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Preview: Lakers vs. Jazz

This is my first game preview, so bear with me if it needs a bit of fine tuning, and be sure to let me know if there are any features that you would like to become regular fixtures in future preview posts. Game thread will be live shortly before the game, and in the meantime, feel free to weigh in on what you see happening tonight.

Projected Lineups
Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Jazz: Deron Williams, Matt Harpring, Ronnie Brewer, Carlos Boozer, Jarron Collins (?)

Where To Watch
TNT at 7:30 p.m. PDT

Jazz Coming In
You've been looking at them for the last few days, so you know about the Jazz coming in. On paper, they should be pretty good -- capable of challenging the Lakers when things are going well. Unfortunately (for them), things have not been going well. They've lost six of their last 10 games. While they're 32-8 at home, they're a dismal 15-25 on the road -- and they don't figure to be at home very much from here on out.
Right now, the Jazz' biggest problem is themselves. They have the pieces to put together a solid game, and they should never be underestimated. Right now, they've got themselves psyched out, and they are commonly described as mentally fragile. Even Jazz fans and bloggers admit that a Lakers win tonight might very well cause the Jazz to fall apart at the seams and collapse inwards upon themselves.
At the same time, all it would take is some motivation and 48 minutes of mental semi-fortitude, and the Jazz have what it takes to make this a game. If the Lakers come expecting an easy win, they may find themselves quickly surprised.
What to Expect
Unlike the Lakers, the Jazz have every reason to be motivated, and everything to play for. Keenly aware of their own recent shortcomings -- in fact, that's part of their problem, as they are too far into their own heads -- they know that a first round matchup with the Lakers doesn't even give them a snowball's chance in hell.
Meanwhile, a win tonight would give them a decent chance of avoiding LA in the playoffs, as they would only need a loss by New Orleans or Dallas to get back to the seventh seed. If you're Utah, you know that if you're going to beat LA at all, it has to be tonight. So expect the Jazz to come in ready to pour a seven-game series worth of motivation and effort into tonight's game.
To win, the Jazz will need to play to their strengths and the Lakers' weaknesses. So expect them to come out very physical and with lots of energy, hoping to bully the Lakers around and take advantage of any overconfidence or coasting on the Lakers' part. They'll try to beat LA back away from the rim, forcing them into contested jumpshots and praying that the Lakers' shooters don't get hot.
Keys to the Game
Knowing how the Jazz will approach the game, the Lakers' shooters need to recognize that there will be plenty of opportunities for the front line to kick out for open jumpshots. Shooters need to be dialed in tonight, ready to hit their open shots early on.
At the same time, LA's bigs need to push back. The Lakers can't fall into the trap of shying away from a brutal game under the hoop and falling in love with jumpshots. Our bigs and our slashers need to make a concentrated effort to thwart Utah's game plan by accepting the challenge and getting to the hoop.
Kobe and Crew need to see this as a prime opportunity to prove that they've shed last year's "soft" label and are tougher this year. Additionally, it's a great opportunity for Andrew Bynum to show that he can be a large part of the answer to the "toughness" question. They key is not to see it as an easy game, but to see it as a direct challenge to the Lakers' toughness and physicality, and to respond with force.
Meanwhile, expect to see Shannon Brown guarding Deron Williams. This will be a good trial run for him, to see if he can be that bigger defensive point guard that Phil Jackson is so fond of. If that doesn't work, don't be surprised to see Trevor Ariza or even Lamar Odom on Williams. The Lakers have had some success at times with those two defending some of the high scoring point guards, as they have the length to frustrate them and the quickness to keep up. As some of you have mentioned already, if the Lakers can take Deron Williams out of the game, the Jazz will have lost their last hope for an improbable upset.
To summarize:
  1. Shooters be ready to hit open jump shots
  2. Bigs and slashers take challenge, push back
  3. Take Deron Williams out of the game, make others beat you
  4. Come out strong, crush their spirits immediately, and get the starters out of the game as early as possible
To Try, or Not to Try?
Yesterday, we discussed the possible strategic advantages of letting the Jazz have this one. I was surprised at how few of you had any sort of ethical objection to intentionally losing, or at least not trying to win, a game. However, the general consensus seems to be (and I agree) that even in this situation, a win is still strategically more advantageous to the Lakers than a loss, for several reasons.
Given the current mental frailty of the Jazz, it seems that the best scenario for the Lakers may be to beat them soundly tonight, breaking their spirits and dashing any hopes they may have of stealing a game, and then proceeding to make quick work of them in the playoffs. Nonetheless, I would prefer for Kobe, Fish, and Gasol all to play fewer than 24 minutes, though it is more likely that Phil will try and hold them below 30.
Final Thoughts
Aside from trying Shannon "UPS" Brown on Williams, don't expect much further tweaking from Jackson. He likes to save those surprises for the playoffs -- and in fact, I'm not even convinced he'll make any significant changes in the first round, as it's not likely to be necessary for a victory. I would guess that if Phil has any tricks up his sleeves, he'll be holding onto them as long as possible, only pulling them out when his team is playing an opponent that merits that extra advantage.
With a win tonight, the Lakers would join the Cavaliers in reaching the 65-win plateau. This is interesting, because only 13 teams in NBA have won 65 games, 11 of whom went on to win the championship. However, there have never been two 65-win teams in the same season. A Lakers win tonight would be the first time that has happened, but it would also mean that one of these two teams will become only the third 65-win team not to win the championship.
Tune in a few minutes before game time, as we'll have a live game thread going, the first chance at real-time interaction for this new Laker community.

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