Get Ready to Jazz in Your Pants

kobe12

Last year about this time, when the Lakers were preparing to face the Utah Jazz in the first round, the ambient storyline was how the Jazz defense had slipped from prior years, which was widely viewed as evidence that they lacked their trademark "toughness." My antennae aren't picking up any similar complaints this year, and I'm not sure why. Utah's defense this season is pretty much exactly what it was in 2009. The Jazz finished 10th in defensive efficiency this season, after last year finishing... 10th. I guess the world has got past its collective agita over Utah's toughness levels. We've all moved on to Deepwater Horizon and wondering whether Iron Man 2 will be any good.

You know what else is pretty much exactly like last year? The Utah offense! They were 7th in the NBA in offensive efficiency in 2009 and finished 8th this year. In other words, in its broad contours this Jazz team hasn't changed much since the Lakers rolled them out of the playoffs a year ago. Which doesn't bode well for Utah in the second-round series that begins tomorrow. In the 2009 playoffs, the Lakers thrashed them in five games, outscoring them 1.12 to 1.03 on a per-possession (PPP) basis. In a four-game regular season series this year, the Lakers thrashed them even worse, outscoring them 1.09 to 0.96. The Jazz are an exemplary franchise with an all-timer of a coach, a sensational point guard and some other nice pieces, but unless they've got some new tricks up their sleeve, their upset hopes are flimsier than your sister's lingerie.

Yo, How'd They Get Here?

The Jazz did us a solid in murderizing the loathsome Denver Nuggets in a six-game first round battle. That series was an object lesson in why one shouldn't confuse pace of play with aesthetic appeal. There were a lot of possessions - more than 95 per team per game, the most of any first round series - and lots of points, but sweet zombie Jesus was that shit tough to watch. The fouls were completely out of control. The Jazz and Nuggs combined to shoot almost 450 free-throw attempts. That's 35% more than were attempted in the Lakers-Thunder series.

Utah got bombed in Game One when Denver dropped 11 threes and scored 1.35 PPP. The Jazz then got their act together on defense a bit and took the next three games. Deron Williams was consistently awesome, and Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap chipped in with good production. After a last-gasp Nuggets win in Game Five, the Jazz polished them off last night behind 20-point efforts from Boozer, Williams and Wesley Matthews. It wasn't a dominant performance by the Jazz. They outscored Denver by only 0.02 PPP, 1.16 to 1.14, reflecting some on-again, off-again defensive issues. Again, the central problem was fouling: the Nuggets generated 0.47 free-throw attempts per FGA, a pretty insane ratio. Fortunately for Utah, the Lakers aren't nearly as adept at getting to the line, but still, this is an area that the Jazz absolutely have to clean up.

Forward Andrei Kirilenko did not play in the first round because of a strained left calf. He may or may not be available at some point in this series. Mehmet Okur (left Achilles) did not appear at all in the first round and will not appear in this one either.

When the Jazz Have the Ball

Here's how the Jazz's offense matches up with the Laker D in certain important metrics. League rank is indicated in parentheses.

 

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

Reb Rate

PPP

Jazz Off.

14.2 (26)

0.34 (5)

74.1 (23)

0.18 (24)

51.9 (5)

36.4 (7)

52.4 (4)

56.5 (4)

26.8 (14)

1.11 (8)

LA Def.

13.2 (18)

0.26 (1)

n/a

0.23 (21)

48.1 (12)

32.8 (1)

48.4 (6)

52.2 (2)

74.4 (9)

1.04 (4)

Like the Thunder offense the Lakers just faced, the Utah attack can be turnover-happy. They coughed it up on 15% of their possessions against Denver and on 17% of their trips during the regular-season series with the Lakers. Williams collects a fair number of turnovers, but that's to be expected given how much he has the rock in his hands. What's more worrying to Utah is how often guys Kyrylo Fesenko (13 turnovers in the first round) and Matthews (8) give it up. Especially at Staples, the Lakers forced a lot of turnovers against the Thunder, and the opportunity is there to do the same against the Jazz.

