In the final days leading up to regular season action, SCH will be posting divisional previews of the top teams in all six NBA divisions. Come back early and often for updates.
Back for his second stint in Utah, Raja Bell has the unenviable task of guarding Kobe. (Jae C. Hong, AP)
Laker Bigs vs. Utah Bigs
As was all too evident in last season’s playoffs, the Lakers are a nightmare to defend down low. With Spaniard Pau Gasol, Andrew “Injury” Bynum, and Lamar Kardashian-Odom, the Laker-length has proved to be too much for anyone in the league to handle over the last two seasons. Without sounding insensitive, though, Bynum hasn’t played a full season since 2006-2007 – so chances are he’ll miss some action this year for the defending champs.
The addition of Big Al Jefferson provides Utah some much needed size in the post. Okur can stretch a defense, but Al isn’t afraid to rumble in the paint. In order to truly compete with LA, Utah will need big games from Al, Andrei and Paul, with quality minutes from Fesenko, Elson, and Okur (when healthy). If the preseason means anything (it doesn’t), Utah looked pretty impressive against LA in two road victories. Utah’s big men held their own in the post – and Big Al seemed to overwhelm the much skinnier Gasol.
Kobe Bryant vs. Anyone and Everyone
Kobe is one of the best players in the league right now. Any discussion centering on Utah and Kobe will undoubtedly begin with Raja Bell. While Raja is the designated defensive stopper, his attitude will be contagious with his younger teammates. CJ and AK will take turns trying to stop the guy. Deron Williams will have a go against him. Coach Sloan might even throw a rookie or two on him. Am I the only one that thinks Jerry Sloan would like a crack at him, too? Limiting Kobe will be a team effort. In 4 regular season games against the Jazz last season, Black Mamba averaged 5 fewer points than his average (he still put up 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5.3 dimes on the Jazz). Not surprisingly, Kobe upped his scoring average to 32 points in a four game sweep of the Jazz in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. I’m not sure there is any way to effectively “stop” Kobe…the key will be to limit his touches as much as possible and make him make the insane circus shots that he’s famous for.
High Notes | Low Notes
There’s not much vulnerability for the two-time defending champs. The core from the previous two years is intact, and you can bet that LA will continue to impress come playoff time. One of its self-perceived deficiencies was perimeter shooting…so LA went out and acquired Steve Blake and Matt Barnes. Not counting the preseason victories, Utah hasn’t won at Staples Center against the Lakers in 16 tries. On paper, the Jazz can match-up with just about anyone. At ESA, Utah can compete with the best in the league. For some reason, though, LA just seems to have Utah’s number. Stockton and Malone defeated the Lakers in the playoffs in 1997 and 1998 (a sweep). Williams and Jefferson and company have the precedent…now they need to get it done.
LA leads the all-time series 113-68. Utah went just 1-3 last year during the regular season against the eventual champs. LA has eliminated the Jazz from the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. During that run, LA has won 12 times, with Utah winning just thrice.
Not all is gloomy in the outlook vs. LA. In preseason play, Utah overcame strong performances from both Kobe and Pau Gasol to win TWICE in California against the full-strength (if preseason) Lakers. Granted, the preseason means nothing, but the Jazz played well against a full-strength Laker-squad. If that effort can be replicated in the regular season (or, in answer to Jazz fans prayers, in the playoffs), there is hope.
Deron Williams nicely summarizes the feelings of all of Jazz fandom:
I hate ’em, you know…I hate the Lakers. They’re so good. I hate them because they win all the time. They’re a tough team. … We definitely talk about it. It’s not a secret. We hate the Lakers.”
Phil Jackson wins championships in threes. 1991-1993, 1996-1998, 2000-2002, [2009-2011?]. While history suggests that the Zen Master is due for his NBA record 12th championship this year, I suspect that Coach Sloan would not concede the season just yet. Sloan’s wins outnumber Jackson’s, but Phil has the rings and a better winning percentage.
Michael Jordan’s recent comments placing Kobe in the pantheon of the top ten all-time greatest-guards was just the type of backhanded compliment you’d expect from his Airness. Wherever you rank those two, they’re both Jazz-Kryptonite.
Raja spurned the recruiting efforts of ‘Mamba, to return to Coach Sloan and the Jazz.
Kobe also underwent arthroscopic knee surgery (the third time on his right knee) this summer.
Let’s hope Kobe and company go overboard on Turkey (tryptophan anyone?). The Lakers first venture to ESA on November 26th (the day after Thanksgiving). The Jazz next face LA at Staples Center on January 25, 2011 – the first night of road/home back to back with San Antonio on the back end. With any luck, LA will play the April Fool – in Utah on April 1st. The Jazz then travel back to Laker-Land on April 5th. Expect Utah to win at ESA and challenge for a victory in LA. My realistic prediction? 2-2 split at home. If the Jazz have any shot at representing the West in the Finals (optimistic, I know), they’ll have to find a way to get past the Lakers in the playoffs.
Contact Jefferson W. Boswell at jeffersonboz [AT] gmail [DOT] com