Preview & Chat: The Utah Jazz

Darius Soriano —  February 4, 2012

Records: Lakers 14-9 (5th in West), Jazz 12-9 (7th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.7 (15th in NBA), Jazz 105.2 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.4 (10th in NBA), Jazz 105.1 (22nd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Jazz: Jamaal Tinsley, Josh Howard, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Derrick Caracter (out); Jazz: Devin Harris (questionable), Raja Bell (questionable), Earl Watson (doubtful)

The Lakers Coming in: So far, so good for the Lakers on their road trip. The Denver game was closer than many would have liked (including, I’m sure, Mike Brown and his players) and the refereeing down the stretch throughout the game left a lot to be desired (from both teams’ perspectives) but the Lakers pulled out the win with a defensive stand with two of their most maligned players being the guys that were key in stopping their men. And while there are still things that the Lakers can be better at, the game provided a solid foundation for future contests and can be used as a building block for the rest of the roadie.

Moving away from the team and the road trip to the individual level, Andrew Goudelock deserves special recognition. Over the past 5 games he’s failed to reach double figures in scoring only once and has averaged nearly 12 points a game on 52% shooting. His ability to make the three point shot (9-17 in that stretch) has provided critical spacing for this team while also making him enough of an outside threat that he must be closed out on, which then opens up his penetration game. Once he gets into the paint, he’s flashed a fantastic floater that allows him to finish at a high enough rate that he maintains his status as threat in three levels of the court (behind the arc, in the long two point range, and in the mid-range). He’s even showing more comfort initiating the Lakers sets and getting guys organized. He still has a ways to go before he’s a point guard in the classic sense of the position, but even if his improvement in that area is only marginal it doesn’t much matter if he’s still making shots; it’s obvious he’s in the game to score and, so far, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

The Jazz Coming in: The Jazz have been bit by the injury bug of late, watching their top two point guards suffer some minor injuries that have kept them out of games. Both Devin Harris and Earl Watson came up lame against the Clippers on Wednesday and both missed Thursday’s game against the Warriors. Their absence contributed to the Jazz dropping that game versus the Dubs and with their status up in the air for tonight’s game (Harris is questionable and Watson is doubtful), the Jazz could again be without their primary lead guards.

Missing those back court players is an issue but it’s more than partially made up for with the play of the Jazz’s bruising front court rotation. Starters Millsap and Jefferson are both having great years, with Millsap’s production especially eye popping as he’s raised his efficiency (top 10 player in PER) while scoring and rebounding at a high level when factoring in his minutes. When those starters go to the bench, the Jazz bring in Derrick Favors and rookie Enes Canter who are both improving as the season progresses. They both clean the glass, play physical defense, and can score when set up in positions where they can play to their strengths. It’s on the backs of these front court players that have the Jazz as one of the West’s eight playoff teams and performing above where many thought they’d be this season.

Jazz Blogs: Check out Salt City Hoops for all your Jazz news and analysis.

Keys to game: It’s strength on strength tonight as the aforementioned Jazz bigs tango with the Lakers front line that’s anchored by Pau and ‘Drew. And like the Nuggets last night, this will be the 3rd time these teams face off so we have a bit of history to shape our perspective coming into this match up. Some of the trends from the first two games (both Lakers wins):

  • Kobe’s scoring has been big as he went for 26 and 40 points in the first two games respectively.
  • Bynum missed the first contest due to his early season suspension, but in the 2nd game he was only average on offense (12 points on 5-13 shooting) and was decent on the boards. Meanwhile, Gasol came up big in game one, but was only average in the 2nd game (which also happened to be the game that Kobe went for 40).
  • On the Jazz side, Al Jefferson has really struggled with L.A.’s length on defense. He’s scored a total of 15 points on 7 for 33 shooting while only taking 2 free throws.
  • Millsap, on the other hand, has taken it to the Lakers. He’s put up 18 and 29 points in the two match ups, using his face up game and quickness around the hoop to get the shots he wants and covert them at a high rate.
  • The battle of boards has been even in both contests with both teams grabbing 46 total rebounds in both games.
  • One area where the Lakers have been better than their season averages is in shooting the 3 point shot, making 10 of their 25 attempts from deep over the two games.

Using these trends as a guide, we get a good idea of what the Lakers can do to win tonight, even though they’re sure to be tired after a hard fought game last night in Denver.

On offense, the Lakers must utilize Kobe and get him going as the Jazz don’t have a defender that can really slow him effectively. Coming off a rough shooting night where he saw constant double teams, Kobe should be able to get cleaner looks against a Jazz team that won’t be as quick to send a second defender Bean’s way. Running Kobe off screens and utilizing him in the post a bit more can get him good looks where should be able to convert.

Beyond Kobe, though, the Lakers must also go into Bynum to make Al Jefferson defend on the block. Bynum’s been a force on offense against most teams and even though he struggled in his last game against this team, he missed several bunnies near the hoop that he should convert at a higher rate should he get those same looks tonight. As for Pau, Millsap will give him some trouble as he’s quick enough to deny Pau his drives to the rim but is also deceptively long and will challenge Pau’s jumper. So, I’d like to see Pau get more touches on the left block so he can work his post moves more rather than settling for the jumper or trying to work off the dribble as much.

Defensively, a lot of the Lakers play will come down if Harris plays as he’s the player that can hurt their D by attacking off the dribble, forcing help, and opening up his teammates for open jumpers and lanes to the rim for offensive rebounding chances. If Harris does go, the Lakers will need to try to deny his driving lanes and show good help and recover skills to deny outside shots while still protecting their backboard. If Harris doesn’t play, the Lakers can focus more on defending the Jazz bigs and shift their perimeter focus to slowing Hayward, Miles, Howard, and rookie Alec Burks. If Bynum can continue to slow Jefferson and Pau can do a better job of keeping Millsap from going off by better contesting his jumper and keeping him off the offensive glass, the Lakers should control the paint, and thus the game.

All that said, accomplishing these things will come down to effort and we’ll see if the Lakers have the energy to do so. Playing back to back in Denver then Utah offers a challenge due to the challenging crowd and the elevation that also exists in Salt Lake. So, we’ll see if Lakers can gather their legs and bring the needed energy.

Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on KCAL. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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