- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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Last year, the Jazz extended the Lakers to six games and it was an excellent series. Utah just didn't have enough after struggling mightily with Houston in Round 1. This year has a wholly different look, as Utah has struggled to find its footing (especially on the road) and L.A. has rolled from the start of the season.
Lakers offense vs. Jazz defense
Los Angeles has the league's third-best offense (109.8 points per 100 possessions), while Utah's defense ranks 12th (104.7 points given up per 100 possessions). The Lakers rely on the triangle, and the talent of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, to create scoring opportunities for everyone. Gasol and Andrew Bynum will race the floor to establish good paint position in their early offense, and the Lakers' perimeter players will run to their spots and look to feed the ball inside. They are comfortable playing at a very fast pace, and if the defense recovers back to the paint but leaves the wings open, quick shots will be taken. After their early offense, the intricate cuts and screens the Lakers employ, plus the extra attention the Jazz must give Kobe, will provide the Lakers ample scoring looks with good angles. Utah will be physical, as always, and try to bump L.A.'s cutters off their regular paths and out of their normal rhythm. But they have to be wary of getting out of position when shots go up, as L.A. is an excellent offensive rebounding team and Utah is a relatively poor defensive rebounding team.
Jazz offense vs. Lakers defense
Utah has the league's eighth-best offense (107.1 points per 100 possessions), and Los Angeles has the fifth-best defense (101.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Jazz are not as good offensively as they have been in the past, but they are still solid and will play at a fast pace. Deron Williams is excellent in transition and will look to get to the rim early on offense, using drag or influence screens in the process. He gets 35 percent of his shots before 10 seconds have elapsed on the clock, and is one of three Jazz players who get more than a third of their shots that early (Ronnie Brewer gets 40 percent and Paul Millsap 42 percent -- some coming after offensive boards). If the quick shot is not there, they run their ball-screen and flex action, and Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur become their main targets. The Lakers will focus on helping on Williams' cuts and drives and then rotating out to the shooters, leaving Brewer open. He's an excellent rebounder, so finding and boxing him is a must. Millsap must be accounted for on every shot as well.
Williams: Williams comes rolling into this series playing probably his best basketball of the season. He was terrific in the last eight regular-season games, averaging 23 points with 11.3 assists and just 2.6 turnovers. His 48.7 percent from the field in April was just a tad better than his field goal percentage for the season, and he's been consistently carving up opponents with his dribble drives and slashes within the Jazz sets. He's a terrific finisher at the rim but will be challenged by L.A.'s length inside. Williams must take over games for the Jazz to pull the upset, and he's performed well in three games against them this season, including a 31-point, 11-assist performance that sparked a Jazz win and ended a Lakers seven-game winning streak.
Fisher: He should be fresh to start this series as Phil Jackson has limited his minutes in April. Fisher is an excellent long-range threat as a shooter (39.7 percent on 3-pointers) and makes few mistakes with the ball (career-low turnover rate of 6.7). Against his former team, his job will be to run the system smoothly and keep L.A.'s focus on the little things.
Brewer: Brewer has been a consistent performer for much of the season, but his production dropped off in April. He scored just 11.3 points per game, and his rebound numbers dropped to 2.8 (down from 5.1 two months ago). Brewer's strength and length can force Kobe to expend energy on defense, so an effective Brewer is an important part to any success the Jazz can realize. It's a formula that worked this season, as Brewer averaged 16.7 points on 54 percent shooting against L.A. He'll be the primary defender on Kobe, but needs a lot of help on Kobe's drives.
Bryant: Bryant also got a chance to rest some the past week, playing just 33.5 minutes per game. Still, he shot over 44 percent on 3-pointers and 50 percent overall, so he comes into the playoffs playing at a very high level, even by his standards. Brewer is a physical challenge for him, but lacks the quickness to slow him down on dribble drives. Bryant scores more productively and efficiently against Utah than any other Western team, partly because they foul him so often. Look for Kobe to work toward getting Andrew Bynum more comfortable on offense, in preparation for the later rounds. But if the Jazz are threatening in any game, he'll try to take over and end the threat. He'll also remember being fatigued a little against Boston in last year's Finals, so his will to drive his team to a sweep will be strong.
