For the third time in as many seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz will square off in the Western Conference Playoffs. The 2009 series, however, seems like ancient history. Then, a Jazz team that dropped to the eighth spot in the West offered little resistance against a Lakers squad en route to a championship. This time around, Utah is playing much better basketball despite injuries that forced the Jazz to play without starters Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur during an opening-round series win over Denver. Okur, who tore his Achilles, is done for the postseason, but Kirilenko hopes to play as soon as Game Two against L.A.
In their own series, the Lakers did not exactly dominate the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Lakers were a Pau Gasol tip away from being the only West team extended to seven games. Still, the Lakers did offer some evidence for optimists who believe they need only flip on the proverbial lightswitch by laying a 24-point smackdown on the Thunder in Game Five. The win was just L.A.'s second by double-digits over a playoff team since the All-Star break. The other? April 2 against Utah, a win the Lakers will want to replicate in this series.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 91.4 possessions per 48 minutes (14th NBA) regular season, 89.7 (6th) playoffs
Lakers Offensive Rating: 110.4 points per 100 possessions (11th NBA) regular season, 106.6 (12th) playoffs
Utah Defensive Rating: 107.2 points per 100 possessions (11th NBA) regular season, 116.2 (13th) playoffs
Given their respective reputations at this end of the floor, it still seems a little surprising that the Lakers' offense against the Jazz's defense is, statistically, a draw. The Lakers have conclusively demonstrated in both the regular season and the playoffs that their offense no longer deserves to be considered elite, while Utah has shored up a defense that was a weakness last year. The Jazz isn't quite as strong without Kirilenko and gave up a lot of points in the first round, but Utah has multiple average or better individual defenders.
The big question, of course, is defending Kobe Bryant. The Thunder did an excellent job against Bryant in the first round, limiting him to 50.7 percent True Shooting and generally forcing him into difficult shots. Jazz wings Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles, having had to contend with Carmelo Anthony in the first round, now face another test. Miles has length, but is prone to fouls, while Matthews is a solid position defender who makes few mistakes. He did an excellent job when the teams met in April, limiting Bryant to 5-of-23 shooting. Bryant did get to the free throw line 15 times in that game, helping him salvage the evening.
Kirilenko is the wild card as far as defending Bryant, having used his wingspan to his advantage at times against him in the past. The two never played this season, as Bryant missed the one game Kirilenko played against the Lakers. However, Kirilenko may ultimately prove Utah's best matchup against Ron Artest, who could be a tricky guard for a skinny group of Jazz wings.
Up front, Kyrylo Fesenko will be asked to bang with Andrew Bynum for the first few minutes of each game. Bynum is questionable for Game One after an MRI conducted Saturday revealed a small tear of the anterior horn of his right lateral meniscus, but the Lakers seem optimistic the injury is not a long-term concern. Fesenko is the only Utah player who can match Bynum's size and strength, though the lack of such a player on the Oklahoma City roster was mitigated by the team's ability to front the post and the Lakers' inability to find Bynum.
Pau Gasol was excellent against the Jazz this season, averaging 17.8 points, 16.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists and shooting 61.4 percent from the field in four games. With Paul Millsap likely to check either Bynum or Lamar Odom when Utah goes small, Gasol should be matched against Carlos Boozer throughout the series. That's a very favorable matchup for the Lakers, since Gasol has a quickness advantage and can face Boozer up to make plays. The biggest concern is Boozer's quick hands. Beyond that, Gasol will be limited primarily by his touches and Jazz double-teams.
Quietly, Derek Fisher had a solid offensive series against Oklahoma City, making 14 three-pointers at a 46.7 percent clip. Still, the Lakers shot just 33.3 percent from beyond the arc in the series, including a 6-of-32 effort from Ron Artest. Jerry Sloan generally believes in making opponents beat Utah with perimeter jumpers, and that philosophy could be a beneficial one in this series.
WHEN UTAH HAS THE BALL
Pace: 92.2 possessions per 48 minutes (10th NBA) regular season, 94.4 (1st) playoffs
Utah Offensive Rating: 112.2 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA) regular season, 116.8 (3rd) playoffs
Lakers Defensive Rating: 105.3 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA) regular season, 104.5 (3rd) playoffs
The Jazz's offense was a thing of beauty in the first round, and it remains to be seen exactly how much of that was Utah's execution and how much was due to Denver's defensive lapses. The Jazz will have a much tougher go of it against a Lakers squad that has emerged as one of the league's best at the defensive end. L.A. will take away the cuts that produced easy buckets in the first round, and will not put Utah at the free throw line so frequently.
Certainly, Deron Williams will get his, barring his bruised elbow being more problematic than expected. Best point guard in the league or no, Williams has had a phenomenal series and should destroy Fisher to the extent the two players match up. Presumably, Phil Jackson will be quicker to crossmatch and use Bryant to defend Williams.
Boozer had an excellent series against the Lakers a year ago, but struggled this regular season, averaging 13.5 points on 42.6 percent shooting. This series could be more along the lines of the latter than the former. Gasol's length gives Boozer problems, and without Okur around the two should be matched up most of the time. Boozer may find more openings off of the pick-and-roll with Williams.
The beneficiary of the Boozer-Gasol matchup is Millsap, who should have either a quickness advantage against Bynum or size on Lamar Odom during this series. Millsap was phenomenal against Denver, making 61.2 percent of his shot attempts, and the Jazz could use more of the same in this series.
Utah's offense is by nature democractic, and the team's role players have shown enough offense to concern the Lakers. Matthews spent a surprising amount of time at the free throw line against Denver, while Miles had multiple big scoring efforts. Kyle Korver, who posted the best three-point percentage in league history during the regular season, could be more of a threat in this series, especially when Bryant is off the floor and the Lakers' wings are not as difficult for him to defend.
To some extent, this series reminds me of last year's Western Conference Finals. Then as now, the Lakers faced a team they'd knocked off with ease during the previous season's opening round. Like the Nuggets last year, the Jazz is a much better team then the Lakers last saw. In fact, Utah had the superior regular-season point differential, outscoring opponents by 5.4 points per game as compared to the Lakers' +4.8 mark.
The difference is that, while Denver matched up well with the Lakers, the individual battles don't set up as well for the Jazz. The Lakers won the season series 3-1 and are 16-6 against Utah over the last three seasons, including a pair of playoff series wins. I think the Jazz can find a way to win at home and maybe even steal an early game at the Staples Center if Bynum is unable to go, but ultimately the Lakers will be too much for Utah.
Lakers in 7
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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