(Courtesy: L.A. Times)
One last game before the All-Star weekend and it happens to be against the team riding a 9-game winning streak (and 10 in a row at home) — the most among any Western Conference team. After spending most of the season outside the top 8 teams in the west, the Utah Jazz (32-18) are now the 3rd seed team and has the 3rd best home record in this conference also.
Tonight, the Lakers (40-13) will try to end Utah's streak but more imporantly avenge their 102-94 loss at the Energy Solutions Arena back in Dec. 12th. That is the road loss that started the Lakers' slide to the mostly-off team for several weeks.
As if the defending champs didn't need anymore ailing bodies, Lamar Odom underwent an MRI on his sore left foot yesterday but clarified that he will be playing tonight. Of course, Andrew Bynum will miss his second game, and Kobe Bryant's availability will be a game-time decision on his part. Rational senses say he should sit this one too, but we all know about Kobe when it comes to playing hurt. We just have to wait and see.
But it is tempting for Bryant to rejoin his teammates tonight facing a healthy Jazz team in an always-loud arena. Whatever the case though, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom will have to do the bulk of the damages on offense and on defense. Utah aren't exactly known for their interior defense, let alone their shot-blocking ability outside of Andrei Kirilenko.
However, Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams are more than enough trouble for any team to handle, especially at their homecourt. Boozer is averaging 19.6 PPG (12th among the league's forwards) and 10.8 RPG (10th best in the NBA). Williams is averaging 18.8 PPG (14th best among guards) but 4th best in assists at 12.6 APG.
Utah is 15th in the league in scoring averaging 100.9 PPG but 4th in field goal percentage at 48%. Their defense is allowing 97.3 PPG (10th) and 8th in field goal perecentage defense allowing their opponents to shoot 45%.
Meanwhile, the Lakers' confidence hasn't been this high since the days of their double-digit win streak early in the season. They've emphatically played solid defense against Portland and San Antonio and ran the Triangle offense with near-perfection. There's no doubt the secret to their recent success is overall team play and contribution, and they're going to need to do the same against this always-tought-at-home Jazz team.
The defending champs are looking for their 3rd win in a row and are 15-9 on the road. They've won 7 of their last 10 games on the road. The Lakers have the 6th best scoring offense in the association putting up 103.3 PPG but ranks 12th in field goal efficiency at 46%. But they're one of the best teams defensively allowing only 96.7 PPG (8th), 44% inside the three-point line (5th), and just 32% outside the arc (1st).
The keys to victory for the Lakers tonight is to contain Williams, play with energy on both sides of the floor, man the boards, and let Gasol break down the defense with his scoring and passing ability.
Derek Fisher's scoring will help but his defense on Williams will be much more important. Utah just isn't the same team when Williams is having trouble scoring and getting the ball to his teammates. So, D-Fish has to fight through screens and keep Deron from getting into the paint. Rotation on screens and pick-and-pops will be vital for the Lakers' success defensively also.
Pau will have to command the paint on both ends, but he needs to also be mindful of where the defense is sending in the second man to double. Boozer is too small to effectively guard Gasol, and Pau is too skilled for the rest of their interior defenders to handle.
But the guy I want to see wreak havoc on offense is Ron Artest. He is just too wide and too strong for any Jazz defender to stop in the post, including Kirilenko. Of course, Jerry Sloan will have to put AK-47 on Artest if Kobe won't be playing, but Ron is good at knowing what to do against shot-blockers.
As long as the Lakers keep sharp on both baskets and cause trouble of their own, they'll have an excellent shot at ending this Jazz streak.
Tip-off is at 6:00. TV: KCAL-9 Radio: 710/1330 AM ESPN
Other Notes: Should Kobe play tonight, it will be his 1,000th career game joining Fisher with that mini-milestone. Bryant will also assist Shannon Brown at the All-Star dunk competition. With his 21-point, 19-rebound, 8-assist, and 5-block performance against San Antonio Monday night, Pau became just the 7th player in NBA history to accomplish it. Lamar and Kobe made USA men's basketball team roster for 2011-12 Olympics.