The Lakers, though they are only a game past the midway point of the season, have reached a level of futility that has not been seen around the franchise since the 2004-2005 season. That team, however, featured journeyman Chucky Atkins as the starting point guard and Chris Mihm as the starting center, rather than future Hall of Famers Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
This current Lakers team is on pace to end up with the same record (34-48) as that team. Coach Mike D’Antoni has tried anything and everything to get the team to try to play cohesively, but he is not getting through to them. It is up to Dwight Howard, who is expected to play tonight after leaving the game early Wednesday in Memphis, and Kobe Bryant to find a way to get this team back on track and put aside whatever differences they have.
The Lakers face the Utah Jazz tonight. The Jazz come in as the seventh seed in the Western Conference right now at 23-19. They are a much less effective team on the road (9-15 on the year), though they have already won a game at Staples Center this season. The Jazz are 2-0 against the Lakers this season. They are also riding a four game winning streak, including a 104-97 victory over the defending champion Miami Heat on January 14th. Every game from here on out is a must win for the Lakers, and they must find a way to dig in defensively and get stops at critical moments.
Let’s see how the Lakers match up with them:
Frontcourt: The frontcourt is clearly the strength of this Jazz team. Al Jefferson starts at the center position and is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder (17.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game). He is one of the best back to the basket players in the league and possesses a feathery touch on the low block. Dwight Howard’s health is a key to the game tonight because the Lakers are likely to get pounded on the boards by not only Jefferson, but also the other Jazz bigs if Howard is not at full strength. While Jefferson is an offensive force, he is poor defensively and struggles with lateral movement. If Dwight wants to prove that he deserves more touches on the block, he should dominate Jefferson and create easy looks at the rim for himself.
Paul Millsap starts at power forward and enters his eighth season with the Jazz. He has been a model of the team’s blue collar mentality and remains an excellent rebounder and hustle player. He fits the bill of a player that is sure to give the Lakers a fit as they struggle to find consistent energy on a game to game basis. Millsap is more than just a hustle player though, as he averages 14.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a night, good for second on the team in both categories.
Metta World Peace will likely get the start on him, which is a good thing because he has done an excellent job of defending opposing power forwards since Earl Clark has been inserted into the starting lineup. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter serve as the backups for Jefferson and Millsap, and both serve as the future for the Jazz in the frontcourt. Favors possesses athleticism that neither Millsap nor Jefferson possess and has the ability to change the game on the defensive end. Kanter shredded the Lakers for 14 points and sixrebounds in only 18 minutes of playing time in the second matchup between the teams.
Backcourt: Mo Williams had been serving as the team’s starting point guard until he suffered a complete tear to his right thumb. Savvy veteran Jamaal Tinsley serves as the starter in his absence, and he has been filling in admirably. Tinsley is out there to distribute and certainly will not be atop the Lakers scouting report though. Randy Foye starts at shooting guard and the Lakers must be aware of him from beyond the three point arc at all times. Foye is shooting 44 percent from three point range on five attempts per game and has the ability to swing games with his streaky shooting ability.
Guard Gordon Hayward, best known for his starring role on the Butler University team that made the NCAA final in the 2010 season, is the team’s sixth man. Hayward is the key to the Jazz future on the wing, and he is averaging a career high 13.5 points per game. Hayward possesses excellent shooting ability and has become much stronger with the ball as he has developed over three seasons in the league.
Keys to Victory:
Win the Rebounding Battle: The Jazz have depth within their rotation of big men that will ensure that they have fresh bodies in the game at all times. Rebounding is all effort, and the Lakers demonstrated terrible effort in getting out-rebounded 52-34 against the Grizzlies on Wednesday night. This is why Dwight Howard’s health is a key to the game, because the Lakers have little to combat the size of the Jazz if he is not fully healthy. The Jazz come in tied for eighth in the league in offensive rebounds per game, so the Lakers will have their hands full.
High Assist Total: When the Lakers move the ball effectively from one side of the floor to the other, they are a better team. In the two Lakers wins in the past 13 games, they had 31 and 30 assists, respectively. When everyone on the team gets involved offensively, it leads to more energy on the defensive end. This is particularly true for both Howard and Pau Gasol, as both have done their fair share of complaining about their touches this season. The Lakers need to find a way to build cohesiveness, and a high assist total is a good way to achieve this.
Utah Jazz (23-19) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (17-25)
7:30 PM PST, January 25, 2013
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
CA TV: TWCSN
Jazz Projected Starting Line-up
PG: Jamaal Tinsley
SG: Randy Foye
SF: Marvin Williams
PF: Paul Millsap
C: Al Jefferson
Key Reserves: F Derrick Favors, F Enes Kanter, G Gordon Hayward