The X-factor for the Lakers when they face the Memphis Grizzlies will be… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
The Lakers (39-36) have climbed back into playoff position with a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz. After winning two straight, the Lakers will be challenged Friday night as they host the Memphis Grizzlies (51-24) at Staples Center.
Memphis plays some of the best defense in the league, holding teams to just 89.8 points a game. Offensively, the Grizzlies have weapons but as a group they average just 93.8 points a game.
The Lakers will struggle to meet their season average at 102.3 a night against Memphis. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are two of the top perimeter defenders in the league -- both as capable as any at trying to guard Kobe Bryant.
Memphis won the first meeting at home 106-98, led by 21 from Rudy Gay who has since been traded to the Toronto Raptors. The Lakers played without Steve Nash and Steve Blake in defeat. Bryant scored 30 but shot just 7-23 from the field.
The Grizzlies also won the second battle, also in Memphis, 106-93. Darrell Arthur scored 20 off the bench. Gay was still with the team -- the Lakers had Nash back but were without Jordan Hill and Blake. Bryant scored 29 in defeat on 11-of-23 shooting.
In both games the Lakers had trouble guarding Mike Conley. Friday will be the third and final meeting between the two teams through the regular season.
With the Jazz owning the tiebreaker, the Lakers have to keep winning to control their own destiny. Memphis will be far tougher than the Laker's last two opponents (Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings).
The Lakers have heavily relied on Bryant with Steve Nash struggling with a hamstring strain. He's doubtful Friday. Metta World Peace (knee) and Hill (hip) are also sidelined.
Bryant will likely get the start at small forward, guarded by Prince -- who has many years' experience against the Lakers star, especially in the 2004 NBA Finals when he won a title with the Detroit Pistons.
Coach Mike D'Antoni has used Bryant as the team's backup to Steve Blake at point guard. While Chris Duhon or Darius Morris might get an opportunity, in an effort to reduce Bryant's minutes, Bryant is still going to need to help carry the team on the perimeter.
He'll also have to deal with the tough and aggressive Allen, who is one of the top on-ball defenders in the league.
Together, Prince and Allen average 18.1 points a game for the Grizzlies -- but it's their defensive matchup against Bryant that will set the tone.
The Lakers need to win the battle of the big men with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Howard and Pau Gasol have both improved, especially recently. Howard is in better physical shape. Pau Gasol is getting more touches in the post.
Randolph is a big-time rebounder (11.5 a game) who also averages 15.5 points a night. Marc Gasol is a capable defender, scorer (14.4 points) and playmaker (3.9 assists).
The Grizzlies don't generate a lot of points but they have a very strong and physical starting five.
The Lakers need a win, but the Grizzlies are a tough matchup. If there's a game they drop out of the final seven -- Friday may be the one.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.