The Lakers continue on their annual Grammy road trip tonight as they take on the surprisingly good Utah Jazz. After beginning the season losing seven of eight road games, the Lakers are now looking to make it three straight wins while donning their Forum Blue threads. The Lakers kicked off their road trip with a win in Denver last night, led by the first year all-star Andrew Bynum’s 22 points and 10 rebounds. Bynum was a big reason for the Lakers' win at Utah earlier this season as he provided a crucial block on Al Jefferson in the final moments of a one-possession game. Tonight’s game won’t be easy, especially if Jazz forward Paul Millsap has anything to say about.
Millsap has been playing at an incredibly high level in this shortened season. He is currently averaging a career high in points per game (16.9), while shooting efficiently from the field (52%) and the line (career high of 78%). He is also grabbing 9.3 rebounds per game (career high) and 1.6 steals (another career high) all while having a career low in turnover rate despite carrying a larger share the offensive load than ever before. This has culminated in the recognition of him as a MVP candidate on ESPN’s top 10 list last week. While his status as an MVP candidate is something of a stretch, the Jazz's status as a playoff team is not. Despite the loss of coach Jerry Sloan, the trade of franchise player Deron Williams, and the subsequent downward spiral at the end of last season, the Jazz have recovered and firmly established themselves as playoff contenders in a very deep Western conference on the big shoulders of Millsap.
Joining Millsap on the front line is the very talented Al Jefferson. Jefferson enters tonight’s contest averaging 18.5 points and 9 rebounds. The combination of Jefferson and Millsap is one the better scoring and rebounding front lines in the league. Bynum did well in the last meeting with Jefferson, holding him to 11 points on 5 of 17 shooting, including the game sealing block in overtime. Millsap on the other hand posed significant problems for the less mobile Pau Gasol. Millsap scored 29 points on 14 of 24 shooting using his quickness and strength to keep Gasol off balance all night. Pau must defend Millsap better tonight if the Lakers are going to come away with a win.
The rest of the Jazz offense is generated by committee. The Jazz have four players averaging between 9.3 points and 10.2 points per game. None of the Jazz are particularly good three-point shooters as Raja Bell is the only Jazz player making over 33% of his attempts on the season. There aren’t many teams that shoot the three worse than the Lakers, but the Jazz are one of them.
Offensively the Lakers will need more balance tonight, particularly from the duo of Bynum and Gasol. In the previous game against Utah, the Lakers won on the back of Kobe Bryant’s 40-point scoring effort. Bynum and Gasol combined to shoot only 37% on the night and 63% from the line. The Lakers' twin towers must play aggressive offensively and look to exploit their size inside.
In contrast, you won’t have to worry about Kobe playing aggressively. When he catches the ball on offense he will likely be staring at the clothesline king Bell. The match-ups between Bryant and Bell are often very heated with neither player willing to give an inch. Sometimes this comes at the detriment of the Lakers as Kobe can tend to lock in on trying to stick it to Bell rather than playing the best team basketball. Kobe struggled to score last night in Denver, scoring only 20 points on 7 of 23 shooting, though he did finish with 9 assists. The onus will be on Kobe to put aside the past battles against Bell and instead focus on running the best offense for the team as a whole.
The Lakers may have finally found the bench player to help replace the scoring that Lamar Odom provided in prior seasons. Andrew Goudelock, one of the Lakers rookies, has become a consistent contributor for the purple and gold. His combination of three-point shooting and ability to put the ball one the floor and finish with a running floater has transformed him into the 4th option on this veteran Lakers team. Goudelock finished with 13 points on 6 of 10 shooting in last nights, which marks the fourth time in five games that he has scored at least a dozen points.
After a slow start to the season, Troy Murphy seems to have rediscovered his shooting touch. The sharp shooting big man has made 9 of his last 14 three point attempts, bringing his three point shooting percentage to 48% on the season. The combination of Murphy and Goudelock has helped to address the Lakers shooting woes and lack of production from the bench unit; both big reasons the Lakers have won four out of their last five games.
The Lakers are looking to continue their winning streak and stay undefeated on their Grammy road trip tonight against another playoff caliber opponent in Utah. It won’t be an easy game by any stretch. The Lakers played last night in a tough contest against the Nuggets while the Jazz rested up. Will they have enough legs to withstand another 48 minutes in a very hostile arena? Join us at 6:00 in our game thread as we discuss the action as it unfolds.