GAME TIME: Lakers 106, Jazz 92
One of these years the Jazz will beat the Lakers in Los Angeles. Until then, Utah will never truly be an elite ball club.
Despite their recent hot-streak, the loss drops the Jazz into the fourth seed -- a precarious position. Should the current rankings hold, not only would Utah face a difficult series versus Denver, but a victory there would assuredly put them face-to-face with the Lakers for a third consecutive year. No doubt Jerry Sloan is well aware of his team's 3-8 playoff record against the LAL over the past two seasons.
Why, then, can't the Jazz beat the Lakers?
Utah's perimeter shooting has always been (and still is) totally unreliable. In Friday night's loss, Mehmet Okur was 0-for-5 and C. J. Miles 0-for-2 from beyond the arc. Overall, the team was 4-for-17, with the only encouraging development being Wesley Matthews making two of his three 3-ball attempts.
While Kyle Korver is an exceptional shooter, his miserable defense, inferior athleticism and poor ball-handling are so detrimental that he must shoot at least 50 percent to justify meaningful playing time.
Utah's post-up game is virtually useless against the Lakers' considerable size and length. Carlos Boozer rarely manages a decent shot over Pau Gasol's long arms and is much better off receiving the ball at a high- or mid-post spot. Okur has no post-up game of which to speak. Paul Millsap is an undersized power forward anyway and has a difficult time getting free of Lamar Odom's long, leansome defense. Also, since Utah's long-range shooting is questionable, the Lakers can afford to jam the middle.
While Utah's cutting-screening-slashing offense often create layups, these gimme shots don't occur with sufficient frequency against LA's quick-stepping big men.
Since both Boozer and Okur are slow afoot, they can't take the ball to the basket enough times to force the Lakers to foul them. Consider that Gasol was awarded 10 free throws, but Boozer and Okur combined to shoot only eight.
Utah's guards and wingmen lack the creativity necessary to put consistent pressure on the Lakers bigs.
Deron Williams is far-and-away Utah's best playmaker, scorer, outside shooter, and penetrator. However, the offense fails to provide Williams with sufficient ball time or shot opportunities.
Get Boozer out of the low post and station him either at a mid-post along the baseline or at the high post. As soon as Andrei Kirilenko recovers from his latest injury, maximize his playing time at the expense of Okur's. Get Williams involved in more high screen/rolls with Boozer or Okur. To get the best out of these plays, the screens should be set up to Williams' right with only one teammate situated along the baseline 3-point arc on that side of the court. Get more meaningful playing time for Kyrylo Fesenko -- 2-for-2, three rebounds, one block in three minutes. After all, the young man is a legitimate 7-footer and in his third season with the Jazz. He always hustles, is unafraid of contact and is being paid to play. Increasing his daylight certainly won't make matters worse for the Jazz. Sloan has to make sure that his charges are ready to play when the lights are turned on. Quick double-digit margins give the Lakers a huge shot of confidence while the Jazz have to exhaust themselves just to get back in touch -- which is precisely what happened in the game at hand. ON DEFENSE
Without Kirilenko, nobody can come close to matching up with Odom. However, even A.K. has his hands full with L.O. and usually winds up in early foul trouble.
Boozer lacks the size and the quickness to hamper Gasol in the low post. Because of this, Gasol has to be double-teamed -- but in so doing, the Lakers perimeter shooters are left unattended. Accordingly, LA was 7-for-20 from beyond the bonus line and Gasol accumulated eight assists.
Actually, neither Boozer nor Okur can adequately defend anybody on a man-to-man basis.
Because Boozer and Okur are so lead-footed, Utah's interior defense is Swiss-cheesey. The absent Kirilenko is their only accomplished shot-blocker, but this aspect of his game can be minimized when whomever he's guarding (usually Odom) plays on a high wing.
Again, the lack of lateral quickness of their bigs makes the Jazz incapable of coping with the Lakers' dive- and speed-cuts.
All game long, Utah's weak-side defense was poor.
It should be noted that Wesley Matthews (supplemented by C. J. Miles) did an extraordinary job against Kobe, who shot only 5-for-23. Mostly working with minimal help, these guys prevented Kobe from getting more than an occasional good look at the rim.
Okur has outlived his usefulness. If he can't be traded (for at least a high second-round draft choice), then a mobile free-agent center must be signed.
Make a dramatic sign-and-trade deal exchanging Boozer for a more athletic big man who can move his feet on defense.
Find a way to keep A.K. healthy.
Credit the Jazz for their late third-quarter comeback. That's when their offense settled down and took advantage of LA's defense getting too frantic. But Utah can't depend on the Lakers losing their concentration against them for long periods of time.
And with Kobe, Odom, and Bynum all signed to long-term deals, the Jazz have only two hopes of advancing to the finals in the foreseeable future: Getting quicker and more athletic in the frontcourt, and more creative in the backcourt. And hoping that some other team bumps off the Lakers early in the money season before the Utah gets to play them.
In the NBA, being fourth-, third-, or even second-best isn't good enough.