Records: Lakers 40-13 (1st in the West), Jazz 32-18 (3rd in the West, 6.5 behind the Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.6 (9th in the NBA), Jazz 110.0 (7th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.5 (2nd in the NBA), Jazz 104.6 (9th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Jazz: Deron Williams, Ronnie Brewer, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur
Will they play?: The big question surrounding the Lakers right now is the injury status of Kobe and Bynum and whether either or both will be ready to suit up for tonight’s contest. It’s already looking unlikely that Bynum will participate as he’s listed as doubtful. As for Kobe, he’s put down his Carnac hat and can no longer see into the future - so he’s unable to determine how he’ll feel when tip off arrives. My guess is that he sits, but I was the same guy that thought he’d play against the Spurs so take that for what it’s worth. In the end, my take is that they should both stay home and get treatment on what ails them. At this point, they’ve both missed games so they’re obviously not feeling anywhere close to 100% and if that is still the case I see no need to rush back for a game that will be immediately followed by the all-star break. Let those bodies heal and come back feeling healthy and fresh for the stretch run. Plus, as our last two games have proven, who needs ‘em? (I kid, I kid.)
The Jazz Coming in: Winners of 9 in a row and 14 of their last 16 games, there isn’t a hotter team in the NBA than the Utah Jazz (besides maybe, Cleveland). Lately, the Jazz have been showing the form of the team that was in the Western Conference Finals two seasons ago and not the one that finished 8th in the West last season after stumbling down the stretch. This Jazz team is for real and seem to be showing their potential as a squad going into the home stretch and the push for the playoffs.
Much of the Jazz’s resurgence this season can be attributed to the improved play of Carlos Boozer. A legitimate all-star snub, Boozer is looking smarter every day for opting-in to the last year of his contract in order to become an UFA after this season. Next year, some team that doesn’t land one of the marquee guys (Lebron, Wade, Bosh) is going to look to Boozer as a real alternative and he’s going to cash in on this season’s success. He’s averaging almost 20 points and 11 rebounds with percentages of 55 from the field and 77 from the line and found the groove that eluded him last season while he battled injuries and inconsistency. Another player that has found his stride in recent weeks is Andrei Kirilenko. He’s slid back into the starting line up at SF and is really helping the Jazz in every area of the stat sheet. The man with the best nickname in all of basketball has scored in double digits in his last 9 games while also giving the Jazz a handful or boards to go with his typical output of steals and blocks.
But the real key to the Jazz success, night in and night out, is one of the best point guards in the world. Deron Williams is a monster that can shoot from anywhere, pass, drive, finish in traffic, and has the body to defend any type of guard that you throw up against him. He’s finally been rewarded with his first all-star appearance and it’s really overdue. He’s often overshadowed by Paul and even Nash, but Deron is for real and he is the engine of the Jazz car. Tonight will be a real test for the Lakers as they are facing the best team they’ve had to play since the match up with Cleveland.
Keys to game: The Jazz run one of the best executed offenses in the NBA. Completely stopping it can be difficult when they are passing and moving as a unit and making the right reads in their sets. If you want a fantastic breakdown with examples of what the Jazz can do to a team when they’re operating on all cylanders on offense, check out the wrap up that Kevin from Clipperblog has from last night’s Jazz/Clips game (seriously, go read it). Now that you’re back, you understand that the Lakers will need to be disciplined on defense. They’ll need their ‘A’ game on P&R defense and can’t get overaggressive in the passing lanes becuase they’ll get beat by the back door. When it comes to individual defense, Boozer loves to operate on the mid post/elbow area where he can either turn and face or shoot is jumper. When he drives, he loves to go left so Pau/Odom/Powell will need to be aware of this and shade him to his right hand. Deron Williams loves to go opposite of the P&R so our guards will need to be aware that the screen may just be a decoy and ensure that Deron doens’t go away from where the help is positioned. If he gets a head of steam to the basket, he will do damage in the paint and he’ll also make the correct pass to open teammates in the (Joel Meyers sponsored) short corner.
On offense, the Lakers need to push the ball like they have been in the last two games. The Jazz are coming off a back to back and had to make the same flight from LA to Salt Lake that the Lakers did, so make them run and see if they wear down by the 4th quarter. Plus, the Lakers have a speed advantage in the front court and should utilize it. Boozer and Okur can’t run with Odom and Pau so we should see plenty of Odom turning defensive rebounds into fast break chances and Pau running post lane sprints to try and get easy buckets against the slow footed Jazz big men. This is a tactic that has worked in the playoffs the past two seasons and I expect to see more of it tonight.
When the running opportunity is not there, the Lakers need to play fundamental Triangle basketball and initiate the offense through the post and then cut, screen, and continue to move the ball. Get the defense moving and get good shots or make the them foul. Because the Jazz will foul. Utah is still one of the highest fouling teams in the league and will not hesitate to reach and grab if they are beat. That means, be prepared to take the hit and finish shots. We can’t be rattled by contact or get frustrated by the fouling (especially on no-calls) and must play through the whistle (or lack thereof). Also be prepared for a hostile crowd. The Jazz fans hate the Lakers and will boo incessantly when we have the ball and cheer wildly just for Kyle Korver removing his warmups. This is a tough environment to play in and the Lakers will need to be ready.
Where you can watch: 6:00 pm start time out West on KCAL 9. Also on ESPN Radio 710 AM.