Los Angeles Lakers: Paul Millsap
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.
The Jazz have missed Earl Watson in the lineup.
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.
Pau Gasol's more modest run of three straight mid-winter classics has come to an end.
It's not shocking news. Gasol's performance this season hasn't been nearly as bad as unhappy Lakers fans might lead you to believe -- 16.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and a PER of 20.58 is hardly awful-- and is actually comparable statistically to a few guys in the mix for a trip to Orlando, Fla. Still, he hasn't met the lofty standard to which he should be held, and certainly doesn't have the feel of an All-Star. Not locally, at least.
Looking at the list of reserves, Kevin Love, and LaMarcus Aldridge are without question more deserving. Based on this season's performance I'd definitely give Pau the nod over Dirk Nowitzki, but Utah's Paul Millsap, who like Gasol will be watching on television, deserves a bid over both. There's just no way to conclude Gasol's omission is a crime of basketball.
The news isn't all bad. La Familia Gasol will still be represented in Orlando, as lil' brother Marc was named as the squad's backup center, filling that last "big man" slot. If only one can go, I suspect seeing his brother earn his first berth excites Pau a lot more than getting to go again himself.
So far so good for the Grammy roadie. The Denver Nuggets are arguably the best team the Lakers will face, but they pulled off an 93-89 win, despite some late-game scares. But a battle waits less than 24 hours later at Energy Solutions Arena, a venue that treats outsiders like Bob's Country Bunker treats bands that don't play country and/or western. Of course, the Lakers have already won in Utah this season, and a three-game series sweep is actually possible.
For further perspective on the Jazz, we called upon Spencer Ryan Hall, who runs Salt City Hoops for the True Hoop Network. Here are his thoughts on four questions about the Lakers' next opponent.
Land O' Lakers: How has Jamaal Tinsley looked this season, since he may be the starting PG against the Lakers?
Injuries have provided Tinsley's comeback bid a potential boost.
Also, no one rocks denim on denim better than Tinsley.
LO'L: Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol vs. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Who gets the best of the frontcourt matchup and why?
SRH: Pffffffffft. As well as Al and Paul have been playing this season (not only as individuals, but the two have make significant strides in playing to each other's strengths), they always have been, and probably always will be OWNED by Bynum and Gasol. I don't expect this to change.
You can't control who the schedule makers place in your path, just the results.
In any event, a win in Utah would surprisingly be considered impressive at this moment. For some insight on the Jazz, we called upon Spencer Ryan Hall of the True Hoop Network's Salt City Hoops blog. Here are some thoughts from Hall, plus a few of my own.
Count Josh Howard among the surprises in a surprisingly good start for Utah.
Land O' Lakers: Ever since getting beaten badly by the Lakers on December 27, the Jazz have played pretty well. What, if anything, has changed during these winning ways?
Spencer Ryan Hall: Hard to blame the Jazz for being disorganized at the beginning of the season; I'm just surprised they snapped together so quickly. Earl Watson has kind of made it his team and Ty Corbin has created an open rotation that allows any of about 11 players to spark the team on a given night. Josh Howard has been a revelation, something I didn't expect. Also, the team has taken on a shot-blocking identity and somehow is leading the league.
LO'L: When the Jazz played the Lakers, there was absolutely no discernible clue as to how their offense runs. How would you describe it, and in particular, how can it succeed against the Lakers?
SRH: The Jazz offense is still a bit of a mystery. Occasionally and old pick-and-roll will show up, but usually the ball ends up in Al Jefferson's hands on the left side, he waits 10 seconds and then puts up some variety of shot-put/old-man shot that usually goes in. Devin Harris is still figuring out what to do, but the Jazz are succeeding mostly on the back of Jefferson and [Paul] Millsap combining with contributions from anyone else. The surprise factor from the others is what's been fun to watch so far.
