Records: Lakers 54-21 (1st in West, 2nd in NBA), Jazz 50-26 (3rd in West, 4.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 109.1 (10th in NBA), Jazz 111.0 (5th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (5th in NBA), Jazz 104.6 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Jazz: Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, CJ Miles, Carols Boozer, Mehmet Okur
UPDATE: It has been announced that Kobe Bryant has come to terms on a three year contract extension to stay on with the Lakers. And while the terms of the deal have not yet been released, some are reporting the deal is in the range of $90 million. That’s some major coin. We’ll have more details up as we get them over the next several days. But for now, rejoice. Because while this deal was never really in question, it’s great news to have #24 locked up through the 2013-14 season.
The Lakers Coming in: Home sweet home. After a five game road trip that saw the Lakers on the wrong side of .500, it’s good to be back at The Staples Center. Continuing to focus on what the Lakers are doing wrong is pointless. We all know that they’re not playing well and we all hope that it changes. So, at this point, all that’s left to say is that the Lakers could use a win against any opponent but getting a “W” against a very good team would be even better. As has been reported, the players are frustrated. They don’t want to play poorly and they aren’t trying to just coast through the final portion of the regular season hoping to turn it on. The fact is, so far things have not gone as planned. But a win tonight could go a long way in restoring some confidence and getting this team back on track.
The Jazz Coming in: Much like when the Lakers faced this team back in early February, the Jazz are one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Since we faced them last, they’ve won 18 of 25 games including 8 of their last 10. As Phillip pointed out this morning, they’re playing the way that teams want to be playing when the playoffs are approaching.
And it all starts with Deron Williams. In Utah’s most recent game they played the Warriors and Deron had 19 assists in 31 minutes. The game before that he had 23 points and 14 assists. Before that he had a 20 & 12 game, a 21 &12 game, and then a game of 18 & 16. Yeah, he’s pretty good. In fact, with Chris Paul missing as many games as he has this season, Deron has been the best point guard in the league and making a claim as either a first or (surely) second team all-NBA performer. He is the engine behind a 50 win team and one that looks to make noise in the playoffs after having a down year last season where they slipped into the post season as the 8th seed. Oh, and they’ve also got that Carlos Boozer guy. He’s been averaging close to 23 and 12 in his last five games and has been doing it in about 33 minutes (average) in those games. These guys may not be Stockton and Malone, but they’re one of the better duos in the entire league.
Keys to game: Much like when the Lakers play the Spurs, there are no secrets when a Jerry Sloan team faces a Phil Jackson one. These coaches have faced off 55 times in the regular season (Phil has won 35) and several other times in the playoffs (including the ‘97 & ‘98 Finals and the last two post-seasons). So don’t expect there to be surprises, just know that both teams want this win badly and will come out ready to fight for it.
All that said, this is a game where I think the Lakers have advantages that they need to exploit. Especially on offense. First off, the Jazz don’t have a capable defender to really bother Kobe. Before the trading deadline the Jazz gave away Ronnie Brewer in a salary dump and tonight AK47 won’t play due to injury. That leaves Wes Matthews (son of the former Laker by the same name), CJ Miles, Sundiata Gaines, and someone named Othyus Jeffers (that is a great name) as the players that will see time on Kobe this evening. None of these guys could be considered elite level defenders and none of them have the size/speed combination to both bother Kobe’s jumper (from the wing or the post) and slow him on drives to the basket. So, tonight should be a night where Kobe can work within the offense and get baskets against defenders that will fight hard but likely won’t have enough to bother him.
The other advantages that the Lakers have are with Gasol and Odom. Boozer and Okur are slow footed big men that, while physical, don’t have the length to contest/block their shots or foot speed to stay with them in wing or mid-post isolations. Gasol and Odom should be looking to attack every chance they get in order to get to the rim and/or earn trips to the foul line.
Defensively, slowing Deron Williams with the personnel that we have is a tall task so I’m not even looking for it to happen. As far as I’m concerned, he can go for as many points as he likes as long as we try to make it as difficult as we can on him and don’t allow him to be a double threat by racking up the assists. As I mentioned earlier he’s been putting up some astounding numbers and has really been making his life easy for his teammates and it’s that part of his game that the Lakers need to be most concerned with stopping.
The other player of note that the Lakers need to slow is, obviously, Boozer. The good news is that the Lakers have actually done a very good job against Carlos this season. In the three games against the Lakers this season, Boozer has totaled 34 points on 39.5% shooting from the field and an even worse 36.4% from the foul line. The bad news is that it’s difficult to keep a good player like Boozer down and he’ll surely be looking to redeem himself tonight. That said, the Lakers need to continue to play Boozer to go to his left hand, close out on his mid range jumper, and use their length to contest shots when he turns and faces or when he turns over either shoulder to shoot his fade away or his short jump hook.
In the end, there many other keys to this game – guarding the P&R with Williams and either Boozer or Okur (and the different threats that those players present), being aware of the off the ball screens and the flex action that incorporates multiple back cuts, playing through the Jazz physicality, etc, etc. But really, this game is one that the Lakers can just use to get back on the right path as they head into the playoffs. Yes, we’ve been saying that a lot lately. And yes, we’ve all been a disappointed by the recent results. But the players know that time is short just like us fans do. I expect a good game tonight. Let’s get that win.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start tonight, locally on Fox Sports West and nationally on ESPN. Also on ESPN Radio 710am.