Where the Utah offense excels is in getting to the free-throw line (discussed above) and shooting from the field. Their pick-and-roll offense, which features a lot of movement and backcuts, generates clean looks from both inside and outside the arc, though they're not a high-volume three-point shooting team. Losing Okur makes them more of a midrange attack, as he accounted for about a fifth of their three attempts during the regular season. Boozer is great at that little 12-foot fadeaway, and whoever's guarding him, be it Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom, will need to jump out more actively than was necessary against OKC. Boozer and Millsap will have to use movement and strength to get space on their shots because they'll be working from a size disadvantage against the Laker bigs. That disadvantage fades a bit if and so long as Andrew Bynum is on the shelf.

Controlling Williams raises many of the same conundrums the Lakers wrestled with against Russell Westbrook. Neither Derek Fisher nor any of the reserve guards is likely to be effective against Williams, and Utah's superior outside shooting will make it harder for help defenders to collapse on his drives. Kobe Bryant, of course, is an option. Another, for stretches at least, is Ron Artest, who won't have an elite wing to chase around in this series. I'd expect Ron to get a few possessions on Deron here and there, just to give the franchise point a different look and a few bruises.

Offensive rebounding isn't a big part of Utah's identity. Against Denver they posted an offensive rebounding rate of only 23%. Boozer, Millsap and Fesenko can get second chances, but as a team the focus is on getting back in transition.

When the Lakers Have the Ball

 

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

Reb Rate

PPP

LA Off.

12.4 (5)

0.29 (19)

76.5 (12)

0.23 (13)

49.2 (14)

34.1 (24)

49.6 (17)

53.8 (17)

27.6 (8)

1.09 (11)

Utah D.

14.2 (5)

0.35 (30)

n/a

0.24 (25)

48.0 (10)

35.4 (15)

49.2 (13)

54.2 (17)

75.6 (5)

1.05 (10)

The Jazz defense is gambling and physical. Their rough-and-tumble style forces a lot of turnovers but also generates a whole mess of free throws for the other team. They do a good job of running shooters off the arc, but otherwise they're nothing special when it comes to shot defense. Denver lit them up with a series eFG of 52% and a True Shooting mark of 58%. Utah's sound on the defensive boards, although Okur was a big part of their success in this respect. He had the second-highest defensive rebounding rate on the team (after Boozer), so the Lakers should find it a bit easier to come by second-chance points in his absence. His replacement Fesenko, granted, isn't bad on the glass.

The Utah roster isn't teeming with great individual defenders. Kobe will face some combination of Matthews and Miles, neither of whom presents a daunting matchup. If he's right physically, he should be able to produce some tasty numbaz. (I know Matthews is building a rep as a stopper, but the defensive metrics don't agree.) Neither Boozer nor Millsap is well equipped to check Gasol. At all times Pau is going to have an advantage in either size (if he's working against Boozer or Millsap) or agility (if against Fesenko). Kirilenko and Bynum are the injury wild cards. ‘Drei, as I and his other close friends call him, would give Jerry Sloan a versatile defender to help out against the Laker forwards. Bynum would swing the mismatches further in the Lakers' favor.

The Lakers will get to the free-throw line more against the Jazz than they did against OKC, so it would be nice if they'd improve on the 69% of freebies they made in the first round.

Final Thoughts

This has to be getting annoying for Utah. For the third straight year, they've had a solid-or-better regular season, only to run up against the purple and gold in the playoffs. The idea that they match up poorly with the Lakers is so frequently stated that it's become a cliché, but clichéhood doesn't make it any less true. If the Lakers are feeling complacent after the tough OKC series, the Jazz could swipe one of the first two games and make this interesting. But if the Lakers have their heads correct and make their free throws, they should advance without too many headaches.

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Follow Dex on Twitter here.

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