The purple and gold are in Salt Lake City for a battle against the Utah Jazz, 11-5 and in control of the Northwest Division. Despite an inability to strike playoff gold against the Lakers, the Jazz will never be confused for an easy out. Not with Jerry Sloan still their demanding coach. Not with Paul Millsap now the starting four, which I recently pegged an upgrade over the departed Carlos Boozer on a few counts. Not under any circumstances, really. That's never been how this franchise rolls, and this season is no exception.
This should be a quality challenge for the Lakers, and here are a few items to keep an eye on once the ball is jumped:
Deron Williams has often needed to be this close to the rack for baskets this season.
Deron Willliams' shooting
Williams is scoring 21.3 points per game, the makings of what could end up a career-high in bucket filling. The stat, however, comes with a caveat attached. He's also shooting just 43.5 percent from the field, his worst clip since his rookie campaign. In particular, the mid-range game has suffered, as Williams' 33.3 clip from 10-15 falls well below his typical success rate. That he's also taking more three-pointers than ever (4.1 per contest) while canning them at just an average rate (35.4 percent) also plays into the problem.
Still, when the Jazz and New Orleans Hornets battled on Wednesday, you'd have been clueless about D-Will's struggles from the field. 26 points racked on a nine-of 18 shooting clip, with four freebies falling from downtown in five tries. Perhaps nothing more than a talented guy playing up to his expected level, but you have to wonder if the performance was sparked in any way by the presence of Chris Paul. The two are very close friends, but have spent their entire young careers mired in "Who's better?" comparisons. CP3 has generally been considered the consensus victor, but injuries and the Hornets' drop off last season led to placement in Williams' rear view mirror. Buddies or not, Williams is an extremely competitive dude, and perhaps was inspired to play especially well and maintain last season's spot on the totem pole.
With that in mind, the Lakers should remain aware of Williams' shot refusing to drop, and perhaps even initially defend him as a guy you'll give space in exchange for preventing the blow-by. Put the onus on him to prove the slump is trending in the right direction. But if competitive situations spark the best in Deron, a date with the two-time defending champs (the same team knocking Utah out of the playoffs three-years running) could fit the bill.
Game of the Week
Friday @ Utah Jazz, 6 p.m. PT
The Jazz have garnered much buzz these days for a string of come-from-behind wins. Five in succession, the final four on the road, battling double digit deficits at some point in every case. There was even an OT win in South Beach with Deron Williams fouled out. Clearly, this showing is proof of their resiliency and mental toughness. And as someone who's always questioned Carlos Boozer's heart but never his desire to build stats and get paid, I find the timing anything but coincidental.
No doubt the now-Bull is talented (on one side of the ball, if nothing else), but he's never struck as a player I'd want on my side with the chips down.
Paul Millsap came up huge against Miami, and has always challenged the Lakers.
Conversely, I think Paul Millsap taking over for Boozer makes gritty success this season no accident. Beyond his 20 points and nine rebounds per game, and beyond specifically his crunch time heroics during the Miami win, I think there's something infectious about an All-Star caliber player with a lunch-pail attitude. It reminds me of Kobe's effect on the Lakers, in that nobody lower in the food chain can lay claim to outworking him.
There's a reason the Jazz never appeared threatened by Boozer's last few seasons with one foot out the door, and paid a pretty penny to retain Millsap's services off the bench. On a few levels, the latter is an upgrade, and Phil Jackson recently noted how Millsap used to provide more fits than Boozer. If anything, they wish he stayed in Utah.
Interestingly though, the Jazz's typical mark while playing at the Energy Solutions Center hasn't been as strong. Admittedly, the season is young, but they're only 3-3 at home. Granted, losses against Phoenix, Oklahoma City and San Antonio aren't disgraceful, but nonetheless games you expect this home court advantage to carry. (Oddly enough, the Jazz have traditionally struggled on the road, but are 6-2 as we speak. Go figure.) The Salt Lake crowd is loud and nasty, and gets particularly fired up when the purple and gold (and Derek Fisher, unfortunately) come to town. It wouldn't surprise me if this energy goosed a strong home performance from the Jazz, so the Lakers better be on their toes.
