Records: Lakers 32-13 (2nd in West, 6 games behind Spurs), Jazz (27-17 (6th in West, 4.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.3 (1st in NBA), Jazz 109.6 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers Lakers 104.7 (10th in NBA), Jazz 108.3 (19th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Jazz: Deron Williams, Raja Bell, C.J. Miles, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes (out); Jazz: Francisco Elson (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: Amazingly enough, the Lakers haven’t played a game since Friday. The three days off have meant plenty of rest for the team but also plenty of questions to answer after practice sessions as the discussion about their age and ability to play defense has moved front and center as the topic of the day. Personally, I don’t know if age is as much of an issue as it’s made out to be but I can understand the concern with Kobe, Fisher, Artest, and Odom on the wrong side of 30. That said, the key to the Lakers defense will always be how well they execute their schemes on both sides of the ball as strong offense and floor balance will lead to good transition defense and more half court sets by the opposition. If the Lakers can continue to keep the tempo of the game in their favor and their opponents’ play dependent on scoring against a set defense, I think the Lakers will be just fine. Obviously the issue is ensuring those things but if it was easy we wouldn’t be talking about it now, would we?
As for other news, Theo Ratliff has returned to practice and the reports say that he looked pretty good. This will create a domino effect for the Lakers as it will now give them their entire big man rotation back and available for action while also allowing the Lakers to deactivate rookie Derrick Caracter off the active game-day roster and assign him to their D-League affiliate the Bakersfield Jam. This will allow Caracter the chance to actually get some game action under his belt and continue his development, which can only be seen as a positive if you’re looking at his long term growth as a player. Hopefully he can take advantage of his time in Bakersfield in a similar manner that fellow rookie Devin Ebanks did when he spend time with the Jam before Matt Barnes’ injury.
The Jazz Coming in: Tonight is game 5 of the Jazz’s 5 game road trip and they’re still looking for their first win. Considering the Nets, Wizards, and 76ers were 3 of their 4 previous opponents it’s pretty safe to say that the Jazz are not playing their best basketball. They’ve recently made a change to their starting line up (inserting rookie Gordon Hayward for Andrei Kirilenko) but the change didn’t help one bit (as the Jazz lost to Philly). Tonight, the Jazz will instead try CJ Miles out in the starting line up so we’ll see if he does any better in his match up with Artest (who has been playing better of late and will have a distinct strength advantage against the lefty).
The major reason that the Jazz have been struggling, though, isn’t so much the personnel but moreso the exectution they’re displaying each night – especially on defense. Rather than take my word for it, here’s Zach Lowe’s take over at the great site The Point Forward:
The four-game whitewash represents the nadir of a two-month trend that deserves some hand-wringing: the total regression of Utah’s defense, which started the season in top-10 form and now looks like a liability.
Zach goes on to explain some of the reasons for the drop off:
One — a recurring problem for the Jazz — is no one fouls more than they do. Opponents have long feasted at the line against Sloan’s teams, and that doesn’t figure to change. The other — a new issue as of December – is the Jazz’s inability to protect the defensive glass. Over the last six weeks or so, the nightmare scenario for Utah has played out. Both of those early problematic trends have continued, while opponents have started to make shots. Teams shot 46 percent from the floor (and 39 percent from three) against the Jazz in December; those numbers have jumped to 47.3 percent and 40 percent so far in January. Meanwhile, the Jazz still give up the most free throws per shot attempt, and, most disturbing of all, they’ve settled in at 27th in defensive rebounding rate. The latter trend is especially disturbing, because Utah ranked fifth in that category last season, meaning their defensive rebounding has collapsed much more dramatically than we should have expected given the loss of Carlos Boozer (a better rebounder than either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap).
The recent poor play from the Jazz on D has led to overall poor play and has some speculating that Deron Williams may follow in Carmelo Anthony’s footsteps by looking for a way out of town when he has an opt out of his contract at the end of next season. Needless to say, things are at a low point in the Jazz season and with a trip to Staples Center (where they haven’t won in 16 tries) doesn’t make life any easier right now.
