Will 2010 Be Different for Jazz-Lakers?
So here we are again, with the Jazz coming up against the Lakers, with basically the same rosters in play, except for the absence of Mehmet Okur (injury) and Ronnie Brewer (trade) and with L.A. having swapped Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest. Will anything be different this time around?
It's important to look at how the Lakers trounced the Jazz. It was with blistering offense. L.A. averaged 1.17 points per possession in the four wins during the 2009 series, a simply remarkable production level. League average hovers around 1.07, and anything above 1.10 is rare and elite. Utah simply couldn't stop the Lakers. The bad news for Utah? Its defense finished No. 10 in the league in 2009, and No. 10 in the league in 2010. The defense hasn't improved.
But there's some sunshine, too: the Lakers offense is much less efficient than in 2009. L.A. had the league's No. 3 offense in 2009, but fell to No. 11 this season. There are many culprits, and Lakers fans have bemoaned them all season. Artest, for all his defensive wonder, appears to be a bad offensive fit in the triangle. Derek Fisher has completely fallen off offensively, and Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are no better. Kobe Bryant spent much of the season nursing injuries.
In the first round this season, against the Thunder, the Lakers weren't too fantastic on offense, scoring 1.05 points per possession, below average by any standard. It got the job done, thanks to a 1.03 ppp for OKC. And, of course, the Thunder are no defensive slouches, finishing No. 9 in the league this season. But remember: the Jazz were right behind them at No. 10. The difference in their defensive efficiency for the season was negligible. It begs the question: can the Jazz play defense on L.A. as well as OKC did? If so, can Utah's superior offense (1.10 ppp vs. OKC's 1.08) knock the Lakers off their podium?
The answer to that depends on whether the Thunder did something specific to thwart the Lakers offense, or whether the Lakers themselves are troubled (compared to last year) on that end. Artest shot 34% against the Thunder. Kobe shot 40%. Is that because Artest really doesn't care about offense, and because Kobe is really hurting? Or did Kevin Durant and Thabo Sefolosha really bother them that much? The truth is likely somewhere in between -- you wouldn't expect C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews to be licking their chops, but they can't be as nervous as they would have otherwise been.
The other sectors to keep an eye on are turnovers and rebounding. Deron Williams, brilliant as a noon sun in the first round, did lose the ball way too much against Denver, averaging more than four turnovers a game and contributing to the Jazz losing the turnover battle. The Lakers defense, as mentioned, has improved. Ariza no longer patrols the passing lanes, but Bryant and Artest as dangerous around the perimeter.
Rebounding was the one area in which Utah dominated in the 2009 series, completely destroying the Lakers on the boards in three of the five games. The Lakers always seem to have trouble on the defensive glass, and though L.A. has improved here the Jazz remain one of the league's better offensive rebounding teams. The potential temporary loss of Andrew Bynum only exacerbates the problem -- Pau Gasol and Odom don't exactly box out like champions.
As you can see, the series holds plenty of questions. Many fans may have already written off the Jazz, based on the Lakers' record and last season's lopsided series. But Utah is poised to at worst give the Lakers a stomachache, and potentially knock them off. Game 1 begins at 3:30 PM ET on ABC.