Other aspects, though, required some rewrites.
The Lakers, so dominant in the front court over the first two games, had one field goal from Gasol at the half, and got nothing offensively from Andrew Bynum all night. Literally, as Bynum didn't score a single point. Instead, they relied on Bryant, and also the -- brace yourself -- pinpoint shooting of Ron Artest, who made four of his seven attempts from beyond the arc, including three in a critical third quarter stretch.
But even if deviated from the expected, as I wrote following the game, Saturday's win was a great demonstration of what can make NBA playoff basketball so exciting. There were big performances by both team's stars -- Deron Williams finished with 28 points and nine dimes, not quite matching Bryant but still acquitting himself well, but also surprises, like Artest's offensive outburst, a nine-for-10 night from Kyle Korver, or a first half in which the bigs were silent but L.A. stayed tight nonetheless thanks not just to Bryant, but also key buckets from Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar.
Best of all, the final three minutes was a great game of "Can you top this?" pulling fans out of their seats, be said rear-rester at EnergySolutions Arena or in their living rooms. When it was over, ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz (of ClipperBlog/TrueHoop fame) and I put together the video below, breaking down that great end to a great game. Thanks as always to Kevin, who really does most of the heavy lifting on these collaborations.
After Game 1, Lamar Odom said the reserves lack "unity," something he hopes to help solve before Tuesday's Game 2.
So what happened? How could the same group of guys seem so effective early then fold like origami late?
Just like the pros- that's how I roll- I went back and looked at the tape. Or the DVR, as it were.
Here's how it broke down...
The Lakers open with Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Odom, Luke Walton, and Jordan Farmar. Utah takes the floor with Ronnie Price, Kosta Koufos, Kyle Korver, C.J. Miles, and Paul Millsap.
On the opening possession of the quarter, the Lakers get an early entry pass to Bynum in the right mid- post. Bynum draws a double (near triple, really) team from Miles and kicks to Brown at the top of the key. Brown fakes right on Korver, then drives hard into traffic. He's met by Millsap near the bucket. Lots of contact, but no call. Probably a good spot for a pull up jumper.
11:40- The Jazz do a great job with interior player movement, causing a little confusion in the Lakers defense. As Koufos pops out of the post and receives a pass high on the wing, Bynum lays back, and Brown provides ball pressure. When the ball swings to Price in the right corner, Bynum shades towards him, with a stance meant to funnel him baseline on any penetration. Unfortunately, it also opens an easy passing lane inside to Millsap, now being guarded by... Farmar. Uh oh. Mismatch. Utah bucket. (Reserves -2 for the quarter)
"Andrew is prepared to play. He's come in, he's doing some therapy, he's going to activate himself and try to work through it," Jackson said. ""We'll give him an opportunity to start. If he gets prepared to play, he'll have an opportunity."
Unless something changes, Bynum appears to have passed his pregame tests and will go. But Jackson said they'd keep a tight eye on how well he's moving and monitor any discomfort.
"If he's limited in what he can do- if the ability to run full out is going to be something that's going to hamper him, we'll have to measure that."
Most of the interesting stuff from the rest of Phil's pregame media session was related to Ron Artest.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a series without a clear focus for his defensive attention. He'll likely see Deron Williams and some of Utah's bigger guys here and there, but often he'll be matched up against lesser players like C.J. Miles. "I'm a little concerned that he doesn't have a "scorer" to go out and defend. A Carmelo Anthony or someone that's a qualified big scorer," Jackson said. "But the game that Utah beat us, Miles and (Wes) Matthews had 18, 19 points. I chided both Kobe and Ron for not paying attention to those guys because they're not known as big scorers, and they're the guys who really hurt us in the game that Utah beat us this season."
That said, Artest will be busy. "We have him pinpointed for four type of players. If it's Miles and Mathews, then maybe it's going to be Williams and (Paul) Millsap. I hadn't seen (Carlos) Boozer as a possibility, but Millsap has been very active and effective in the last series (against Denver)."