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Charlotte Hornets (6-15) at Memphis Grizzles (17-4): Game Preview

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The Hornets are looking to make it three straight wins, but face off against the Grizzles, one of the best teams in the West.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

After two consecutive home victories over the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics, the Charlotte Hornets head to Memphis to take on the Memphis Grizzles in what will surely be one of the toughest tests for the Hornets this season. The Grizzles are 17-4, largely thanks to their defense, which is first in points allowed at 94 a game.

Marc Gasol has been part of the early MVP conversation, and for good reason. For the season, Gasol is averaging 19.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. He is posting career highs in points per game and free throw attempts per game at 6.9, and more importantly, he's making 85.4 percent of his free throws. Front court partner Zach Randolph continues to post strong numbers as well, even after 13 years in the league. Z-Bo is averaging 15.7 points and 11 rebounds per game.

Considering how poorly the Hornets have been this season at protecting the rim, Gasol and Randolph are likely going to cause a lot of problems. As James Plowright pointed out over at Queen City Hoops, one of the biggest regressions of the Hornets defense this year has been how easily teams are scoring at the rim against them:

Last year the Bobcats ranked 5th in the NBA for opponents FG% in the paint with 58%, so far this year they rank 29th and are allowing 66% shooting in the restricted area as a team.

Al Jefferson regression in this area is largely to blame. Jefferson has never been a good defender, but unlike last season, the Hornets have been unable to hide his defensive liabilities, and the results are startling. Again, from Plowright:

Jefferson currently has the highest opponent FG% at the rim of any starting centre in the NBA, he ranks 4th if you include bench players behind Henry Sims, Gorgui Dieng and wait for it… Jason Maxiell! That’s how bad it is.

Case in point, unless the Jefferson and the Hornets show drastic improvement Friday night, the Grizzles front court duo could be a nightmare. The Grizzles ride through these two on both ends of the floor, and Hornets must game plan to limit their effectiveness to have any chance.

Aside from Gasol and Randolph, Memphis is lead by long-time starting point guard Mike Conley, who is averaging 16.9 points, and 6.1 assists per game. Conley has elevated his game the past couple of seasons, and has become a steady and effective player. So far this season, his 3-point percentage is at 43.9 percent, way up from last season's percentage of 36.1. Part of this is that he is attempting roughly one fewer 3-pointer a game (3.1 this season as opposed to 4.0 last season). Conley is much more effective shooting off the dribble, as most of his shots come after taking seven or more dribbles, and he has a field goal percentage of 51.8 after doing so. The Hornets did a good job of containing him earlier this season, as he shot just 3-14.

However, no one shot the ball particularly well that game, which ended a dreadful 71-69. Only five players on both teams scored in double figures, and it was an odd game offensively, at least for Memphis, who ranks 15th in points per game at 101.4. There should be more scoring tonight, but the key will be if Charlotte can continue to play solid defense like they did against Boston on Wednesday.

The Hornets should look to drive to hoop more as well. Currently, the Hornets are shooting 36.5 percent in catch-and-shoot and pull-up shot opportunities, but are shooting 52.5 percent with shots less than 10 feet from the basket. The jump shot percentages need to go up, but it's clear that right now, the Hornets only effective way of scoring is by getting to the rim. Memphis is going to make it difficult for them to convert, and will likely try and force Charlotte to beat them with jump shots. However, if the Hornets can score at the rim and draw fouls like they did against Boston (particularly in the third quarter), they stand a chance.

Players to Watch:

Courtney Lee - Lee is fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 12.2 points per game. He is shooting 51.9 percent from three, so the Hornets must defend him from beyond the arc.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - It's his second game back since sitting out 12 in a row. He logged 19 minutes Wednesday, but Steve Clifford said post game he had hoped to play him 20-22. Will we see more minutes from him?

Tony Allen - He's arguably the best on-ball defender in the league, and despite his mostly ineffective offensive game, is a a lot of fun to watch, unless of course he shutting down your team's best perimeter player. If he matches up against Lance Stephenson, things could get heated.

Stats courtesy of basketball-reference and NBA.com/stats.