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Lakers vs. Jazz Preview: Can L.A. make it three wins in a row?

The Lakers have the opportunity to go on their first three-game winning streak of the season. Can they capitalize against a Jazz team that’s off to a great start?

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New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

After beginning their season on a five-game losing streak, the Lakers are back in the winning column and have the opportunity to win three games in a row. Yes, you read that right — the Lakers have been fun and competitive, are slowly clicking together and finding an identity (on defense, at least), and most importantly are winning games after going through what seemed like a hopeless and miserable first week.

Now, the goal for the Lakers is to continue ranking up wins and slowly building off their progress in the past two games. With the 6-3 Utah Jazz coming to town on Friday, Los Angeles will be tested once again by another team that’s off to a superb start. Here’s what I think they can continue to build on and what they may still need to improve on.

The good stuff:

When I wrote my most recent preview exactly a week ago, I stressed on the Lakers’ shooting woes (the fact that they shot 22.3% in their first four games) and how that significantly contributed to their horrible start. A few days after, the purple and gold improved from the perimeter as they knocked down 43.3% of their 3-point shots against the Denver Nuggets and 27.8% (still low but it’s progress) against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday. This is a notable development that they must keep up moving forward.

In Wednesday’s 120-117 victory against the Pelicans, Troy Brown Jr., Lonnie Walker IV (who converted five 3-pointers), and Matt Ryan (who literally delivered the win, see what I did there?) stepped up from the perimeter. The Lakers are generating good and open looks and making the extra pass which has led to most of those successful attempts. It’s clear that their overall performance from the 3-point line is their biggest x-factor every game and what could push them to win more games.

Speaking of what could also push the Lakers to win more games, Russell Westbrook has looked like the best version of himself since coming off the bench. In the past three games (all of which he started on the bench), he’s averaged 16.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists and is shooting 46.2% from the field — a far cry from the 10.3 points, 6.7 assists, 4.3 assists, and 28.9% shooting he put up when he started in the first three games.

Westbrook was also instrumental in that 12-0 run the Lakers orchestrated towards the end of the first half against the Pelicans, and despite them blowing a 16-point lead in the third quarter, that run was huge for the Lakers in terms of momentum, their confidence and keeping them afloat late in the game. The nine-time All-Star just looks freer, and more importantly, seems so much more joyful as he continues to thrive in his new role. If Westbrook keeps this performance up, not only would that immensely benefit the Lakers but it’ll also put him in the conversation for the Sixth Man of the Year award — an award he deserves for making such a sacrifice.

On the other end of the court, the Lakers’ defense continues to impress. After seven games, they still have the second-best defense in the league (104.3 points per 100 possessions) and it’s becoming their identity. They’re averaging 37.9 defensive rebounds per game (second-best in the league), 8.7 steals (sixth in the league), and are forcing 14.9 turnovers a game. Their defense has also led them to outscore their opponents in fastbreak opportunities over the past two games. This is a beautiful sight to see and one that they can continue to build on in order to develop winning habits.

The bad that must be worked on

The similarity between Sunday’s victory against the Nuggets and Wednesday’s versus the Pelicans is that the purple and gold went on a run to close the first half. However, in both those two games, they let their opponents back in the game and even gave up the lead in the third quarter. Although the Lakers managed to punch back and claim the victory, they might want to work on protecting their leads moving forward because the last thing they want is to burn themselves out by fighting until the last second every game.

On another note, one more thing the Lakers can improve on is to stop relying on their isolation offense too much. As crazy as this sounds, it would be nice to lessen LeBron James’ iso possessions, which happened mostly in the fourth quarter and overtime in Wednesday’s game against the Pelicans. James, who admitted that he was barely healthy after catching a really bad flu prior to the game, only converted 9-of-23 shots from the field and didn’t make any of his seven 3-point attempts.

The Lakers, who rank sixth in the league in iso frequency so far, cannot rely on iso-basketball down the stretch, especially with their lack of shotmakers. It would be ideal to watch them do what they do best (especially when they build their leads) which is create opportunities from their defense, get out in transition, cut and screen for each other, generate open looks inside and outside the paint — basically yes, more ball movement throughout the game.

The good news for the Lakers is that they’re only seven games in, and there’s still a lot of time to work on their good and bad showings thus far. Friday’s primetime game against the Jazz will determine whether the purple and gold will take a step in the right direction or fall back and once again, expose their flaws. Hopefully in that process, the Lakers nab their first three-game winning streak after a rough start to the season.

Notes and Updates

  • The Lakers list Dennis Schröder (thumb) and Thomas Bryant (thumb) as inactive on their injury report for Friday’s match against the Jazz. Anthony Davis (back) is questionable while LeBron James (foot) is probable. Meanwhile, Utah won’t have Leandro Bolmaro (COVID-19) and Simone Fontecchio (COVID-19) on Friday.
  • The Jazz, who were touted as a rebuilding team, have won most of their games led by Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Colin Sexton, Mike Conley, and the crew. As our pals from SLC Dunk pointed out, their brand of basketball revolves heavily around ball movement and shared scoring opportunities instead of hero ball. It will be an interesting test for the Lakers’ remarkable defense thus far.
  • Friday’s matchup against the Jazz will also mark our good old friend Talen Horton-Tucker’s (THT) first game against the Lakers since being traded in August. In nine games so far this season, THT is averaging 7.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game in 16.4 minutes. We’ll see if he has a revenge game in him against the team that drafted him in 2019 and where he won his first championship.
  • For news around the league, the Milwaukee Bucks are the only undefeated team (7-0) left in the league. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns (6-1), Portland Trail Blazers (5-2), and Jazz (6-3) are on top of the Western Conference. Friday’s game is a great opportunity for the Lakers (who are in the 13th spot) to improve their record and climb the standings.

The Lakers and Jazz will tip off at 7:30 p.m. PT on Friday. The game will only be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.

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