We all know the big, important names for the series: Kobe Bryant, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and so on. Lakers fans have seen so much of the Jazz over the last few postseasons there's a possibility five of them selected at random could come together and work through Utah's offense. But this year, there are a few variables making the series starting today a little different than the last two versions.
Here are a few on which to chew before the tip:
1. Kyrylo Fesenko: As a rule, anyone able to cram two y's into a six-letter first name is all good in my book, but for the first three years of his NBA career, Fesenko hasn't done much other than confuse people trying to pronounce his name. But with Mehmet Okur out for the series and the Jazz already undersized against the Lakers, Fesenko (or Really-that-guy?-doppelganger Kosta Koufos) will have an opportunity to make an impact. Utah fans just hope it's not a totally negative one.
Early returns are mixed. Pressed into service against Denver, Fesenko didn't exactly light the world on fire, at least away from Salt Lake City. In Game 3, Fesenko shocked the world with nine points, five boards, and three dimes before adding five more boards and two blocks in Game 4. Over the final two games of the series, though, Fesenko had more turnovers (seven) and personal fouls (six) than points (three) and swats (zero). He is also not fond of the Staples Center lighting.
Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap will get the bulk of the work up front for Utah, and don't necessarily match up well with the Lakers. But at least those guys are effective and productive players. If Fesenko (or, should he falter, Koufos) can't give Jerry Sloan passable minutes, the Jazz will have problems. (And for the record, I think the Jazz will have problems.)
2. Wes Matthews:Not your typical rookie shooting guard. Undrafted out of Marquette, Matthews not only worked his way into Utah's rotation, but played so well he made Ronnie Brewer expendable. In the first round against Denver, Matthews rebounded from a pair of poor opening games and was productive the rest of the way. In Game 3, Matthews was seven-of-11 from the floor, and in Game 6 worked his way to the line 15 times. On the season, he was a 38.2 percent three point shooter. Not quite Steve Kerr, but worthy of a cover.
Which is what makes Matthews interesting. Generally, the guy expected to spend a lot of time guarding Kobe Bryant gets a lot of attention for what could happen to him defensively. I'm always curious about how much an opposing guard -- particularly one without a long-standing, Wade-esque reputation -- can force Kobe to play defense against him. Bryant won't usually give a player like Matthews his full attention until it is demanded. Matthews will have to work to make Bryant earn his points. Can he make Bryant work to keep him off the board?
Ron Artest: In the last series, Artest had a duty more demanding than anything else put in front of him: guard Kevin Durant. And he was highly successful. It didn't matter quite as much what he did offensively, which is good because he often looked like a visitor to the Bureau of Tourism, so frequently was he given directions on the floor by teammates. Against the Jazz, Artest will undoubtedly spend a little time on Deron Williams, but I don't think it'll be as much as some have suggested. I think the Lakers will play things relatively straight -- nobody on the team can stop Williams one-on-one anyway-- and try to aggressively trap and force the ball from Williams' hands when they can.
Other times, Artest will probably match up with Boozer, but much of the time he'll be much more a cog in L.A.'s defensive system than the guy playing the starring role. It'll be interesting to see how that will play out against a hard cutting, good passing team like the Jazz. Meanwhile, on the other end the Jazz don't have anyone who matches up all that well with Artest, particularly inside. If he can stay active, Ron Ron has a chance to emerge from his slump slump.