Jazz center Mehmet Okur went down with a ruptured Achilles in Game 1 of Utah’s First Round series against Denver, an injury that likely affects the Jazz more against the lengthy Lakers than it did against the Nuggets.
The primary reason behind that? Pau Gasol.
Matchups aside, Gasol has been very effective in general of late. He’s scoring around 20 points per game while shooting in the high 50′s and grabbing nearly 13 rebounds with two blocks and four assists per game in the last month.
“He’s a terrific player,” said Sloan before Utah’s Monday morning practice. “He does everything. If he’s not scoring, he’s still doing everything to help his team win. He’s a huge factor in keeping you away from the basket, especially with our size, we’re such a small team having to combat them is tough. He’s just a very good all-around player, he does a great job.
Against an Okur-less Jazz team, the Spaniard can be even more devastating.
In past matchups, Sloan could used Okur to drag Gasol out of the paint, forcing him to defend out to the three-point line thanks to Okur’s shooting ability. But with Okur out, Gasol guards either Carlos Boozer (6-9) or Paul Millsap (6-8), both of whom do most of their damage in the paint often against power forwards generally closer to their respective sizes.
What makes it tough on Utah is that Gasol has the kind of length to both disrupt what the Jazz bigs like to do in the paint and still close out on their mid range jump shots. Furthermore, since Gasol doesn’t have to follow Boozer or Millsap out to the three-point line, the All-Star can hang back in the paint to help his teammates on the weak side, where he’s very effective as a shot blocker.
In Gasol’s words, Okur’s absence “changes the matchups a little bit, changes the spacing because you don’t have to be so stretched out of the paint. You can dig in more, you can collapse the paint a little more. Not having that three-point shooter out there helps our defense to be more packed in.”
In short, it’s not a coincidence that Gasol blocked five shots in Game 1.
Boozer did manage 18 points on 9-of-17 shooting (52.9 percent) and Millsap 16 points on 8-of-18 from the field (44.4 percent) in Game 1. Not bad, but not the 58.3 percent Boozer shot in the First Round against Denver (third in the NBA) or the 61.2 percent posted by Millsap (second in the NBA).
Then there’s the offensive end, where Gasol can easily see, shoot or pass over top of Boozer or Millsap, which showed up with his 25 points and four assists in Game 1.
“I’m happy but I want to continue to play well and be consistent and contribute,” concluded Gasol. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, but what you’re going to do the next game, and that’s what I’m focused on.”