LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 27: Al Jefferson #25 of the Utah Jazz shoots against Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 27, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 96-71. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Things change over time. It takes eons for continents to shift in a way that is visible to the naked eye. Millennia pass in the blink of an eye to an evolving species. Decades have turned jazz into hip-hop. It is the same with sports. Teams, especially good teams, will often forge an identity that stays with them for a certain period of time. In basketball, these identities often stay in place for a generation. The Showtime Lakers, the SSOL Suns, these teams stayed true to their identity for years, but eventually changed. Such change inevitably leads to someone, somewhere, saying the phrase "These aren't your father's Lakers".
What does this have to do with the Utah Jazz? Just two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Lakers played the Jazz, desperate for a win. The Lakers had started the season 0-2, and were playing the only 3rd night of a back-to-back-to-back in their entire season. They had looked tired and apathetic the previous night in a loss to lowly Sacramento. The Jazz were playing their first game of the season, rested. Andrew Bynum was still serving a suspension. This was an opportunity for the Jazz to make a statement, and I thought they surely made one. The statement was "We are a terrible, terrible basketball team." The Jazz looked horrible in that game, getting blown out by a tired Lakers squad that didn't even have to try.
Two weeks later, it turns out the Jazz don't suck at all. They've won six of their nine games, including all 5 at home. They are one of two teams who have beaten the Philadelphia 76ers. They've won five games in a row. I was pretty sure of the Jazz' identity two weeks ago, a bottom rung lottery team with little hope of any glory this season. In two weeks, that identity has changed. Two weeks is no generation to a human, but lots of insects only live between two and four weeks, so it's safe to say these aren't your mosquito's Jazz.
What's been going right for Utah since their opening night debacle? They've been winning games. That's pretty terrible analysis, but looking for details as to why they are winning ends up being a tough project. The Jazz don't seem to be strong offensively (ranked 18th). They don't seem to be strong defensively (ranked 20th). They aren't a threat from the outside, shooting just a shade better(26.8%) than our own band of merry bricksters(23.0%). They are at or below league average in six out of the eight Four Factors categories that ActuariallySound introduced you to earlier this week. This is a byproduct of a small sample size in which the Jazz have won a bunch of close games and gotten destroyed in every loss (their average margin of defeat? 19 points).The only measure by which the Jazz can be considered a success is ironically the only one that really matters, good old wins and losses.
What Utah does have is a decently solid front line. Al Jefferson is averaging 21 points and just about 10 boards a game. Dude might look like he could qualify for AARP even though he's only just turned 27, but with the dearth of centers in this league, he can still be pretty un-guardable at times. Paul Millsapp is no Karl Malone, or even Carlos Boozer, but he's a very solid starter who provides consistent scoring and rebounding, despite being undersized. Derrick Favors is raw, but he's got plenty of talent. The rest of the Jazz are a patchwork collection of has been and never was ... Earl Watson, Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward, Devin Harris ... none of them strike fear in your heart, and only Harris ever has, but they all seem to be doing their jobs reasonably well after their rough start.
But the Lakers have matchup advantages just about everywhere. Jefferson has better numbers than Bynum, because he is the sole focal point of the offense, but nobody doesn't think Bynum isn't the better center (that's right, folks, the rare triple negative). Pau Gasol should be able to get any kind of shot he wants against Millsap's 6'8" frame. Raja Bell hasn't been capable of shutting down Kobe Bryant in ... well, he was never really that capable. And, with Matt Barnes and his endless bundle of energy settling in at small forward, he's even a net positive against Gordon Hayward. Oh sure, there's the point guard position, but when was the last time the Lakers had matchup advantages at four out of five spots on the floor? Nobody on the Jazz bench is threatening either ... remind me again how this team is 6-3?
I'm not quite sure, but don't be surprised if that 6 turns into a 7 by night's end. This is a straight-up, all-caps, TRAP GAME for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are probably feeling good about their three game winning streak. Kobe's feeling pretty good about dropping 48 points. They are playing a team they absolutely crushed just two weeks ago, even though they were dead tired while doing so. They are pulling the ever difficult "lose a timezone in the middle of a back-to-back" trick, playing 1.5 hours sooner tonight than they did last night. If you look at the match-ups, all signs point to a Laker victory, but right below them are a bunch of detour signs pointing the other way around. This is exactly the kind of game that the Lakers lose.
But maybe, just maybe, these aren't your mosquito's Lakers either.