Showtime: 6:00pm PT
Plot: A three-game losing streak, a star put on the shelf with injury and a season looking like it could very quickly be going off the rails. A game against the team with the second-worst record in the league should help solve that, right? Well, that'd be the logical thing, anyway.
The 13-16 Lakers march into a personal house of horrors, as they face the 8-23 Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. Despite LA's status as title contenders the previous five seasons, they've played under .500 ball at Energy Solutions Arena even as the Jazz have continued to flounder. Now without Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and coach Jerry Sloane for several years, Utah is in the midst of a massive rebuilding movement, as they've stripped the team of nearly every veteran player. The results have shaken out predictably--this is one of the very worst teams in the league.
Still, the Jazz have some hope for the future. Though they haven't taken the massive steps forward some predicted they would with zero expectations and all the minutes they could handle, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks have all improved to varying degrees. Rookie Trey Burke looks like the team's point guard going forward, as he's been relatively proficient running a very rudimentary offense in just 19 games this season after recovering from a broken hand.
Recently, the results have been far better than their 8-23 record suggests. After starting off in a 1-14 swoon, the Jazz have gone 7-9, defeating the likes of the Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets and in Denver versus the Nuggets. In that time span, they've limited turnovers, but have gotten outscored by 6 points on average. They've alternated between playing fantastic in wins and bottom-of-the-barrel horrible in losses, which could be great news or terrible news for a team that doesn't play particularly great in SLC anyway.
LA is reeling with three losses in a row, including a honorable L to the reigning champions on Christmas day. They've done nothing particularly well in that stretch, including sharing the ball (just 38 assists in the last three contest). Jordan Farmar played 33 relatively ineffective minutes as LA finally got a true point guard, a sign that it'll perhaps take a bit longer for him to get acclimated back to NBA speed than is actually necessary.
Generally, playing a 8-23 team, even on the road, would be a boon to any team in a slump. But this Utah Jazz team, even with their putrid record, has been playing well at times as of late, with their youngsters blooming in front of our eyes. Of most concern to the Lakers have to be guards Burke and Hayward, who are both equally adept at shooting, slashing and passing.
The hope for the Lakers is that they catch the Jazz on one of their awful nights. As with any young, inexperienced team, their play can quickly turn on and off. Pau Gasol is questionable for the game with yet another upper respiratory infection, whose offense against a talented Jazz front court will be needed in what could be a slugfest at high altitude. Utah has one of, if not the worst defense in the league, so the hope will be that they'll be able to run the Jazz right out of the gym and prey on their inability to guard the three-point shot.
Even on the road, the Lakers must take this game--not just to re-establish momentum going into a tough month of January, but simply because they cannot afford to fall too far behind in a tough Western Conference.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino