The Memphis Grizzlies entered Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers under intense pressure to get a win. They dropped three straight games earlier in the week and descended into a three-way tie for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket, which instantly transformed the ESPN date with L.A. at the Staples Center into a game of enormous consequences. Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Marreese Speights and Hamed Haddadi all scored in double-figures as the Grizzlies shot 51.2 percent from the field, outscored Los Angeles 52-36 in the paint and earned an impressive 102-96 victory over Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Ramon Sessions put together a quartet of performances that instantly endeared him to L.A. faithful, but the Lakers' win-loss record since the trade fell to 2-3 overall. The primary issue has been alarmingly poor play from Kobe, who is averaging 22.0 points on an abysmal 37.1 percent shooting and 3.8 turnovers per contest since the trade. Although Kobe salvaged his night against Memphis with an 11-point outburst in the third quarter, he never quite got his game back on track and finished with just 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting, with three assists and three turnovers.
The lead story of the night should have been that Memphis out-executed the Lakers and pulled out an important win against the team with the second-best home record in the NBA, but the narrative quickly changed when Lakers head coach Mike Brown opted to sit Kobe from the 5:45 mark to the 1:51 mark in a close game.
Did Mike Brown, um, bench Kobe?— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) March 26, 2012
Everyone noticed the move. To not notice the face of the franchise watching the last chance at a comeback go sour from a court-side perspective would have been impossible. Kobe made sure everyone acknowledged Brown's gutsy gamble as he slammed his fist angrily against an adjacent bench seat going into the TV timeout that bookmarked the move. Here is how it looked to the national television audience on ESPN:
The tension lingered from the moment Kobe grabbed his spot on the bench (Lakers down 13), to the time he checked back into the game (Lakers down nine), to the post-game interview where Brown claimed he just "wanted to make a sub" and Kobe told reporters, "If you're looking for a story, I'm not going to give it to you."
Unfortunately for Brown, Bryant and the Lakers, the story writes itself. Kobe was benched, and it almost makes sense in a vacuum. He has struggled with efficiency since the trade, he turned the ball over and missed a wild 20-foot jumper immediately prior to the finding himself on the bench, he got blocked from behind by Tony Allen in his only attempt after being re-inserted. He needs to play much better if the Lakers hope to do anything meaningful in the playoffs; they need to light a fire under Kobe's arse anyway. Guess we know Mike Brown doesn't subscribe to ancient wisdom of the Bushido Samurai Code: "Death Before Dishonor."
Some might point to Kobe's 11-point third quarter performance as proof that the flame beneath his arse was already flickering, but that's not exactly true. During that stretch, Mamba hit some very acrobatic jumpshots, but they were the exact type of shot the Grizzlies wanted him to try. Ball-stopping isolations, pump-fakes in triplicate and wild one-footed jumps are on the list of features most teams would love to have be a part of Kobe's possessions. Sure he hit 4-of-4 in the period, but one of them looked like this:
The truth is that the Grizzlies were going to win the game regardless of whether Kobe got benched or not. They played a much better game than LA, plain and simple. Mike Conley engineered a 65-point first half by working Ramon Sessions over in the half-court as he scored 11 points and dished out five assists. When the Lakers ripped off a 15-0 run in the third quarter to grab a 66-65 lead, Conley and Mayo sparked a retaliatory 8-0 spurt to limit the Lakers' second half joy to 22 measly seconds.
Everyone contributed to the win for Memphis. Rudy Gay never forced the action and scored his team-high 18 points entirely in the first three quarters, while Zach Randolph and O.J. Mayo combined for 20 fourth quarter points on 9-of-11 shooting thanks in large part to heady passing, effective off-ball movement and a collective killer instinct. The Lakers actually outscored the Grizz 50-46 in the second half, but Memphis attacked the paint far more effectively during that span to gain an important 28-14 advantage in the lane.
Andrew Bynum is the only Laker player who kept that paint-based scoring disparity from becoming a source of further embarrassment. Bynum finished with a game-high 30 points on 11-16 shooting, and eight of those makes came in the lane, meaning the rest of the team shot just 40 percent (10-for-25) on the interior. It's a mystery how he only managed to grab four rebounds in a 40+ minutes, but 14 boards from Pau Gasol helped ease that pain. Pau floundered on offense, however. He missed easy put-backs, looked uncomfortable in his face-up opportunities and accidentally banked in one of the two shots he converted from beyond five feet from the hoop. Even so, he compensated for his 4-for-15 shooting performance by hitting 8-of-8 free throws and ended up with 16 points. It still wasn't enough to overcome the Grizzlies' balanced attack.
With the win, Memphis (26-21) solidified its hold on the No. 6 seed. The Grizz hold a one-game lead on the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets, and are just a half-game behind both the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers.
The Lakers (30-19) are still 2.5 games up on the Clippers and Mavericks for the No. 3 seed, and now sit 4.0 games back on the San Antonio Spurs for the No. 2 slot.
For all of Sunday's box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.