We knew it could be a tough start to the season but I don’t think any of us imagined this. Tonight the Lakers take on the Utah Jazz in hopes of avoiding a three game losing streak this season. Three game losing streaks aren’t uncommon for the Lakers, but starting the season with such a streak is. The last time the Lakers opened with three straight losses was the 1978-79 season when Jerry West was coaching a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes led team.
On paper the Jazz should represent little threat to extending the losing streak. Then again Chris Paul should be a Laker. The Lakers should have held on to finish off the Bulls. The Lakers should be able to make more than 6% of their three-point attempts (as they did last night). In other words, things don’t always go as they should. Even with the Lakers having home court advantage, they will likely be at a huge disadvantage by playing their third game in three nights. The last time the Lakers played three games in three straight nights was April 19-21, 1999. Only to make matters worse, the Jazz will be playing their season opener with the freshest legs a team could have. The Lakers have their work cut out for them tonight.
The Lakers demonstrated much inconsistency through the first two games. They played great defense against the Bulls holding them to only 88 points only to follow that up by allowing the Kings to reach the century mark. The turned the ball over constantly against the Bulls and then remedied the problem against the Kings by only committing 11 turnovers. The one area that has been consistent for the Lakers is the poor three-point shooting. They followed up and anemic 4 for 16 against Chicago with an even more abysmal 1 for 16 against Sacramento. The Lakers will have to connect at a much higher rate against Utah if they are going to win. The big question is whether they will have enough lift in their legs to convert from long distance.
The Jazz will tip-off a new era without longtime coach Jerry Sloan standing on the sideline. Sloan retired in February last season and the Jazz went into a tailspin going 8-20 down the stretch and missing the playoffs. They look to restart new this season and bring to the table an impressive and young frontline that is sure to test the Lakers bigs.
Al Jefferson, Enes Kanter, Derek Favors, and Paul Millsap make up one of the deeper front-line rotations in the league. All four big men can score and rebound and don’t shy away from physicality. With Andrew Bynum serving game three of his four game suspension, it again falls on Pau Gasol, Troy Murphy, and Josh McRoberts to try to play big and physical, something that none of them truly excel at. Look for Mike Brown to possibly use World Peace to defend Millsap (did anyone else laugh at that line like I did?). Millsap is an undersized power forward at only 6’8” who is extremely physical. Metta too is 6’8” and loves contact so he could see some extended time on the floor for this match-up.
On the perimeter the Jazz present the weakest opposition so far this season. Devin Harris is a solid point guard but nothing compared to the reigning league MVP that the Lakers faced on opening night. Raja Bell and C.J. Miles present little threat compared to the scoring dynamic the Kings had with Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, and John Salmons. Raja Bell and Gordon Haywood can shoot the three well so the Lakers must be conscience not to stray too far from them on the perimeter. Miles and rookie Alec Burks are not threats to shoot the three and so the Lakers should be able to sag off of them and provide help defense inside the key to prevent penetration and provide double teams on Al Jefferson.
Tonight is a winnable game for the Lakers. They have the two best players on the floor, a capable cast of role players, home court advantage, and have historically dominated Utah in Staples Center. Unfortunately they face fatigue, no front court depth with Bynum out, and an opposition that is young and physical. Tonight will be less a test of talent but instead one of mental and physical toughness as they have to keep focused and push through whatever exhaustion begins to set in. With Kobe Bryant as the leader, I always feel a little better when the key to victory will be mental toughness and hard work.