Records: Lakers 0-1 , Jazz 1-0
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.2 (16th), Jazz 99.9 (22nd)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 115.5 (26th), Jazz 94.1 (6th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Jazz: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdonavic, Rudy Gobert
Injuries: Lakers: Kyle Kuzma (out), Rajon Rondo (game time decision); Jazz: Dante Exum (out), Bojan Bogdonavic (questionable)
The Lakers coming in: The Lakers lost to the Clippers on opening night in disappointing fashion to many. Even though the Clippers were without Paul George, they won the game by 10 using superior defense, shot making, hustle, and a couple of advantageous matchups to fuel the W.
The Lakers, then, have some adjusting to do…or do they? The talk out of Wednesday and Thursday practices was that the team was missing Rajon Rondo with comments from Frank Vogel seemingly backing up that idea. Vogel said we should expect Rondo to “start a lot”, envisioning the mercurial point guard as a “25 to 30 minute a night” player. To many Lakers fans, this sounds…not great. I won’t explain more. Just trust me.
Despite everyone’s feelings, I get why Vogel values Rondo for this specific roster. Fact is, the Lakers lack offensive initiators behind LeBron and need that skill set in the lineup — even if only to supplement what LeBron does. Against the Clippers, intense ball pressure bothered Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, and Avery Bradley to the point that the team’s sets were disrupted or blown up entirely. Caruso didn’t get a chance to show he would be any better, but against the Patrick Beverly’s of the world, he too will struggle.
In saying all that, the Lakers will not be playing the Clippers every night. They will not face ball hakwing point of attack defensive guards nor will they face power wing players who thrive in isolation offensively every night. The Jazz, for all their strengths, don’t offer these things at a high level (though Conley is still quite good defensively even as he’s aged). So, like I said, I wonder how much the Lakers will have to change or adjust what they do on either end night to night. Some teams will give them more problems than others. The Clippers are one such team who can both them. But are the Jazz? Tonight we’ll see.
The Jazz coming in: Utah is 1-0, but I’d be lying if I said I saw a single second of their game (which would make me different than LeBron). The boxscore tells a funky store about their first game, though.
How exactly you win a game when Mike Conley, prize off-season acquisition, goes 1-16 from the field is wild, but that’s exactly what the Jazz did. Yes, it helps that Donovan Mitchell was excellent (32 points on 14-22 shooting), that Royce O’Neale did not miss any of his 6 shot attempts, and that backup PG Emmanuel Mudiay had a great night off the bench (12 points, 5 assists, 0 turnovers, 6-11 shooting).
But, what really stands out to me is that they held the Thunder to 95 points in a fairly slow paced game (about 101 possessions). This tells me the Jazz played their style and even though that didn’t lead to great offensive execution on their own side (which, considering their off-season, I’m sure is a slight disappointment), but I’m guessing they’ll take the win all the same. Tonight, though, the Lakers should offer a different test than the Thunder — or at least I hope they will.
Keys to the game: I implied as much earlier, but the Jazz are not the Clippers. The Jazz are expected to be a very good team, but their personnel is different, their schemes on both sides of the ball are different, and the way they’ll match up with the Lakers are different. I expect them to present their own challenges, of course, but I also expect some of what they like to do, particularly on defense, to allow the Lakers a bit more freedom to get into some of their more desired actions.
First, understand that the Jazz are a drop coverage team in the P&R. Gobert is going to play below the level of the screen, invite penetration towards him, and then try to snuff out drives around the dotted line by being a huge human being with long arms and great instincts. There’s probably no better big man in the league playing this style, but this style requires certain things to happen around it to be effective. First among them is for weakside wings to jam the roll man and for secondary bigs to be able to hold off the other team’s big man as he lurks in the dunker’s spot for drop off passes and offensive rebounds.
The Lakers would be wise to put pressure on the Jazz’s other defenders to see if they can hold up their end of the bargain when Davis, JaVale, and Dwight are either rolling hard to the rim or crashing the offensive glass while LeBron is looking to turn the corner vs. Gobert dropping to the paint. If LeBron is able to get into Gobert’s chest or make him commit earlier than he’d like, the rolling big is going to have lob or pocket pass opportunities. If he vacates to early to recover to the roll man, LeBron will go to the rim and either look to finish or dump off the ball when the secondary big man helps. These were the types of plays we did not see against the Clippers switching defense, but we should get more of these chances this game.
Defensively the Jazz will prey on the Lakers discipline by stringing out possessions and making them defend for extended periods. They’ll run their fair share of pick and rolls, but they’ll use them in different ways to force you into mistakes. On some of them they’ll be aggressive and look for the same situation I described above on the Lakers side, but with Gobert rolling or Mitchell/Conley/Ingles turning the corner looking to score. Other times, though, they’ll run these plays to get you into help situations and then kick the ball out, force you into rotation, then drive + kick + swing pass to expose you to open three pointers by Bogdonavich and whatever perimeter players didn’t initiate the P&R.
The Lakers, then, will need to be sharp at the point of attack, sharp with their initial help, and sharp with their back side rotations. And they’ll need to maintain this sharpness for upwards of 23 seconds as the Jazz look to move the ball on and on and on to the next open man to create a favorable shot. This is what they do and the Lakers better be prepared.
In saying all that, I’m mostly looking for a couple of things tonight from the Lakers.
- Can they get LeBron and Davis going in the same game?
- If that does not happen with Davis at PF, will he shift to C to open up the floor a bit more and get Gobert involved in P&R’s where Davis is the roll man?
- Can the Lakers be better on the backboards than they were with the Clippers — both keeping Gobert off the offensive glass and working to get to more of their own misses by utilizing their overall size advantage?
- Can the Lakers defense control the mid-range area of the court from 18ft to the dotted line? Both Mitchell and Conley can thrive in these areas and it will be on the Lakers bigs to stay up enough to contest shots while not getting beat off the dribble to allow their guards to recover back off screens.
If three or all 4 of these things go the Lakers way, they’ll win. If they don’t….yeah, we don’t want to consider that just yet.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and ESPN.
*All stats via stats.nba.com