Good enough to start 8-0 with five victories coming by double digits, and then rebound from two close losses to win four straight games — three of them on the road — by an average of 17.5 points heading into Tuesday night’s 98-91 win over a tough Chicago Bulls team.
Good enough to average a league-best 111.5 points per game, boast a league-best point differential of +11.0, come in first in rebounding (46.27 per game), rank second in three-point percentage after hitting another 10 against the Bulls, as well as top the league in assists (24.5).
But heading into Friday evening’s day-after-Thanksgiving contest in Utah, the Lakers know they can throw all of that out. Asked if it would be a difficult task for the Lakers to play in Salt Lake City after enjoying Thanksgiving dinner prior to an 8 p.m. flight, Kobe Bryant simply responded, “Yes.”
Always among the league’s more difficult places in which to play even without a stomach full of turkey and stuffing, EnergySolutions Arena has favored the home Jazz in six of the last 10 regular season games. On the other hand, when you include road victories in Games 3 and 4 of last season’s Second Round of the playoffs, the Lakers have won three consecutive games in Utah. Furthermore, L.A. has claimed each of the last four season series from the Jazz, going 2-1 in 2006-07, 3-1 in 2007-08, 2-1 in 2008-09 and 3-1 in 2009-10, the last loss coming on Dec. 12, 2009 (94-102).
This season, the Jazz have been just a bit difficult to figure out, looking at times fantastic and at others quite beatable.
Utah pulled off what’s easily the league’s most impressive road trip to date, sweeping through Eastern powers Miami and Orlando on a back-to-back, then completing the trip with come-from-behind wins at Atlanta and Charlotte. But the Jazz have uncharacteristically lost three games at home, dropping decisions to Phoenix, Oklahoma City and San Antonio in addition to road losses at Golden State and Denver. Nonetheless, the Jazz are a still-solid 10-5, good for sixth place in the West, with the aforementioned slew of tough road wins already tucked into their collective belt.
The Jazz rank 13th in points scored and fifth in assists, but haven’t shot the ball particularly well as shown by their 13th rank in field goal percentage and 20th in three-point percentage, compared to LA.’s No. 4 and No. 2 in those categories. Utah’s also struggling to rebound the ball, collecting only the 23rd most in the NBA, so the glass will be of paramount importance against the top-boarding Lakers on Friday.
Deron Williams remains the straw that stirs Utah’s drink, and he’s been as good as always while leading his team in scoring (20.9 points per game) and assists (9.7) even with a slow shooting start of 43.0 percent overall and 31.7 percent on threes. Paul Millsap has also been terrific for the Jazz, coming in just behind Williams in points (19.7) while leading the team in rebounding with 9.1 per contest, as well as steals with 1.3 a night.
Meanwhile, the Jazz have been trying to work major offseason acquisition Al Jefferson into Coach Jerry Sloan’s system, to overall positive but still mixed effect. Jefferson’s scoring 16.3 points with 8.8 rebounds and a team-high 1.4 blocks, but he’s shooting only 47 percent, which would be good for most players but not as much for a 50-percent plus career shooter. Big Al’s had a few big games, including a season-high 27 points in a win over Toronto or a 20-point, 14-rebound performance in last week’s road win at Portland, but has yet to show the type of consistency that should come as his comfort level grows throughout the year.
Wings Andrei Kirilenko and C.J. Miles are also averaging double figure points for Utah, with Miles putting up 20 points off the pine (Raja Bell starts at the two) in the most recent Jazz win against Sacramento. But while the Lakers have enjoyed the fruits of some impressive “Killer B” labor off their bench, Utah’s gotten little outside of Miles from its pine. In fact, no Jazz player not named Miles is averaging more than 3.3 points off the bench, while the Lakers are getting 11.8 from Shannon Brown, 9.4 from Matt Barnes and 5.9 from Steve Blake.
Meanwhile, the Lakers starters are doing just fine themselves, with the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom threesome totaling over 60 points per game, with Ron Artest and Derek Fisher chipping in where needed.
We’ll see how it all shakes out on the actual basketball floor shortly, but not until Phil Jackson’s famed “Turkey Trot” scrimmage on Thanksgiving morning, where he pits the guards against the big men. As Kobe Bryant explained after the Bulls game, the guards always win.
Stay tuned for a review of that battle once the team arrives in Utah prior to the 6 p.m. tip off.