Lakers-Jazz Preview: 67 Games To Go

Tonight is game 16 of the 82-game regular season. Whilst this regular season is certainly shaping up to be more enjoyable than last year's (albeit with small sample size), the realisation that there are still 67 games left in the season is almost.... wearying. This Laker team is often a joy to watch, basketball played at one of the highest standards ever seen, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. In fact, the offense is almost perfect. And therein lies the issue. Perfection can end up being almost boring. The extraordinary has become routine. Last season's flaws and issues were nerve-racking and highly stressful, but at least they remained interesting.

Even only 15 games into the season, even without the Lakers' starting center Andrew Bynum having played a single game this season, it is already evident that, barring catastrophe, these 2010-2011 Los Angeles Lakers can compete with any and every team in the league, with a favourable outcome the overwhelming majority of the time. The Lakers have a good shot at holding home-court advantage against any team in the East, and in the West it seems unlikely that New Orleans will keep at their current pace, or that San Antonio will even bother to try (Gregg Popovich is well known for his laid-back approach to the regular season). The Lakers' bench has played remarkably and the starters have reaped the benefits.

The one thing the Lakers are yet to experience this season is a true struggle, of the type of game the Boston Celtics or San Antonio Spurs could bring. But these Lakers are experienced. Asides from the rookies, every single rotation player has been there, done that. Barnes has earned significant minutes for Phoenix and Orlando in  the playoffs the past two seasons, and Blake was a major rotation player for the Portland Trail Blazers; and obviously the returning Lakers have plenty of big-game experience.

All there is left to look forward to is a beatdown of those pretenders in Miami, as we most certainly won't meet them in the playoffs, where the Lakers have dates reserved with San Antonio and then, depending on the outcome of that series, Boston.

Basically, can the playoffs start already? I'm in the mood for some real basketball.

Alas, the National Basketball Association does not run at my whim (give it time), and the remainder of the regular season must still be played out, with the Utah Jazz next up tonight. Ah well, at least the Lakers are having fun.

The Jazz are a decent but unextraordinary team, ranked 13th in the league offensively (107.4 offensive rating) and 10th defensively (104.3), sporting an 11-5 record, good for fourth in the West. The team is obviously led by star point guard Deron Williams, playing stellar ball as always (albeit apparently dealing with a minor leg injury) and putting up about 21 and 10 on a nightly basis (although at a somewhat subpar clip from the field, by his standards), numbers that become more and more likely to grow the longer Fish is on the floor tonight.

The Jazz also feature a strong, albeit rather undersized frontline in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap (Carlos Boozer, unfortunately, has fled to the East to get away from Pau Gasol). Jefferson is averaging 17 and 9, playing decently in the Jazz' system, and Millsap's near 20-and-9 average has been punctuated with performances such as this. The Lakers' frontline will certainly have their work cut out for them in defending the two - a task that will likely be made harder with the penetration of Deron Williams. A good place to start would be to keep the two off of the boards, particularly Millsap, a double-double machine. What Jefferson and Millsap lack in the height department, they make up for it with excess size and an excellent nose for the ball, respectively. Whilst Jefferson is potent at creating for himself off the block, Millsap relies more on offensive rebounds and Deron Williams for his points, so cutting him short is pretty fundamental.

The Jazz' starting frontline look to be the most potent offensive and rebounding frontline the Lakers have faced so far in this season, but defensively they have little hope of slowing down the Lakers' attack. A lack of height and mobility on Jefferson's part limits him. Although he still does clog the lane, he has little shot at defending the vastly more versatile Gasol unless Pau allows Jefferson's size and physicality to take him out of the game. Millsap has next to no chance of stopping Lamar's versatility and skill on the offensive end, particularly with Lamar's newfound aggressiveness and consistency this season. The Lakers are also immensely relieved when either of Utah's bigs go to the bench, as Utah's frontline is rather thin with Okur's injury. Kyrylo Fesenko is their backup center (LOL) and Andrei Kirilenko can slide over and play some power forward when Millsap is taking a rest, but Utah still definitely miss Okur's presence and floor-spreading. The Lakers' frontline is currently rather shallow itself, but with Utah's lack of size, LA can get away with a fair amount of small-ball, putting Artest on Millsap or Kirilenko at the 4.

On the wings, the Jazz start Raja Bell (thanks, Utah) and Andrei Kirilenko, both solid vets on the downside of their careers. Bell has been underwhelming so far this season, coming off a wrist surgery that led to him missing a vast amount of last season. Bell's shooting has fallen off a cliff, shooting 30% from deep and 41% from the field, producing 8 points and not much else in 29 minutes of burn a night. Kirilenko has been better, primarily due to his lights-out 47% clip from deep, but overall not great. Off the bench, CJ Miles takes up most of the remaining wing minutes in a solid but unspectacular fashion. Defensively, both Kirilenko and Bell (Raja who?) have been some of the better defenders of Kobe Bryant in the past (in purely relative terms); but both are aging, particularly Bell (who also missed much of last season with injury). Kirilenko has more of a chance, particularly with his size, but if Kirilenko defends Kobe, Artest can abuse the much smaller Bell in the post. Either way, by this point in his career, Kobe's performance is generally purely dictated by how good he's feeling on that particular night, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Celtics.

Utah's starting lineup is very strong, but their depth is a major issue. Quite frankly, CJ Miles is their only truly significant bench player, with Fesenko, Watson and Hayward receiving minimal minutes rarely exceeding the single figures. Statistically, Utah are around or just slightly above the league average in most categories; with nothing truly standing out. They're the personification of solid yet unremarkable. And that's probably how this game will turn out.

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