On Tap: The Utah Jazz

 —  March 22, 2005

Which team is in a faster freefall, the Lakers or Utah? The Lakers have lost five in a row for the first time in 11 years and are desperate not to completely fall out of the playoff picture. Utah has lost nine in a row and the only question remaining is how many ping-pong balls they get come lottery time.

The Lakers will be playing tonight without Lamar Odom. The Jazz will be without Carlos Boozer. Odom has not been placed on the IR yet as Laker officials hold out hope that he can play in Thursday’s must-win in Denver. If not — and the Lakers lose that game — look for Odom to go on the IR and either Devean George or Vlade Divac to come off in an effort to showcase trade bait.

Utah got off to a fast 7-3 start this season — including a season-opening win over the Lakers — but things have fallen apart since. The Jazz are 22nd in the league in offensive efficiency (101.3 points per 100 possessions) and next-to-last in defensive efficiency (107.1). In the last 10 games, even with Andrei Kirilenko back blocking shots in the middle, things have been worse, with the Jazz giving up 109.5 points per 100 possessions.

Not having Boozer and Kirilenko playing side-by-side has really hurt the team this season, but what has been a bigger problem for Utah is point guard. They came into this season thinking Olympics-star Carlos Arroyo gave them a good and solid back court. But Arroyo ended up in coach Sloan’s doghouse and was traded, and since then Raul Lopez has been injured.

The result has been a team PER of 11.3 at the point guard position for the season (remember the league average is 15 and if a player had a PER of 11.3 he should only be playing in garbage time). Right now at point Keith McLeod has been getting the start (PER of 11.07) and past-his-prime Howard Eisley is coming off the bench (9.69).

Because of that, it has been defending good backcourts that has been a big problem for the Jazz — meaning Kobe and Chucky Atkins should have big nights. Even Tierre Brown should have a big night.

On the other end of the court, the Lakers need to defend a few guys capable of having a big night. One is Kirilenko, who has hit 51.2% (eFG%) of his shots and has a PER of 24.68. Without Odom it likely will be a combination of Slava, Mihm and Grant who will need to stop the Russian. The other is Raja Bell, who almost single-handedly beat the Lakers once this season — the Lakers can stop him if they bother to play perimeter defense tonight.

The big game this week for the Lakers is Thursday in Denver, but this is the kind of game playoff teams wins. The Lakers can’t afford to look past the Jazz — we need every win we can get.