The 2014-15 NBA season has been the year of addition by subtraction. The Detroit Pistons dug out of the Eastern Conference’s cellar after essentially paying Josh Smith to go away, the Boston Celtics are on the verge of a playoff berth led by Jae Crowder and the Utah Jazz are suddenly the league’s most lethal defensive team since shipping Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Kendrick Perkins’ $9.7 million illegal screens. Utah did buyout Perkins, though, so the mere absence of the offensive-minded Kanter has paid dividends for a former Jazz team amidst an identity crisis. In fact, Utah has held its opponents to under 100 points for 10 straight contests.
Kanter’s successor and budding star center, Rudy Gobert has quickly manifested himself into a franchise cornerstone. Standing at 7-foot-1, the 22-year-old sophomore from France is an elite rim protector and rebounds with high efficiency. Head coach Quin Snyder has allowed Gobert to blossom recently, as the center is averaging nearly 11 points and 18 rebounds per game through the month of March. Being in Utah, Gobert rarely gains national exposure, but if the Jazz continue to build on this tremendous streak the center will undoubtedly garner some attention as a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate soon enough.
Perhaps the largest beneficiary of the Kanter deal is power forward Derrick Favors. Widely classified as a mediocre energy guy for the majority his career, Favors has begun to reinvent himself as a savvy offensive player with an array of post moves and a reliable jump shot from the top of the key. Weighing in at 262 pounds, Favors relies heavily on his size and strength down low to overpower his opponents. Though this methodology is not always successful, 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game certainly validate the big man’s evolution since his rookie season.
Gordon Hayward’s scoring has steadily improved every season he’s been in the league. Now, the swingman is averaging just shy of 20 points per game – 19.6 – and has seemingly shouldered the leadership role on this young Utah team. A quintessential small forward, Hayward possesses an assortment of offensive weapons. He can nail the deep ball, has a solid mid-range shot and has sneaky athleticism that allows him to finish an outstanding 54.5 percent of his shots at the rim. Defensively, Hayward does struggle against the premier class of athletes due to a lack of lateral quickness, but relies on the fundamentals to make up for his deficits.
Utah lost its starting shooting guard, Alec Burks, in late-December to a shoulder injury and his backup Rodney Hood just days later. Joe Ingles was the starter by default until recently when Hood returned at full strength. Drafted 23rd overall, Hood is rapidly turning out to be yet another steal by the Jazz. The 6-foot-8 shooting guard is really hitting his stride lately, scoring in double figures for four straight games. Hood has the rare ability to shoot off the dribble with ease, excelling when he comes off screens. For a team lacking that offensive punch needed to push over the hump, Hood has become the x-factor down the home stretch of the regular season.
Dante Exum and Trey Burke have split the starter’s duties throughout the season, but Snyder appears to have settled on the Australian for the remainder of the year. At 19-years-old, Exum was visibly overwhelmed by his opponents, largely because of his lack of professional experience. Growing up in Australia, Exum barely had any exposure to NBA-level talent, so it’s unsurprising that he was shell-shocked upon his arrival. But, the point guard is beginning to display signs of potential yet to be tapped into.
Keys To Victory:
Eliminate Derrick Favors: Utah’s only true offensive threat is Favors. He is the sparkplug in a stagnant offense and the go to man when the outside shot is not falling. Eliminating Favors from this game offensively will cause the Jazz offense to immediately implode, giving the Los Angeles Lakers a fighting chance to come away with the victory.
Establish A Rhythm Outside: Gobert is no joke. He possesses the size and strength to match up with every opposing center in this league. The Lakers roster on the other hand, does not contain any real offensive threats in the frontcourt. So, big games from Wayne Ellington and Jeremy Lin will be key to develop some fluidity on the offensive end.
Bench Scoring: Despite a defensively potent starting lineup, there is a massive drop off on the Jazz bench. The bench rarely contributes meaningful minutes, so the Lakers must exploit Utah during substitutions. Between Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer, Los Angeles has two potentially dangerous offensive weapons off the bench.
Los Angeles Lakers (17-49) at Utah Jazz (30-37)
7:30 PM PST, March 19, 2015
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
TV: TWC SN
Radio: 710 ESPN (English) / 1330 ESPN (Spanish)
Jazz Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Dante Exum
SG: Rodney Hood
SF: Gordon Hayward
PF: Derrick Favors
C: Rudy Gobert
Key Reserves: PG: Trey Burke SG: Elijah Millsap PF: Trevor Booker
Lakers Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: Wayne Ellington
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Tarik Black
C: Jordan Hill
Lakers Byron Scott Praises Jabari Brown