Keys to game: This specific match up is one that we’ve seen a hundred times and the keys to the game rarely change. The Jazz will try to play a physical game (as mentioned, they lead the league in fouls) while crisply executing their offense. The Jazz have been running the same sets for (literally) decades, so there should be no surprises here. Look for classic flex actions with lots of cross screening with some P&R’s thrown in for good measure. The Lakers will need to show good communication on all these actions while also being aware that the Jazz wings like to flash out for ball entries and then quickly cut backdoor to recieve passes against overplaying defenders. The Lakers will need to see both man and ball tonight and when their man cuts hard behind them, they’ll need to show active hands in the passing lanes to force errant passes and hopefully collect some steals off deflections.
Where the nuance comes into the defensive gameplan is in matching up with Utah’s individual talents. Williams is, quite simply, one of the more difficult match up problems in the league for any team. His size/speed/strength combination make him a load to deal with when he attacks the paint and his jumper is more than good enough to beat teams from the outside when they dare him to shoot. For all the talk of Paul, Rondo, Rose, and Westbrook (which is deserved) as elite PG’s, Williams – on any given night – is as good or better than any of them with his ability to put up 25+ points and double digit assists. The key to slowing him is to understand two things: First is that getting back in transition is must against him. He’s a freight train in the open court and unless you turn him (make him change directions) multiple times while simultaneously building a wall as he advances the ball up court, he will burn you by getting the hoop and finishing. Second, he still loves to go opposite of the screen in P&R situations by setting up defenders with a hard dribble towards the pick and then crossing back over into space where there isn’t as much help. The Lakers must be aggressive with him and show him different looks (go under screens, trail some screens, trap him some) to disrupt his flow and hopefully make him tentative. In the past Fisher has been able to somewhat bother Williams but has also found himself in foul trouble in a lot of match ups with his former teammate. Hopefully tonight Fisher can play Deron tough without picking up fouls.
In the post, the Lakers will have to deal with both Jefferson and Millsap. Both guys offer their own problems, but the cliff-notes version is that Jefferson loves to play with his back to basket even if he catches the ball as far out as 15 feet. He’s comfortable shooting his jumphook out to that distance and when he gets deeper position he’ll flash excellent footwork and keep defenders guessing with a variety of moves. The key is to stay on the ground against him, not fall for his fakes, and contest his shot when he finally releases. Both Gasol and Bynum have the length to do this, so they must stay dicipline. As for Millsap, his activity has often hurt the Lakers and he’ll do most of his damage with his face up jumper and off hard drives into the teeth of the D. Again, the Lakers must contest his shots, but most of all keep up with him as he attacks the offensive glass.
Offensively, the Jazz will have trouble defending the post (as most teams do against the Lakers). The ball must go inside against this team and make their big men pay for not being blessed with more height. Both Pau and ‘Drew have height and length advantages against the Jazz front court, so (like in recent games) the emphasis should be on working the ball inside out.
As for Kobe, he faces off with old nemesis Raja Bell tonight but this isn’t the same match up it used to be. Raja will scrap and fight with Kobe, but now that Bell is aged he no longer as the foot speed or elevation to do more than body Kobe up and put a hand up when he shoots his jumper. Kobe should be able to drive into space and shoot his mid-range jumper and should also get ample post-up/isolations at the elbow where he’s proven most dangerous of late. Tonight could also be a night where Kobe gets a lot of free points at the foul line so I’d like to see him continue in the attacking mode he’s displayed over the past month.
In the end, the Jazz are a wounded team right now and the Lakers have the opportunity to throw a knockout punch on a team weary from travel and from losing. However, Jerry Sloan coached teams won’t quit so the Lakers will need to take this game and not just expect the Jazz to give it away. In the last match up between these teams the Lakers jumped out big early only to fall behind and ultimately lose. They’d do well to remember that game and get some revenge tonight.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Fox Sports West and nationally on NBA TV. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.