Records: Lakers 9-11 (11th in the West), Jazz 11-10 (6th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.6 (6th in the NBA), Jazz 104.8 (7th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.1 (9th in the NBA), Jazz 103.0 (17th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Chris Duhon, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Dwight Howard
Jazz: Mo Williams, Randy Foye, Marvin Williams, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and Steve Blake are all out. Jazz: Derrick Favors and Al Jefferson are both questionable.
The Lakers remain as up and down as ever, going 1-2 in their last three games. Their lone win was against a Hornets team that was missing their two best players, but also a team that would be a lottery team even with those players in the lineup. Their last game was a moral victory, not for the final score but for how they fought down the stretch and didn’t quit on the game even when they certainly could have. The final margin reflected that, more than how close the game actually was.
The Lakers are in an interesting spot after 20 games. They’ve lost more than any analyst would have predicted, but those defeats have come against the backdrop of injuries and major changes to the coaching staff. At this point, as frustrating as it is, this team can’t be judged without time. Time to heal their injuries; time to adjust to playing under a new coach; time to gel as the two latter things occur.
Time, however, is a double edged sword. The lakers have 62 regular season games left to find their stride and hit their peak. That seems like a lot of time. However, the Lakers only have until the middle of February to determine if this is the roster they want, or if trades are in order. That is not that much time. Furthermore, as the Lakers find their stride, teams like the Spurs, Thunder and Grizzlies are already running at full speed. Catching up to them over the course of the season will be difficult and there may not be enough time to do so.
So, as much as the Lakers are in a battle against circumstances, they are also battling time. Over the next 5 months, they have enough of it to become the best team they can be. In that same period, however, there are smaller pockets of it to work within for them to actually accomplish that goal. Meanwhile, outsiders stew over it all and ride the roller coaster, literally. They have no control and simply have to go where the machine takes them.
Tonight’s opponent isn’t as conceptual as time. The Jazz come into the game winners of two in a row, but losers of three of their last four road games. They also come into the game banged up. Al Jefferson (back spasms) and Derrick Favors (plantar fasciitis) are both listed as questionable. I think they’ll play, but if they don’t it obviously renders most any game preview moot. Jefferson’s low post game can give Howard fits and Favors’ combination of size and athleticism would be a tough challenge for Jordan Hill and the reserve bigs. If they don’t play, the Jazz’s biggest strength — front court depth — is dramatically altered and even more would be needed from the supporting cast.
This group includes Marvin Williams, Enes Kanter, and Gordan Haywood. All three are good players but all are also a bit up and down. Williams is just returning from a concussion, but his defense on both Kobe and Ron will be important. As is his ability to hit the corner three pointer. Kanter is a bull in the paint and uses his strength to carve out position to post up and grab offensive rebounds. His lack of elite athleticism is more than compensated for by his smarts and know how around the rim. As for Hayward, he’s moved to the bench but has kept his production up even as a reserve. His scoring has remained consistent and his ball handling and all-around wing skills help their bench.
The other players to watch are Mo Williams, Millsap, and Foye. When the Lakers lost to the Jazz in Utah, Williams and Foye took turns in the two halves hitting key shots that earned them the win. Both can get hot from the outside and their ability to space the floor makes life easier for the Jazz big men. Millsap is a player that will continue to work hard regardless of how well he’s playing, and his match up with Jamison will be a major one to watch as the game goes on. If Jamison isn’t up to the task, I wouldn’t mind seeing Ron switch over to guard Millsap with ‘Tawn moving over to guard Marvin Williams.
Beyond the individual match ups, the biggest factor to this game will be which team can hit enough shots to let their big men go to work against single coverage. If the Lakers can be that team, Dwight Howard should see a lot of one on one time with bigs who aren’t fully equipped to deal with his combination of quickness and power. If the Jazz are hitting their shots, their bigs (all of them) will attack the rim relentlessly and then try to swoop in for offensive rebounds as well.
Lastly, the Lakers must do a better job of keeping ball handlers in front of them. The Jazz don’t have that classic “elite” wing that loves to attack off the dribble, but Mo Williams, Hayward, Foye, and even Millsap are more than capable of getting into the lane against their man. Ensuring it’s not a recurring theme is a must tonight, or Dwight and Hill will end up having to help too often and then the game will depend on the second and third rotations to be sharp. So far this year, when that’s been the case, the Lakers haven’t been up to the task. They’d be best served if they didn’t let it come to that tonight.
Jazz Blogs: Salt City Hoops is a very good site. Give them a read.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.