Lakers-Jazz Preview: Too Much Raja Bell!

One suspects that the Utah Jazz aren't super-excited to be visiting Staples Center tonight. Not that they're ever all that excited: this is a team, after all, that's lost 16 straight times on the Lakers' home court, a streak that encompasses more than a handful of playoff beatdowns. But this evening, the timing is particularly inauspicious. The Jazz have reached the final stop in a five-game road trip that has treated them rather shabbily. After dropping games in Washington (huh?) and New Jersey (LOL WUT), they got blasted by the Celtics on Friday night and then handled pretty easily on Sunday by the great 76ers. It's been a steep, humbling fall for a squad that once went to Florida and knocked off the Heat and Magic on back-to-back nights.

And what to make of this Lakers team that the Jazz will be tussling with? They're a little hard to pin down at the moment. Their Friday night win in Denver was one of the Lake Show's best performances of the season, and their last home game, last week against the Thunder, also found them in good form. But in between those two was the embarrassment in Dallas, and the loss to the Clippers was recent enough that I'm still having night terrors about it. The Lakers should, for what it's worth, be well rested: by the time they take the court this evening, they'll have had nearly four full days off. But as C.A. explored yesterday, rest hasn't been a good predictor of the Lakers' performance. Indeed, the last time they had this much time between games was heading into Christmas Day, and we all remember how flawlessly that went.

The Lakers and Jazz have faced each other once this year. Back on the day after Thanksgiving, the purp and yellow went into Salt Lake City and treated us to one of the more traumatic losses of the season. The Lakers played to near perfection for a little more than a quarter and led by 19 early in the second period. As, however, with seemingly every double-digit lead they've managed to build, that one quickly went poof. The Jazz erased it before halftime and went on to prevail, 102 to 96. Deron Williams - surprise, surprise - led the charge with 29 points and 12 assists, doing to the Laker defense more or less precisely what you'd expect.

Both teams were missing a center that night. Andrew Bynum hadn't yet returned from his post-surgery rehab, and Mehmet Okur was still nursing the Achilles he ruptured during last year's playoffs. Although both will play tonight, only one is likely to have an influence. While Drew is looking more and more like a city-stomping Godzilla in the paint, Okur remains a shadow of his healthy self. So far on this road trip, he's yet to play more than 16 minutes or score more than eight points. This means that the task of guarding Bynum will largely fall to either Al Jefferson (who's at least two inches shorter than Drew), Francisco Elson (who's listed as questionable with quadriceps tendonitis) or Kyrylo Fesenko (who's horrible at basketball).

Throughout their road trip the Jazz have been ugly on both ends of the floor. The last three games, their shooting has been hatefully bad: in each, they've posted effective field-goal marks of below 45%, something the Lakers have done only five times all season. They've also had some bad turnover problems. On D, they looked OK against Philly but gave up more than 1.10 points per possession to the Celtics, Nets and Wizards. On the one hand, there's no shame to losing in Boston. On the other, when you're getting clowned on by Washington and New Jersey, it's probably time to take a good, hard look in the mirror.

For the season, in fact, defense is where this current draft of the Utah Jazz has needed some corrective editing. Their recent shooting struggles aside, they can score reasonably well, as reflected in their eighth-place standing in offensive efficiency tables. With shotmaking talent like Williams, Jefferson and Paul Millsap on hand, it'd be surprising indeed if Jerry Sloan couldn't assemble a potent attack. Just imagine how good their offense would be if Raja Bell didn't gobble up 30 minutes a night at the shooting-guard pozishe.

Preview

But after finishing either 11th or 12th in defensive efficiency the last three seasons, they've plummeted to a below-average 19th. Point a craggy, accusing finger at their defensive rebounding. The Jazz were fifth in the NBA in defensive-rebounding rate last year but this season rank a calamitous 27th. That's where the Lakers should be able to crush these guys. Get the ball up onto the rim and tappa-tappa-tappa until it falls.

Of course, whenever Raja Bell is on the same court as Kobe Bryant, we're assured of a stale rehash of that little feud they had a thousand years ago when Bell was in Phoenix. That's fine, but I do wish announcers would mothball the Raja = Kobe Stopper hypothesis. In Utah back in November, Kobe scored 31 points on 25 shots - not to mention, Raja is now 34 years old - so I struggle to entertain the notion that this matchup worries the Mamba even a little. Kobe has been really terrific on offense lately, balancing his dual scorer/distributor roles with patience and thoughtfulness. There's no reason that shouldn't continue in this one.

I also think an opportunity will be there tonight for Ron Artest to resume carving a bigger role for himself in the Laker attack. The rookie Gordon Hayward recently replaced Andrei Kirilenko in the starting lineup. Hayward weighs maybe 200 pounds, so if Ron focuses on sealing him off in the post (as he's done so well recently), he should get a number of easy looks.

The Jazz just have the appearance of a road-weary, demoralized team. Williams will cause his usual share of problems, and the Laker bigs can't let Millsap and Jefferson bull their way to the hoop too often, but otherwise there's not a lot in the scouting report for Laker fans to get alarmed over. Unless the "FISHER LIED" girls make an appearance, in which case we'll all need to rush out and get current on our Trucker Hat vaccinations.

 

Jazz

Lakers

RECORD..................................

27-17 (11th)

32-13 (3rd)

NET POINTS PER GAME..........

+1.2 (12th)

+7.0 (4th)

PACE.......................................

90.5 (21st)

92.1 (16th)

OFFENSIVE RATING................

109.6 (8th)

112.3 (1st)

Turnover Rate (Off.)..................

13.1% (10th)

12.7% (1st)

FTA/FGA (Off.)..........................

0.33 (5th)

0.29 (20th)

Free-Throw %...........................

78.5% (8th)

78.3% (9th)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)..................

0.21 (17th)

0.23 (14th)

3PT% (Off.)...............................

35.8% (17th)

36.5% (12th)

Effective FG% (Off.)..................

50.1% (12th)

51.1% (10th)

True Shooting% (Off.)...............

55.1% (11th)

55.4% (8th)

Off Rebounding Rate................

26.1% (14th)

29.9% (4th)

DEFENSIVE RATING................

108.3 (19th)

104.7 (10th)

Turnover Rate (Def.).................

14.4% (7th)

12.7% (24th)

FTA/FGA (Def.).........................

0.37 (30th)

0.25 (2nd)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)..................

0.26 (29th)

0.25 (25th)

3PT% (Def.)..............................

35.6% (13th)

33.9% (5th)

Effective FG% (Def.).................

49.4% (14th)

48.0% (7th)

True Shooting% (Def.)..............

54.7% (20th)

51.7% (3rd)

Def Rebounding Rate...............

70.8% (27th)

73.0% (20th)

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

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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