On Tuesday, the Memphis Grizzlies enter Staples Center on a run of four wins in their last six games. The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, have only won four of their last 20 games. In fact, the Lakers have lost 15 of their last 17 and have fallen off a cliff since a 10-10 start to the season.
Nearly half the season is complete, and the Lakers currently sit half a game out of last place in the Western Conference, and LA has lost to all three teams currently below them in the standings: Phoenix; Minnesota; Dallas (twice).
However, the eighth seed in the Western Conference is a crap-shoot, so the Lakers could yet squeeze into that spot if the team returns to playing the .500 basketball that the Lakers started the season with. As of Tuesday, the Lakers only trailed the eighth seed by 4.0 games. At 14-19, the Sacramento Kings currently hold the eighth seed, which seems to signal that a losing record will be good enough to qualify for the Western Conference playoffs.
While injuries and missing players served as an excuse for the Lakers to drop out of the postseason picture, extended stretches without Zach Randolph and Mike Conley Jr. didn't derail the Grizzlies' season.
Memphis enters Tuesday's game with a 22-14 record and sits only half a game out of the no. 4 seed. A win against the Lakers would put the Grizzlies in a tie with the LA Clippers, who the Grizzlies face on Wednesday at Staples Center.
Since returning from injury nine games earlier, Conley has appeared in seven games and averaged 16.1 points and 4.9 assists in 28.7 minutes per game. Randolph has been back in the team for nearly a month, and the 35-year-old bruiser is averaging 12.4 points and 7.5 rebounds in 22.9 minutes per game.
Marc Gasol remains a steady rock for the Grizzlies, as the Spaniard is averaging 19.5 points, 4.1 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 33.5 minutes per game. Gasol has taken to shooting three-pointers, which is a new trend for big men in the NBA, but the former Defensive Player of the Year is shooting 41.5 percent from beyond the arc with 3.5 attempts per game. That makes Gasol, who was originally drafted by the Lakers and then traded to Memphis for his brother Pau Gasol, 20th in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage.
Lakers guard Nick Young, who is shooting 44.3 percent from distance on the season, is the only member of the home team that ranks higher than Gasol in three-point shooting for qualified players. Jose Calderon does not qualify for the league leaders but shoots 41.7 percent from distance. Young has been on a tear from beyond the arc, and his 36 made three-pointers over the previous eight games is the most by any player in the history of the Lakers' franchise. Young shot 56.3 percent from beyond the arc during that stretch.
While the Grizzlies are known from playing bigger lineups that clog up the paint, the Lakers have been experimenting with the paint filling combo of Tarik Black and Thomas Robinson. The duo combined for 18 rebounds and 21 points off the bench against the Toronto Raptors, including eight offensive rebounds.
Lakers coach Luke Walton explained that Robinson's positive play while Black sat out with an ankle injury made it difficult to simply bench the 25-year-old former lottery pick. So, the solution involved playing both players in tandem, which was partly facilitated by Lakers power forward Larry Nance Jr. missing time due to a bone bruise in his knee. The experiment seemed to provide positive returns in the first half, at least.
Walton also revealed the Black's ankle required re-taping at halftime, so the backup center is far from 100 percent healthy. Black, though, seemed confident that he would be able to play on Tuesday in the aftermath of Sunday's loss to the Toronto Raptors.
"Am I supposed to sound any other way? That's my question," Black told NBCLA.com, with his foot shin deep in an ice bucket. "I wouldn't sit here and tell you guys, 'No, I think I'm going to be hurt.' How's that sound coming from a player? I'm going to stay on top of it."
Considering the bruising, physical style of Randolph, the Lakers could do with having Black available to play minutes. Officially, the center is listed as "probable" to play on Tuesday night.
The Lakers and Grizzlies tip-off at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time.