The Los Angeles Lakers are having a resurgent year after missing out on the playoffs last season. Thanks in large part to a healthy LeBron James and the acquisition of Anthony Davis, the Lakers have run out to a sizable lead for the top spot in the Western Conference as they lead the Denver Nuggets by several games.
The Memphis Grizzlies, meanwhile, have been one of the big surprises of the NBA season. Led by star rookie Ja Morant, the Grizzlies have already exceeded their expected win total according to Vegas odds (opened at 26.5 wins) and currently hold a slim lead over a handful of other teams on the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Of course, if the playoffs started today the Grizzlies would be set to face off against the Lakers in the opening round, making Saturday’s game a very important game. It’s always a big night when the Lakers (and LeBron) come to town, and you should grab your tickets while you can. The matchup is even more interesting when you throw in the potential playoff “showdown”.
While the Grizzlies have obviously exceeded expectations, the Lakers have quietly exceeded their expectations as well. Sure, everyone assumed they would be NBA Finals contenders by the end of the season, but not many people expected the Lakers to be this good this quickly after hiring a new head coach and essentially having a whole new roster thanks to a flurry of trades in the offseason. Anthony Davis has fit in seamlessly with LeBron James and has been an anchor on the defensive end. The Lakers have gotten solid production from veterans Danny Green, Avery Bradley, and JaVale McGee while Dwight Howard has revitalized his career in LA.
However, both teams are seemingly on different trajectories at the moment. The Lakers have rattled off 6 straight wins, with key victories of teams like the Nuggets, Pelicans and Grizzlies. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, have returned home after a unfortunate road trip out West where they went 0-4 and lost both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke for a couple of weeks due to injury. The Lakers are looking to keep the hot streak rolling, while the Grizzlies look to get back on track regardless of what happens Friday night against the Kings - the first half of a rare home and home back to back for Memphis.
Here are a few keys to this very important game:
Get off to a good start
Over the last decade or so, FedExForum has been filled with Lakers jerseys whenever the Lakers have come to town. Whenever LeBron actually makes a trip to Memphis (and even when he doesn’t) his #6 or #23 is the most popular jersey of the night. Now when you combine LeBron with the Lakers, Saturday night’s crowd figures to feature a lot of purple and gold. If the Grizzlies come out slow to start the game and allow the Lakers to jump out to an early lead, the game could turn into a de facto road game inside FedExForum for the young Grizzlies.
However, if the Grizz can throw the first punch and run out ahead early, the Laker “fans” may go back to their roots and start cheering on the Grizzlies. Fan aspect aside, a fast start would be very beneficial to the Grizzlies. Against the Clippers on Monday, a slow start by the Grizzlies saw them trailing by 26 before the first quarter ended. A fast start will give the Grizzlies a much needed confidence boost and a little momentum to carry with them throughout the rest of the game. If they have another dud of a first quarter, the Grizzlies could be in for another long night against an LA team.
In their matchup last week, the Lakers got a combined 60 points from their two stars in Anthony Davis and Lebron James, good for over half of the Lakers points on the night. It won’t be easy without JJJ or Brandon Clarke, but the Grizzlies need to stay focused on the defensive end and lock in on stopping the Lakers dynamic duo. The Grizzlies can’t get caught stargazing and letting LeBron and AD make highlight play after highlight play. It’s going to take a total team effort to stop those two, but if the Grizzlies can force the Lakers supporting cast to take on a majority of the load on offense the Grizzlies may just be able to steal a win from the Lakers.
The Grizzlies will need to play physical with the Lakers to make up for the size disadvantage they’ll have without JJJ and Clarke. The Lakers have just AD and Avery Bradley as key rotation players currently shooting above 80% from the free throw line, so Memphis shouldn’t be afraid to foul anyone else and make them earn their points at the line instead of giving up an easy dunk or layup. The physicality isn’t just for the big men, either, as Jonas Valanciunas fouling out would do no favors for the Grizzlies. Dillon Brooks, Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton need to be physical on the wind and hound the Lakers guards. Obviously the goal isn’t to get in foul trouble, but the Grizzlies shouldn’t be afraid to be physical either if it means making certain Lakers earn their points at the free throw line.
It will most likely be a difficult game for the Grizzlies to come away with a win without two of their key players but this squad has been full of surprises all season. A win Saturday would be big for team morale to finish the season strong, as well as give the players and fans some confidence should these two teams meet in a playoff series. A loss, and a subsequent season series sweep at the hands of the Lakers, could continue the downward spiral the Grizzlies have been on since the All-Star Break.
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