they'll approach the Lakers Tuesday?

Memphis has a commitment to playing defense that permeates everything they do. It's similar to the mindset that Tom Thibodeau has instilled in Chicago, really. Tony Allen is the spark plug for this, but everyone buys into it completely. That's why everyone is active and attentive on that end of the floor.

I think the Grizzlies will approach this game like they do any other -- stick your man, disrupt the passing lanes, and box out when the ball goes up. That's fundamental basketball, so there is no reason to expect them to change. They'll pay special attention to Kobe, of course, but it will still just be solid, team defense that is employed to try and hold him in check.

2. On the other end, as it's been for a few years the Grizzlies don't hit many 3's or pile up assists. How do they get their points, and what's the best way to stop them?

Memphis uses their defense to create easy offensive opportunities. They lead the league in steals, and have respectable numbers for blocks and rebounding, which helps them get transition buckets -- even if they don't always show up as fast-break points. The starting five really has two "point men", with Mike Conley in the backcourt and Marc Gasol in the pivot. Both of them are excellent passers with phenomenal court vision. The best way to stop them is to force Conley to give the ball up early, and prevent Gasol from getting it until late in the shot clock. That disrupts their offensive flow more often than not.

The issue of Rudy Gay possibly having a concussion throws a wrinkle into things, obviously, but even as their best player, he is just one cog in the machine. This team has proven multiple times and ways that they can survive without a key player, so don't expect them to just throw in the towel if Rudy is unable to play.

3. What is the ceiling for this team once Zach Randolph returns?

If you'll permit me to put my Beale Street Blue glasses on, I think the ceiling for this team is a championship once Z-Bo is back in the fold. Perhaps not this season, but for the next few, I think that it is a real possibility. The main thing they need right now to achieve that is a veteran backup PG who can knock down open perimeter shots. If they had that, then I like their chances against the Thunder, Heat, Bulls or anyone else in a 7-game series.

4. Name three things that have to happen for the Grizzlies to win.

1) Conley has to press his advantage in quickness and athleticism all game long. Neither Blake nor Fisher can stay with him if he's aggressive.

2) Tony Allen needs to focus 100% of his energy and concentration on staying in Kobe's face all game long. No one can stop him, but he can be harassed and frustrated on occasion.

3) Mo Speights needs to punch Pau in the mouth....figuratively speaking, of course. Everyone knows that he is averse to physical play and that you can get in his head that way.

If they accomplish any of these three, they should have a chance to win this game. All three, and they SHOULD win the game.