The Utah Jazz began this season regarded by most as a team in flux: Enough talent (Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, promising second-year player Gordon Hayward) not to be terrible, but not enough to hang with the Western Conference big boys. And a surprisingly strong start to the season notwithstanding, that's basically what they've revealed themselves to be. The Lakers have already beaten the Jazz twice, and Utah's 5-16 road record suggests a third win should be on the docket. The result can't be taken for granted, but a betting man would lay his money on the hosts.
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The Jazz have missed Earl Watson in the lineup.
However, should that theoretical W come, I'm more interested in how it's manufactured than simply notching No. 29. The Lakers have a bad habit of getting an opponent on the ropes, then letting them back into the game rather than stepping on their necks. It's occasionally resulted in some horrible losses (at Detroit and Washington), along with wins made more complicated than necessary. Should the Lakers build the lead they're capable of against the Jazz, it would be nice to see the last five or so minutes closed out with Devin Ebanks on the floor, rather than Kobe Bryant.
For the inside skinny on the Jazz, we consulted Spencer Ryan Hall from the True Hoop Network's Salt City Hoops blog. Check out his thoughts on a few Jazz-centric queries.
Land O' Lakers: After initially playing better than most expected, The Jazz have been a .500-ish team. Has something gone wrong, or is this a matter of water seeking its own level?
Spencer Ryan Hall: Just as Linsanity was built on a premise that required everything to go right to be successful, the Jazz rode a wave of good scheduling (almost a million home games, give or take), surprising chemistry (with Earl Watson emerging as the team leader), and breakout performances from Hayward, Alec Burks, and others. In limited minutes, young Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Jeremy Evans all provided big sparks to lead the second unit.
There was no Melo returning to upset the fragile Jazz ecosystem, but the unfriendly confines of road arenas, injuries to Watson, stagnation of the offense, and a strange shortening of the lineup rotation to feature the underperforming Raja Bell and Josh Howard all contributed to taking the magic out of a magical start.
While the early success was a product of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, the parts (namely Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap) have dominated the offense in a way that seems to have removed a lot of the movement and joy that the team had early in the year.
LO'L: There will obviously be a lot of attention focused on Bynum/Gasol vs. Jefferson/Millsap, but how has Derrick Favors developed this season? How much of an impact could he make against the Lakers' frontcourt?
SRH: Favors shows glimpses, but his offensive game is still very, very raw. The skills seem to be there, but the mindset to be a beast doesn't. He's a rebounding machine, though. On Thursday against Minnesota, he grabbed 16 rebounds in just 23 minutes. The Jazz need Favors to have more big games if they want to make the playoffs. The famously weak Lakers second unit should give him an opportunity to do some work.
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A big night from Hayward will be necessary for the Jazz to pull an upset.
LO'L: Piggy-backing onto that, the Lakers' bench has been, to put it kindly, spotty this season. How has the Jazz's second unit performed of late, and do you think it can be an asset in this game?
SRH: Hayward trails only Jefferson and Millsap in minutes played, so his recent move to the second unit gives the Jazz a strong weapon off the bench. Hayward has played well since the move, too. Against the Timberwolves he put up 26 points and played with the kind of confidence and fire he needs.
The Jazz also recently dusted off their vintage Jamaal Tinsley they've had sitting in the garage. Tinsely has played well replacing the injured Watson. He brings a traditional point guard mentality that seems to get lots of players involved in the offense and is fun to watch. The #freealecburks movement seems to have had some results, too, with Burks finally getting some quality minutes and rewarding his fans with 15 points Thursday against Minnesota.
Barring a unicorn-rare off night against Utah from Kobe, the Jazz must feast on the Lakers' second unit to win this game. It's a testament to how strong the Kobe/Pau/Bynum triumvirate is when you see the dregs of the roster that they have to carry on their backs.