PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Jazz -5, Over/Under: 204
Two young teams at different points of the developmental cycle meet tonight at STAPLES Center as the struggling Los Angeles Lakers host the Utah Jazz. While their opponent tonight just recently snapped a lengthy losing streak, the Jazz (18-13, 7th in Western Conference) are looking to halt one of their own, as they’ve dropped each of their last three contests. After narrowly missing out on the Playoffs last year, Quinn Snyder’s charges were expected to make the leap, but in the ever-competitive Western Conference progress can be incredibly difficult to come by. One of the youngest teams in the league, Utah has just three players on their roster with more than six years of experience, but have the benefit of their young nucleus maturing together, which ultimately their opponent tonight wishes of their own young core as well. When healthy, this a deep team too, but a rash of injuries has since robbed them of that precious commodity, playing a prime role in their recent series of defeats. Alec Burks (Ankle), Dante Exum (Knee), and most prominently George Hill (Toe) have all been sidelined for a prolonged period of time now, with Hill having missed the past nine outings with a sprained left big toe, with no current timetable for his return. This is unfortunate, for while far from a top-flight Point Guard, the ninth-year veteran has grow into a serviceable floor general, and it’s clear that his teammates have missed his steady hand of late; in his first season in Salt Lake City, Hill has posted career-highs in scoring (20.0), Field Goal Percentage (53.4%), Three-Point Percentage (45.6%), and Steals (1.1). His presence was missed particularly in their 104-98 loss at home to the Raptors last Friday Night, as the home side struggled down the stretch as they were outscored 32-24 in the final stanza. Toronto shot a torrid 53.1% from the field, as Kyle Lowry (whom Hill would have no doubt been defending) torched Utah for a game-high thirty-six points on a blistering 15-of-20 shooting. Gordon Hayward (22.0 PTS, 44.2% FG, 34.1% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.0 STL) led the hosts with twenty-three points on 8-of-16 shooting (yet 1-of-5 from downtown), one rebound, five assists, and a block and a steal, while Shelvin Mack did a decent enough job in Hill’s stead with seventeen points and five assists of his own. It was an interesting performance given the fact that this has been one of the best defensive teams in the league throughout the season; the Jazz have relegated their opponents to 95.2 points (2nd Overall) on 42.9% shooting from the floor (2nd Overall), including a league-best 45.5% from inside the three-point arc (1st Overall), while securing 42.4 rebounds (19th Overall), and permitting just 17.6 assists (1st Overall). Furthermore, they’ve yielded a league-low 47.8% Effective Field Goal Percentage (which accounts for the significance of the three-pointer), which is an indicator that these do not give up very many easy looks. Playing at the slowest pace in the league (91.1 possessions per 48 minutes) helps a great deal as well, allowing Snyder’s charges to use their ridiculous length to close off passing lanes and contest shots. Fourth-year Center Rudy Gobert has developed into a pillar of defense in the painted area, averaging 12.5 points on 69.8% shooting from the field, along with 11.9 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game. The Frenchman has been buttressed by second-year big Trey Lyles, who in limited time (21.9 minutes per game) has been very productive off the Bench, posting averages of 9.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.3 assists. Utah has faced Los Angeles twice already, both of which were victories for Snyder and Co., a 96-89 win at Vivint Smart Home Arena back in November and a 107-101 triumph in Los Angeles on December 5th.
Meanwhile, it took quite a while, but the Lakers (12-22, 11th in Western Conference) finally snapped their eleven-game losing streak the Los Angeles Clippers, doing so on Christmas Day no less, besting their shorthanded rivals in a 111-102 victory. Granted, they were without the services of both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but there is no doubt that Luke Walton and his charges would have taken that win under any circumstances imaginable. It was arguably their most balanced effort of the young campaign, as Los Angeles put forth a total team effort with seven different players scoring in double-figures. Nick Young (14.5 PTS, 46.9% FG, 42.4% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.1 AST) and Timofey Mozgov (8.2 PTS, 52.5% FG, 5.0 REB) accounted for nineteen points apiece, while Luol Deng (8.4 PTS 39.5% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.1 STL) totaled thirteen points twelve rebounds, two assists, two steals, and two blocks. The younger wards of the team chimed in too, as Julius Randle (12.8 PS, 49.3% FG, 8.6 REB, 3.5 AST), D’Angelo Russell (15.0 PTS, 4.2% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.1 STL), and even Rookie Brandon Ingram (7.6 PTS, 34.8% FG, 4.1 REB, 2.0 AST) combined for thirty-seven points on 13-of-32 shooting from the floor, nineteen rebounds, twelve assists, and a pair of steals. However, the biggest takeaway from the win was how they all played on the defensive end of the court, where they have been lacking for a good long while now; the Lakers held the Clippers to 43.5% shooting, including 10-of-29 from beyond the arc (34.5%), while outrebounding them 48-42 and turning them over fifteen times. Hell, they even got to the Charity Stripe thirty times, where they outscored their adversaries 23-18 in that regard. While there are legitimate questions abound as to whether or not that that performance was indeed sustainable, it was a welcome sign for a team that was looking for anything positive over the last three weeks. It’s become rather clear that this team is a long way from the one that began the season a surprising 7-5, yet a thankful return to health should make them better than the 4-17 they’ve been since their inspiring start. Both Russell and Randle missed a number of games during that perilous stretch, while the likes of Jose Calderon and Larry Nance continue to be sidelined, with the latter sustaining a bone bruise to his left knee in the win over the Clippers. He’s likely to miss about a month. With that said, it’s absolutely vital that Walton gets everyone healthy if the Lakers are to mature together, which includes him as well. The youngest coach in the league, Walton (36) spent the last two years on Steve Kerr’s Staff in Golden State, and was handpicked by Lakers’ Management to help guide their young nucleus of players, or in essence, growing with them. While anyone with a pulse can tell that they are many years away from becoming anything remotely close to the Warriors, they do have a number of intriguing pieces to build upon, and their development is priority number one in Los Angeles these days. Even if it means sacrificing victories in the process. In emulating their northern neighbors in the Bay Area, they have a long way to go, but you can see some parallels in style; the Lakers operate at pace quicker than most, averaging 98.6 possessions per 48 minutes, but unlike the two-time defending conference champions, they have yet to find a way to parlay that into sound defense, allowing a league-worst 110.6 points on 47.8% shooting from the field. They don’t defend the Paint well at all (53.3% shooting inside the three-point arc), and they don’t pressure the ball, yielding a league-high 25.8 assists, while also committing 16.0 turnovers a night, also most in the NBA. At times it’s enough to make one wonder if they wouldn’t be better served playing at a much slower pace, for many of their issues are derived from the high volume of possessions, but then again, it’s likely that they would have the same issues regardless of their tempo, for at the end of the day, one of the hardest things for a coach to do is to get young players to defend consistently. And when you’ve got a roster as young as this one, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Predicted Outcome: Jazz 105, Lakers 98