Records: Lakers 28-16 (3rd in West), Jazz 22-22 (9th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.1 (17th in NBA), Jazz 105.7 (8th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 101.4 (9th in NBA), Jazz 106.5 (23rd in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Blake, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Jazz: Devin Harris, C.J. Miles, Josh Howard, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors
Injuries: Lakers: none; Jazz: Al Jefferson (questionable), Raja Bell (questionable), Earl Watson (questionable)
The Lakers Coming in: One game into the Ramon Sessions era and so far, so good. The Lakers picked up their 5th straight win and their new addition contributed with his speed, ability to set up his mates, and his feel for the game. As this team moves forward it will be important to not only integrate a key player but to continue to evolve as a group and better refine their schemes to raise their games even further. And for all the hand wringing surrounding Mike Brown, achieving this certainly looks possible. Over the past few weeks the Lakers have shown greater comfort on offense, seen Bynum continue to grow his game, and had Kobe continue to play at a high level.
As an aside, what’s gone mostly unsaid about the Lakers with all the change after the trade deadline is that Pau Gasol is still with the team. In Friday’s game, he definitely looked relieved and seemed to play with a clearer mind. He moved well around the court, was aggressive when he caught the ball, and just looked better. As with Sessions, a one game sample doesn’t automatically create a trend for the future, but it was good to see Pau play unburdened. If that continues, the Lakers may have picked up another player at the trade deadline: an invigorated Spaniard.
The Jazz Coming in: The Jazz are 3-2 in their last 5 games but have still – even if only temporarily – dropped out of the playoff race in the ultra-competitive West. This may actually be the preferred course of action for a young team that’s still rebuilding and trying to sort out their roster into workable pieces that fit together for long term success. They have a logjam in their front court with two high lottery picks (Kanter and Favors) playing behind two good veterans (Millsap and Jefferson), and are still sorting out who their long term answers will be on the wing, with both Gordon Heyward and Alec Burks proving to be inconsistent at these early stages of their careers. Another lottery pick wouldn’t be the worst thing for this team, as it could give them another player that may help their long-term plan to become that perennial playoff team they were with Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan. It’s a painful process to rebuild in this manner, but it could end up being what’s actually needed after this team showed they could not sustain their strong play from earlier in the season.
Keys to game: This will be the 4th and final time these two teams face off this season, and the Lakers have the opportunity to claim the series 3-1 with a win tonight. In the previous three games between these teams, a few trends have developed:
*The Jazz have been very good at attacking the offensive glass, grabbing 18, 10, and 18 offensive rebounds in the three games. In the last game (the lone Jazz win in this series) Millsap had 6 and Jefferson had 4 OReb’s and they’ll need to be closely marked and bodied to keep them from getting extra possessions. Gasol will need to be especially active, as Millsap will lurk on the weak side when shots go up and use his quickness and instincts to move to the ball and secure the rebound. Pau mustn’t get caught watching the ball too much or lose sight of Millsap, or else he’ll find himself chasing the Jazz forward after the rebound is already lost.
*The Jazz have not proven capable of hurting the Lakers from beyond the three-point line in any of the games. They’re 9-39 from behind the arc in the three contests and the Lakers should force them to take the long jumper again and again until they prove they can make those shots. This is especially true with the Jazz’s emphasis on getting points through their post players and with Raja Bell (their best deep shooter) questionable. Dig downs from the guards should be a point of emphasis to bother the Jazz big men, but with LA’s wings still closing out under control back to their shooters to still contest shots.
*Andrew Bynum needs to get his touches against Al Jefferson (should he play) and Derrick Favors. Bynum has the size advantage on both players and in the last Jazz game he scored 21 points on only 14 shots while helping to draw fouls on the Jazz front line. Bynum’s recent play has buoyed the Lakers’ offense and tonight that should continue with some matchups in his favor.
*Kobe’s been great at getting to the FT line against this team by attacking the basket and using his repertoire of fakes and feints to get his defender off balance and draw contact. He should continue that trend tonight, especially if Jefferson plays. When big Al and Millsap are in the game, the Jazz don’t have a big man that can defend the rim and Kobe should use that as incentive to try and get to the paint. If he doesn’t get a good shot right at the front of the rim, he’ll either draw a foul or get one of his big men a good look via an offensive rebound or a dump-off pass, a method of fueling the Lakers’ offense when they don’t simply dump the ball into the post or run their screen actions.
Tonight gives the Lakers a good opportunity to keep their momentum going and continue their push for a strong playoff seed. The Lakers are excellent at home, so the expectation is that they’ll play well — but they must do it on the court and not just expect it to happen. With the added energy of the Sessions deal and the big three showing strong chemistry of late, here’s hoping the good play continues.
Where you can watch: 6:30PM start time on Fox Sports West. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.