How will the Lakers finish their marathon?

On January 21st, the Los Angeles Lakers began the most condensed part of their schedule, 13 games in 21 days.  An NBA team normally averages just over 1 day off in between games.  Over the past three weeks, the Lakers have averaged just over .6 days off between games.  It has been an arduous journey, one that has left the Lakers beaten, wounded, and fatigued.  But they are not broken.  In fact, the Lakers have played their best basketball of the entire stretch right at the end, with two comfortable victories at Portland and home vs. San Antonio.  Whether it is because of Kobe Bryant's (or Andrew Bynum's) absence or in spite of it is a question you're better off not asking at the moment.  Only one game remains before the Lakers get more than their fair share of glorious, wonderful rest (see here for further explanation of quirky scheduling).  Unfortunately, that game is a real doozy.  The Lakers finish their marathon tonight in Utah.  So much for a comfortable last lap around a cheering stadium, the Lakers are going to have fight to the bitter end.

The Lakers played the Jazz twice in quick succession in early December.  The first was the "4 point 4th quarter" game in which the Lakers completely stifled the Jazz at the end of the game.  The next was a much more non-descript 8 point loss that surprised aproximately no one.  Neither of those games are relevant tonight, because we are dealing with two completely different teams than the ones which took the floor two months ago.  That Lakers team was in the midst of a 16-1 stretch (the loss in Utah ended the team's 11 game win streak) and was the toast of the NBA.  Kobe broke his finger in a game in between these two meetings, and the rest of the team was perfectly healthy, except for Luke Walton.  Meanwhile, the Jazz were struggling in mediocrity and being discussed as a team that might not make the playoffs in the strong Western Conference.  Now, the Lakers are a relaltively modest 8-4 in their last 12 games, no longer atop the NBA heap thanks to the Cleveland Cavs winning their last 326 games in a row.  And the Jazz, well, to say they've turned their season around is just a bit of an understatement.

The Jazz are 13-1 in their last 14 games, including impressive and relatively impressive wins v. Cleveland, Denver, Dallas, @Dallas, @San Antonio, @ Portland.  Their only loss was in Denver over that time.  The Jazz have done it the same way that they always have, with physical play and strong contributions across the board.  They've been led by their All-Star Deron Williams, one of the toughest covers in the NBA, and borderline snub candidate Carlos Boozer.  That Boozer has played very well comes as a bit of a surprise, only because he's been invovled in trade discussions all season long.  The Jazz paid Paul Milsap $8 mil/year, and they didn't do it to bring him off the bench, so Boozer is likely headed out of town sooner rather than later.  But, his play this season may convince Utah to simply hold on to him until the end of the year and let his contract expire, or possibly try and work out a sign and trade in the off-season, after a hopefully successful playoff run.

In terms of tonight's Xs and Os, a lot of importance will come from how the game is officiated.  The Jazz, more than any other team in the league, put the onus on refs to call fouls with their physical play on both sides of the ball.  They attack the rim on offense, and they use any and all borderline legal tactics on defense.  It's no coincidence that the Jazz are among the highest in the league in both FT attempted per FG and free throws given up per opposing FG.  If they are allowed to play their physical brand of defense without too much consequence, and get lots of calls for aggresively attacking the rim, they are difficult to beat.  That tends to be exactly the situation which occurs at home, because Utah is one of the most racous places to play in the entire league.

Ironically, despite the fact that physical play is Utah's MO, the lack of Andrew Bynum might be a good thing for tonight's game.  The Jazz starting center is one sweet shooting mofo, Mehmet Okur, and with both Bynum and Pau in the lineup, Okur would be more likely to get the open 3's he craves.  Instead, look for Lamar Odom to shadow Memo, as he has no problem operating defensively on the perimeter.  The defensive rotations need to be very solid, as the Jazz love them some back door screens and cuts.  On offense, the Lakers will need every bit of the balance which we've seen the past two games.  Pau needs to be real careful about floating up those hooks he couldn't get to fall against SA.  He normally makes those shots, and they ARE good shots to take, but I could easily see 2 or more of those shots being sent into the 2nd row via help from Andrei Kirilenko, one of the best weak side shot blockers in the NBA.

The most up to date injury report I've seen has Bynum highly doubtful, Kobe as a maybe (increased from doubtful), and Lamar as probable.  No matter what the roster looks like, it's not difficult to see the Lakers losing this one.  Utah is one tough place to go and get a victory, and the Jazz are coming in hot.  On the other hand, they ended our streak so perhaps we can end theirs as well.  Also, Utah will be on the 2nd night of a back to back coming in from L.A. where they played the Clippers, and that's a tough one to handle.  There's certainly reason for hope, but probably not enough reason for expectation.

Lakers

Jazz

RECORD

40-13

32-18

NET POINTS PER GAME

+6.6 (2)

+5.1(6)

PACE

93.4 (9)

93.1 (12)

OFFENSIVE RATING

109.6 (9)

110.0 (7)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

11.9% (2)

14.2% (22)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.214 (24)

0.258 (4)

Free-Throw %

77.3 (11)

74.4 (21)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)

0.23 (11)

0.17 (27)

3PT% (Off.)

34.8 (16)

35.7 (11)

Effective FG% (Off.)

49.9 (15)

52.3 (5)

True Shooting% (Off.)

54.0 (14)

56.5 (6)

Off Rebounding Rate

27.2% (11)

25.4% (20)

DEFENSIVE RATING

102.5 (2)

104.5 (9)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

13.3% (19)

14.3% (7)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.196 (2)

0.264 (26)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)

0.23 (19)

0.24 (25)

3PT% (Def.)

31.8 (1)

35.0 (15)

Effective FG% (Def.)

47.7 (4)

49.1 (10)

True Shooting% (Def.)

51.6 (1)

53.9 (14)

Def Rebounding Rate

74.3% (11)

75.0% (5)

Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

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