Lakers resume home stand against surprising Jazz

Lakers have a bit of momentum as they go for their third straight win.

The Lakers are finally going the right way as they have won two in a row. It easily could’ve been a disastrous 1-6 start but Matt Ryan’s buzzer-beating three-pointer to send the game to overtime against New Orleans changed the trajectory. LeBron James is still going strong in his 20th season. Anthony Davis is admirably playing great through pain. Russell Westbrook is having his best stint as a Laker with his new role as a 6th man. Heck, Lonnie Walker has become a huge option offensively. And the Lakers continue to be fantastic defensively; as of now, they’re still second in defensive rating (allowing 104.3 points per 100 possessions, says

On Friday night, they draw the Utah Jazz. The very surprising Utah Jazz. Every prognosticator, pundit, and analyst had Utah losing a lot of games so they could go after the prize in next summer’s draft, Victor Wembanyama. After all, 4/5 of the starting line-up from last year left. Rudy Gobert was dealt to Minnesota for a plethora of first-round picks and players Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Walker Kessler, Patrick Beverley (who got traded to the Lakers, as you know, for Talen Horton-Tucker), and Leandro Bolmaro. Donovan Mitchell is now with the Cavs; he was traded for more first-round picks, Lauri Markkanen, Colin Sexton, and Ochai Agbaji. Bojan Bogdanovic went to the Pistons for Kelly Olynyk, Saben Lee, and cash. And Royce O’Neale got dealt to the Brooklyn Nets.

This is not your big sibling’s Utah Jazz.

But a funny thing happened. Utah surprisingly blew Denver out in their opening game. And then they went on to beat the Wolves and the Pelicans, two rising teams, in back-to-back overtime games. The Jazz went on to defeat the Grizzlies, now one of the top teams, in two straight games. They did lose a close game against the Mavericks but these Jazz are already at a 6-3 clip.

Lauri Markkanen is having a career year at 21.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. Having already been traded three times in his career can definitely give that chip on his shoulder. One of the holdovers from last year’s Jazz team, Jordan Clarkson is now starting and has continued to provide the offense that he’s been known to do throughout the years. He’s averaging 17.1 points in this young season. The remaining starter from last season, Mike Conley (11.5 points and 7.1 assists per), is still a steady hand at point guard. At 35, he’s definitely on the downside of his excellent NBA career but he still gives this supposed ragtag of players some stability on the court.

Kelly Olynyk and Jarred Vanderbilt round out the starters for Utah. Olynyk gave the Pelicans a shocker with a game-winning finger roll in overtime. Vanderbilt’s rebounding and defense have given the Jazz a huge boost in those departments. As for the bench, Sexton is the leading scorer for them at 13.2 points per. He’s still working his way back from a knee injury that ended his season early last year but a Sexton at full strength can easily score with the best of ’em. Malik Beasley gives the bench some three-point shooting. 36-year-old Rudy Gay, Horton-Tucker, and Walker Kessler usually get the rest of the bench minutes.

The Utah Jazz disappointed last year after they were eliminated in the first round by Dallas. It was clear that the Jazz’s chemistry was not great then; I had remarked that they played like co-workers and nothing else. CEO of basketball operations Danny Ainge (obviously, a favorite by Lakers fans) thought this particular team had peaked so he tore down the core over the summer. But again, the Jazz have been the biggest surprise so far with their 6-3 start.

The Jazz move the ball a lot. Especially compared to last season’s. In 2021-22, they were 27th in passes made. This season, they’re in the Top 10. Clarkson, in particular, has really stepped it up as he easily has a career-best 5.6 assists per game.

With a lot of new players still adjusting to this new season, the Jazz have been turnover-prone thus far. They’re 27th in taking care of the ball at 16.6 per game. But the Jazz are also pesky on defense as they are third in causing the most turnovers at 17.0 per game. This might turn out to be a wild and messy contest. The Lakers really have to take care of the ball against Utah.

The Jazz shoot a lot of threes (3rd in the league in three-point attempts). The Lakers have been decent in defending the three so what they have to do is to continue to be crisp on their defensive rotations and not let the Jazz get off in transition, where they can get off an open three. In the meantime, Utah allows the most points in the paint so the Lakers should try to beat them up inside. It would behoove the Lakers to not force too many threes. I think they shoot too many threes in general (34.3 attempts, which is the 12th most in the league, and shooting .267, which continues to be last in the NBA) but I don’t mind if these shots are actually done in rhythm.

Mar 31, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook (0) prepares for their game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers are probably going to continue having the same starting line-up they’ve had in the past few games: LeBron, Davis, Beverley, Walker, and Troy Brown, Jr. But in those two wins, they got great boosts from the Westbrook-led bench. Russ has been having a good stretch; he’s averaging 16.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in three games off the pine. Austin Reaves and Walker have had some electrifying play in the second half of their last two wins. Wenyen Gabriel has had some good contributions in the minutes he’s getting. And Matt Ryan might be a bigger factor now that he’s shown he can hit big shots.

Last season, the Lakers actually beat the Jazz in their season series, 2-1. For the Lakers to win the series again (and of course, they’d prefer a sweep), they have to once again be disruptive on the defensive end. As I mentioned, the Jazz tend to ball the over quite a bit. Like I said, I’m okay with the Lakers shooting threes as long as they’re not forcing it but I absolutely recommend them not falling into a shootout against the three-happy Jazz. It would also be great if the Lakers let Davis and James bully their way into the paint.

Let’s see if the Lakers can threepeat at Arena. I’m talking about three straight wins, not championships. Don’t be silly, kids.

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