Harpring: With regular starter C.J. Miles nursing a bad finger, Harpring got the call to start against L.A. in the regular-season finale. It was his first start of the season. There's little Harpring can provide in this series beyond great hustle and lots of toughness.
Ariza: Started only 19 games this season, but probably gets the nod throughout the postseason. Brings tremendous athleticism to the starting group, but has really struggled as a shooter in April (season-low 18.8 percent on 3-pointers). His off-the-ball awareness and presence is vital for L.A. to effectively defend Utah's half-court sets, especially if Harpring is getting a lot of minutes, since he's not much of a scoring threat.
Boozer:He is still trying to find his legs after missing much of the season due to injury. In April, he was nowhere near the dominant force he was entering last year's playoffs. He averaged just 14.6 points on 41 percent shooting, both incredibly low numbers for him. He's still a good rebounder, and will need to take that and every other part of his game up two or three notches to give Utah any chance to win even one game. Avoiding foul trouble is an issue as well, since L.A.'s power forwards can operate out on the perimeter and expose Boozer's defense in space.
Gasol: He has not missed a beat with the return of Bynum, scoring over 18 points per game on better than 50 percent shooting from the field, something he did every month this season. His rebounding picked up as the season evolved, averaging 10 or better the last three months. If he ends up defending Okur much of the time, he has to make the effort to get back into the paint after shots to help rebound. He's also key in the Lakers' transition game, craftily getting open in the early offense and getting easy buckets or drawing fouls. He likely will be anxious to bury the memory of the Celtics series, where he was accused of soft play, and will look to start this year's playoff run as a beast.
Okur: A slight hamstring issue forced him to miss Tuesday night's game, but he is expected to be back for this series. However, hamstrings can be delicate and it bears watching game to game. Okur is another guy who simply must perform beyond his averages to help Utah pull any upsets. He has been on fire from 3-point range all of 2009, hitting 65-of-134 (48.5 percent), and it's the perfect weapon against L.A.'s bigs, who want to stay home and protect the paint. It's easy to envision a Jazz win if Okur goes wild from long range. He scored 22 and 21 in the two games he played against the Lakers. His defense against either Gasol or Bynum will be a tipping point as well.
Bynum: He returned from his injury to immediately find his scoring touch, averaging 17.3 points in his four games back on 57.4 percent from the field. But his rebounding legs have not returned yet. Getting this part of his game back on track will be priority No. 1, and banging down low with Boozer each night should help him do just that. The same can be said for his shot-blocking, which was a key part of his game before the injury. He's the one guy who may not be getting too much rest in games that L.A. has a comfortable lead. Getting him minutes to help his conditioning could make a difference in Round 2.
Millsap: Millsap is capable of providing energy, scoring and toughness -- all are musts to beat L.A. He averaged 12 points and 9.7 rebounds in just 28 minutes against the Lakers this season.
Odom: He destroyed the Jazz last year in the playoffs, and no team struggled with him as much this season as Utah did. Making big contributions off the bench is probably the single biggest part of this series that bears watching. A focused and energized Odom makes the Lakers extremely difficult to beat.
Andrei Kirilenko: His defensive skills are well-known, but his 3-point shooting has been abysmal (24 percent) on the road. He's a much better player at home, and Utah needs him to be huge in those games.
Kyle Korver: Korver has been up-and-down this year, but brings great hustle and the potential for great perimeter shooting on any night. The Lakers know this and work to close him out hot, one reason why Korver shot just 14 percent from 3-point range in three games vs. L.A.
Luke Walton: Has struggled as a 3-point shooter this season, but is still an energy guy with his deft passing and overall hustle.
Jordan Farmar: He took a big step backwards this season but is capable of playing very well and being a big spark off the bench.
Sasha Vujacic: Another reserve who struggled to reach last season's highs, but he is playing his best ball of the season in April. He is averaging almost nine points and a steal per game, while shooting over 50 percent from 3-point range. The Jazz have to find him in transition if he's on, and this makes the Lakers' big men even more effective.
Utah has lost much of its swagger and seems dispirited, limping into the playoffs to face the West's best team. The Lakers have been on a mission to defend better all season and then let their offensive talent take over. Good starts are a must for Utah to keep L.A. feeling some pressure. L.A. just has too much firepower in every phase of the game to lose more than once.
Prediction: Lakers in 5
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.