Records: Lakers 7-4 (3rd in West), Jazz 6-3 (5th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.1 (12th in NBA), Jazz 101.6 (18th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 98.6 (5th in NBA), Jazz 104.0 (20th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Jazz: Devin Harris, Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson
Injuries: Lakers: Josh McRoberts (doubtful), Troy Murphy (questionable), Derrick Caracter (out); Jazz: none
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won 3 in a row and while Kobe is (deservedly) getting much of the attention and credit we mustn’t ignore that the Lakers continue to make strides on the defensive side of the ball. Last night they struggled in the first half defending the P&R and allowed Frye to break open behind the arc too often, but they otherwise played a tight game most of the night and held the Suns to 83 points and an offensive rating of 95.4. And this has been the trend all year. The Lakers will give up some three pointers (especially on the weak side to big men shooters that can space the floor) but they’ve been controlling the paint, protecting the rim, and cleaning the glass better than any team in the league – sporting the best defensive rebound rate in the NBA. When you add in better habits in closing out and pressuring ball handlers on the wing, the Lakers are starting to clamp down on D in a way that we haven’t seen since 2010. So, while Kobe’s brilliance makes the highlights, we also need to understand that the offense remains a work in progress. And while the same can be said about the defense, it’s that end of the ball that is quietly carrying the team right now.
The Jazz Coming in: It’s hard to know what to make of this Jazz team. They’ve won 5 games in a row but when you zoom into their schedule those W’s come against a group of teams that are all below .500 on the year. They have also beaten the 76ers (one of surprising, strong teams of this young season) but that was a narrow victory and was played in Utah. Meanwhile, the 3 losses on their schedule are to the Lakers, Spurs, and Nuggets – all teams that look to be playoff squads come this spring. So, are the Jazz a team benefitting from a soft schedule or are they sneakily a good team that’s beaten the teams in front of them and had a few bad nights along the way?
In any event, this team is rolling and a lot of it has to do with the strong play of Al Jefferson and the move of Paul Millsap to the starting lineup. In yesterday’s win over the Cavs those two combined for 49 points on 22-27(!!!) shooting, punishing the Cavs interior all night. With Millsap showing a bit more range on offense and Jefferson going back to his roots as a low post beast, this team offers front court talent to spare and have been utilizing it to earn their wins. When you combine that with an all-hands-on-deck approach on the wing, the Jazz can be a difficult out as multiple contributors can get hot on any night.
Keys to game: From a strategy standpoint, not much has changed from the first time these two teams met a in LA’s third game of the season. The Lakers have a size and length advantage inside and should look to exploit it as much as possible. Millsap is a gritty, blue collar player but effort can only make up so much a difference when he’s giving up several inches in height and wingspan to Gasol. Jefferson, meanwhile, isn’t known as a strong defender and will have his issues defending Bynum without help from his mates. The back ups that the Jazz can bring in are talented (Favors and Kanter are both top 5 lottery picks) but they’re green and have their own flaws as well. So, while we hem and haw about Bynum’s ability to deal with doubles and wonder if Gasol will find his touch on his jump hook, they should still be able to do damage tonight simply by running hard and making quick decisions with the ball – two things both players are capable of (yes, even Bynum).
As for Kobe, he’s been hot and until he cools down he should see the ball often. The Jazz would be smart if they kept Raja Bell (even with his veteran savvy) glued to Matt Barnes rather than chasing an active and engaged Kobe, but if they don’t look for Kobe to try to stick it to his old friend the way that he did the Suns last night. As we know, Kobe has a memory like an elephant and while he appreciates the competitive nature of Bell, he still wants to bury him each time they face off. If Kobe sees Hayward, look for the same approach but with even more post ups and isolations from the elbow in order to see if the young SF can deal with the variety of moves Kobe’s been bringing to the table lately.
Defensively, the Lakers’ plan will sound just like their offensive plan – they need to play to their height advantage by standing tall when playing one on one post defense and making the Jazz bigs shoot over the top of them. Jefferson offers a crafty post game so Bynum (and Gasol) need to stay down on his variety of fakes and challenge aggressively when the shot is actually taken. The same goes for defending Millsap but with a bit more of a perimeter focus. Millsap likes to turn and face, feint his jumper, and then attack off the dribble. The Lakers’ bigs must stay down on his fakes and make him prove he can consistently knock down that 16-18 footer before challenging him too hard.
The same holds true for penetration – the Lakers must force Harris, Hayward, and Miles into the middle of the floor, towards their big men and make these guys finish over the top of outstretched arms. All are capable of both shooting and penetrating so playing them any one way isn’t advisable, but rather play them straight up and with discipline and force them where you want them to in order to limit their success. It worked in the first game, it can work again tonight.
Lastly, the Lakers have yet to win on the road and tonight is as good a time as any to change that trend. The Jazz crowd is always ready to give their best effort when the Lakers visit but lately the visiting team has been both more talented and been more successful. This has led to more and more Laker fans finding their way into the arena to cheer on the road team. If tonight follows that trend the Lakers could find some friendly cheers and maybe that (as well as having more horses) can get them off the snide.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm PST start on KCAL 9. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710AM.