After all the ups and downs of the past few weeks the Lakers deserved to catch a break, and they catch a few against Utah tonight.
First, Utah is in the back end of a back-to-back and they are just 3-10 in that situation this year (and they are already just 6-20 on the road). The other is one of those things that occasionally falls to a team during the course of the season â€” both Carlos Boozer (sprained foot) and Andrei Kirilenko (sprained ankle) may not play tonight due to injuries suffered last night in a loss to Phoenix. The Jazz beat reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune told Joel Meyers this morning the two had about a 10% chance of playing.
Utah already has the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 107.8 points per 100 possessions (that is 1.7 worse than the Knicks, the second worst team). In the 26 games Kirilenko has already missed this season due to injury things have been worse â€” the Jazz have no inside presence defensively, allowing teams to penetrate at will. Teams are shooting 50.2% (eFG%) against the Jazz so far this season, tied for the worst in the league (with Atlanta). Teams shoot an average of 34.2 free throws per 100 possessions against the Jazz, far more than against any other team in the league (for example the Lakers allow just 19.2).
(As a just-in-case note if Kirilenko plays, he had eight blocks against the Lakers in a Jazz win back in November.)
Whatever offense they run, the Lakers should be able to score tonight, but that hasnâ€™t been the problem. Defense has been what has hurt the Lakers recently.
Not surprisingly, that starts on the perimeter. Stats Pimp calculates a defensive rating per player the same way I often use it here for a team â€” what a player guarded by â€œXâ€ scores per 100 possessions. The two worst defenders on the Lakers using that system? Chucky Atkins at 109.4, followed by Tierre Brown at 108.8. (Surprisingly, the best Laker defender using this system is Odom at 103.2.)
In the Lakers last loss to the Jazz Kirilenko and Boozer were not the problem, Matt Harpring had 19 points to lead his team and Raja Bell had 16 (14 in the fourth) shooting over the zone. That was one of the Lakers first games without Kobe and they played a lot of zone. Tonight, even with a slowed Kobe, that will not be the case.
Utahâ€™s offense has been average this season (102.5 points per 100 possessions) but in a recent effort to spark it Mehmet Okur and Bell were given spots in the staring lineup two games ago, and in both those games Utah got off to a fast start. That could be trouble for the recently slow-starting Lakers â€” if they fall behind they will make a game out of something a playoff team should win handily.
If the Lakers lose today they go into the All-Star break at .500, which would be a disappointment even with Kobe out for a stretch. A win gives them some needed confidence going into the break.