Seeing the forest for the trees won't be easy for the Jazz.
LOS ANGELES -- If you saw Utah dismantle Denver during the first round of the postseason then you have a good idea of how efficient the Jazz’s offensive system is when it’s running on all cylinders. Against the Nuggets, the ball breezed around the court. Every pass, screen and cut seemed to produce a high-percentage shot for the Jazz against a Nuggets defense that spent two weeks with its head on a swivel.
Utah’s execution-oriented offense should be able to withstand just about any defense it confronts, at least theoretically. But in each of the past two postseasons, the Los Angeles Lakers have quickly dispatched the Jazz. In both instances, the Lakers’ “length” was cited as a key factor. Needless to say, the Lakers’ roster isn’t any longer when playing the Jazz versus any other team, so what is it about the Lakers’ length that specifically gives the Jazz fits?
To start, Jerry Sloan’s system is predicated on continuity. For many NBA teams, scoring is a matter of finding the best one-and-one mismatch on the floor, then exploiting it, but that’s not the case for the Jazz. They flow into their offense by moving the ball in a pattern. The system relies on crisp passes to players who dart off screens away from the ball, and often on entry passes into Carlos Boozer or Paul Millsap from the wings. Against an undisciplined, average-sized team like Denver, swinging the ball around the court is child’s play. But the Lakers make that task extremely difficult.
“Those passes you usually see Wes [Matthews], Kyle [Korver] and I make from the wings? It’s hard to zip those passes because you have three 7-footers with their arms out,” Jazz forward C.J. Miles said.
The success of Utah’s scheme depends on fluid motion, which means the Jazz can’t afford any hesitation or else the offense stalls. Since the Jazz don’t have many shot-creators who can burn the defense in isolation, the ball must keep moving, something that doesn’t come without risk against the Lakers’ battalion of big men.
“Even if you could’ve gotten [the pass] to the post, you’re timid just because they have their hands up,” Miles said. “You don’t want to turn it over and they make it tough.”
For players who thrive on knowing that a good shot will materialize if they execute properly, that’s a serious adjustment. A simple baseline pass to a cutter, a kickout from the low block or an entry pass into the post becomes a lot more complicated. Take the possession at the 4:12 mark of the first quarter. Rookie guard Wesley Matthews held the rock on the left wing with Boozer calling for the ball on the left block a few feet away.
Not with Pau Gasol harassing Boozer. Matthews tried to lob the ball into Boozer, but Gasol got in front of the pass and knocked it away, resulting in an easy two for the Lakers on the other end.
“It’s length -- those extra inches that they take up on the court,” Matthews said. “They get their hands on the ball. It makes things difficult. We have to be crisper and we have to be more sure.”
That length isn’t just about clogging passing lanes. There are ancillary benefits that come with having big guys who can deflect passes and block shots. For instance, the Lakers’ guards have the luxury of defending with more freedom.
“Fish, Kobe and Ron do a great job pressuring the ball because they know there are three 7-footers waiting back there,” Miles said, referring to Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest.
In other words, playing a lethal guard like Deron Williams more aggressively is less risky because if he beats you, there’s a back line that can clean up the mess. After averaging 11.3 assists per game in six games against Denver, Williams managed only eight assists in Game 1 against the Lakers. Meanwhile, Gasol recorded five blocked shots and Lamar Odom swatted away a pair.
“Gasol is a tremendous player," Sloan said. "He’s very long, and they’re very long for us to deal with. He’s so big and long and that’s where he hurt us. Obviously, his ability to block shots keeps us off the basket.”
Then, of course, there are the offensive benefits that come with that length, illustrated by Gasol’s 25-point afternoon on 9-for-15 shooting from the field. The Lakers’ big man had his way in the post against both Boozer and Millsap, the latter of whom gives up four inches to Gasol. Eight of Gasol’s nine field goals came inside of eight feet, some of those buckets against active double-teams down low by Utah.
Gasol’s offensive exhibition aside, there was no better demonstration of the Lakers' advantage than Odom's rebound of a Kobe Bryant miss in the game's final minute -- one of five offensive boards for Odom on the day. Odom squeezed his way inside the tangle of bodies beneath the Lakers' basket and elevated above the scrum for the putback to give the Lakers a 3-point lead with 48 seconds to play.
How do the Jazz combat this length? They must move the ball briskly East to West and inside out to keep the Lakers' defenders from smothering the strong side. Apart from that, there are no easy solutions, save a delivery of Magic Grow to the Jazz's hotel tonight.
"Unless I grow another three inches before tomorrow, there’s nothing we can do about it," Williams said.