We covered some of the major keys in yesterdays series preview, so let’s get right to business in breaking down how the Lakers can pull out that all important game 1 win. However, allow another quick update on the condition of Andrew Bynum. At this point, it is unclear if Bynum will play or not and if he does, what his role will be. The reports say that Bynum could try to play through his discomfort, but that it’s also a possibility that he rests. It’s also being said that if he does play that he’ll likely be limited and may not be the same player that he’s been so far in these playoffs. That is a concern, but maybe not as much against the Jazz. Remember, last season when the Lakers played the Jazz in the first round and Bynum was coming off his injury, Odom started two of the five games (games 4 and 5) and played 38, 41, and 41 minutes in the final three contests of the series. So, Phil knows that LO is quite capable against Utah and that he can do a good job against Boozer and Millsap. Obviously Fesenko is the wildcard in this series as he replaces Okur (who Odom primarily guarded last season), but it would not surprise me to see LO start the game even if Bynum is healthy enough to play. Just planting that seed.
As for the game, there are a few X’s and O’s that we didn’t get to yesterday that we’ll explore now. First, on offense, the Lakers are likely to try and play at a bit of a faster pace against the Jazz. I’m not talking a Suns-like breakneck speed where they can easily get out of control (an issue that Phil discussed in one of the Lakers/Jazz games earlier this season). But I do think the Lakers will look for early offense in a similar manner to what they showed in game 5 against the Thunder. The Lakers have speed advantages with both Odom and Gasol and considering the Lakers’ front court is a major strength of the team, I think we’ll see them make an emphasis of exploiting this advantage. I expect to see a lot of Odom pushing the ball after securing defensive rebounds and a lot of post lane sprints from Gasol where he can try to establish early post position against Boozer and Fesenko. Rember, both of those guys are defenders that will want to bang on and body up Pau and it will be in his best interests to make those guys chase him up court and not let them rough him up in half court situations.
I also expect to see a bit more weak side offensive initiation against the Jazz so that Kobe and Gasol can work more in space against defenders that don’t really match up well with them. Whether Pau is matched up against Boozer or Fesenko, the weak side block (especially at the mid block around the 12-15 foot mark) is a place where he can do a lot of damage as he can turn/face to shoot his mid range jumpshot or do the same to use an aggressive attack dribble to get good looks right at the rim. The same is true for Kobe who will likely see a heavy dose of CJ Miles to start the game with Wesley Matthews also logging some minutes on #24. Neither of these players are known as strong defenders (though they battled valiantly against ‘Melo) and both can be taken advantage of at the weak side pinch post by Kobe. If Kobe and Pau do set up more often on the weak side, this also plays well into the motions of the offense where Odom and Artest can use the advantages in their match ups to cut from opposite the ball into the paint for good looks inside. Obviously Kobe and Pau are going to play major roles as shot makers in this series, but with the advantages they have against only average Jazz defenders, the work that they do as facilitators for others will be just as key.
Defensively, we’ve already spoken about walling off Deron and trying to keep him out of the paint. A key to this strategy will be understanding how he likes to use the screens that are set for him and how the Jazz will vary where those screens are set in order to create different options for Deron to exploit. First, know that Williams loves go opposite the screen on his drives. Williams has one of the best crossover dribbles in the league and he often sets up defenders by acting like he’s going to use a pick and then crossing over to go away from the set defense. Once he makes his move, he often finds himself in the teeth of the defense where he can use his great physical strength to finish in the lane or to kick the ball out to the open shooter that was set up in the corner opposite of the initial screen (i.e. where his dribble opposite of the screener took him). Second, understand that the Jazz don’t just run a standard high P&R where Williams finds a screen at the top of the circle waiting for him. Utah loves to set up their big men at the elbows where they can screen for Deron at a position of the floor where once he turns the corner he’s already right in the paint. Screens set in this area also often force defenders to go under the screen and this allows Williams the option to step back and shoot an uncontested three pointer. The Lakers must understand these variations in the Jazz P&R game or they will get caught in position where Williams can create for himself and/or teammates too easily.
Also, the Jazz love to get Boozer the ball at the elbow and let him be a facilitator of offense. This elbow initiation is a standard of the flex offense as well as the “UCLA” actions that Utah runs a great deal of. Boozer is an underrated passer when he receives the ball in this position and does a great job of simultaneously looking for his own offense while also surveying the floor for cutters breaking free as part of the Jazz’s flex sets. Remember, one of the strengths of Boozer’s game is his ability to hit the mid range jumpshot and how that sets up his drives to the basket (which also establishes him as a threat once he makes the catch). So, when Boozer makes his catch at the elbow (and he will – a lot), be aware that he truly is a triple threat from that position as he will shoot, drive, or look to set up a teammate on any given possession. And as a little reminder, always remember that he wants to drive to his left to either finish strong with his off hand or to shoot his step back jumper fading to that side.
I know that a series against Utah is one that most Lakers fans are comfortable and confident in. The Lakers won the season series and averaged a double digit margin of victory in the three wins. However, this is a dangerous team. Williams and Boozer are playing at their highest level all season and they won’t go down easily. You add that to the very good Paul Millsap, more consistent play from CJ Miles, Korver having a good first round, and the consistent brilliance of their head coach and this team is more than dangerous. If the Lakers don’t treat them with the level of respect that is deserved, they will lose game one and instantly put themselves behind the eight ball in this series. Hopefully the Lakers understand this (I think they do) and respond to this first game accordingly.