9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Lakers -6.5, Over/Under: 217
A pair of teams looking to bounce back from poor showings meet in the Bubble established at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, as the Los Angeles Lakers face the Utah Jazz in an attempt to cement their standing for the looming Playoffs. After besting their chief competition out west in their return to action after the four-month layoff due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Lakers (50-15, 1st in Western Conference), came out extremely flat in Saturday Night’s 92-107 drubbing at the hands of the Toronto Raptors, who ran away with the decision in the Fourth Quarter. With the affair still close heading into the final stanza (70-72), the reigning NBA Champions put their collective foot on the gas, and ran Los Angeles out of the gym, outscoring them 35-22 down the stretch. It was nothing short of a lackluster performance by the No. One Seed in the West, who managed to shoot a miserable 35.4% from the field, including 10-of-40 from downtown (25.0%), committing as many Turnovers (17) as Assists. Just two days after manhandling the Clippers to the tune of Thirty-Four Points, Eight Rebounds, and Four Assists, All-NBA Forward, Anthony Davis (26.6 PTS, 50.8% FG, 33.7% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.4 BLK, 28.0 PER), really struggled on his way to only Fourteen Points on 2-of-7 shooting (28.6%) in 35:07 of action.
The seven-time All-Star took a finger to his eye shortly before the season resumed activities, and has been listed as day-to-day ever since, though given his exploits against that other team from Los Angeles, it would be a bit unrealistic to point to his struggles over the weekend on that particular issue. Arguably the biggest problem for the Lakers was the fact that outside of Davis and fellow All-NBA staple, LeBron James (25.5 PTS, 49.5% FG, 34.9% 3FG, 8.0 REB, 10.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.6 PER), the rest of the Starting Lineup only accounted for Eight Points on a dismal 3-of-17 shooting from the floor (17.6%). Danny Green (8.0 PTS, 41.1% FG, 37.0% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 10.6 PER), whom the franchise added in the Offseason for his championship experience as much as his two-way prowess from the perimeter, went scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting, including 0-of-6 from beyond the arc. Yes, the Bench performed well, with three different players amassing eleven or more points, but when your reserves outscore your starters (50-42), it’s typically a sign that the Head Coach, who in this case is Frank Vogel, is continuing to find a lineup that works. This was always going to be a problem for Los Angeles entering the Bubble after losing not one, but two Point Guards for the rest of the season; veteran starter, Rajon Rondo (7.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 32.8% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.4 PER), broke his thumb during practice shortly after arriving in Orlando, while his deputy, Avery Bradley (8.6 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 8.9 PER), opted to forgo a return to play due to the threat of Covid-19. Essentially, Vogel’s Rotation has changed dramatically, not necessarily because either one of these players are primary ballhandlers (James has that covered), but because of the specialist roles that both offer off the basketball. Bradley, and even Rondo at this stage of his career, are fairly tenacious defenders on the perimeter, who are adept at playing passing lanes and creating opportunities in the transition, with the former adding the luxury of being able to knock down open three-pointers, while latter does provide James the luxury of taking a break from running the offense for shorter periods of time.
Taking their place in the Rotation are another pair of veterans, though very different players in their own right, namely Swingmen, Dion Waiters (11.5 PTS, 42.9% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 14.0 PER) and J.R. Smith. Waiters, who only played three games with the Miami Heat this season before a bizarre situation caused his release from the club, was added shortly after the Trade Deadline, and has seen quite a bit of action since the restart, as Vogel looks to get the 28-Year Old conditioned and acclimated to the team; to his credit, Waiters has performed well thus far, averaging 11.5 Points on 42.9% shooting, along with 3.0 Rebounds and 2.0 Assists in 21.4 Minutes off the Bench. Smith on the other hand, was added much later during the shutdown, and has been brought along much slower in the first two games since the return. The 34-Year old has logged many years of deep postseason runs alongside James, and is capable of catching fire from the perimeter, though has also unfortunately succumbed to lapses in concentration that make him very much a wildcard moving forward. In the end, it remains to be seen just what the Lakers will get out of both of these guys, and if their value to the team will meet that of the players that they’re replacing, but one thing is for certain: James will no doubt have carry an even larger burden offensively if he is to indeed deliver a Larry O’Brien Trophy to his third different franchise. Aging like a fine wine, the four-time MVP is leading the Association in Assists (10.5) in 2019-2020, marking the first time in illustrious career that he has managed to do so. At 35-Years Old, this isn’t necessarily the ideal workload for the veteran, but we’re sure that he’d argue having the last four months off has left him hungry and reenergized like never before.
Meanwhile, in many ways the NBA’s shutdown back in the middle of March began with the Jazz (42-24, 5th in Western Conference), or more specifically with their star Center, Rudy Gobert (15.0 PTS, 69.7% FG, 13.6 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.0 BLK, 21.6 PER), who became the first player in the league to test positive for Covid-19. Of course, his carefree attitude to the virus caused widespread outrage within the franchise, as a number of his teammates also contracted it, leading to pubic infighting between teammates, particularly third-year Guard, Donovan Mitchell (24.0 PTS, 45.2% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.9 PER). It wouldn’t be long before the entire league suspended play, and over the following four months, Gobert received his share of criticism from inside and outside the organization, though it seems that those harsh feelings have thankfully subsided as Utah gets back to action with their eyes focused on advancing past the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2007. And it’s with that said that it was very appropriate that this team was the first to kick off the Association’s grand return to play, and even more so that the first basket scored in that affair was courtesy of the towering Frenchmen.
In that 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, Gobert totaled Fourteen Points, Twelve Rebounds, and Three Blocks, including the final two points to secure the victory for Quin Snyder’s charges, who managed to overcome a good deal of rust and sloppy play to earn the win (20 Turnovers). With that said, it was a balanced effort from Utah, who featured six different players in double-figures, with the aforementioned Mitchell scoring Twenty Points, while veteran Point Guard, Mike Conley (13.9 PTS, 40.5% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 13.7 PER), matched his point total. With Point Guard having proven to be a major weakness over the previous three years, much was expected of Conley’s addition to the rotation, with the former All-Defensive Second Team Selection, tabbed to solidify the position for a team desperately looking to take that next step from being a very good Regular Season team to a bonafide, legitimate contender for a championship. After a difficult few seasons riddled with injuries, the 32-Year Old has been slow to acclimate to his surroundings, but his showing against the Pelicans was very encouraging; in addition to his scoring, Conley added Four Assists, a Steal and a Block in 33:57 of play. It will be imperative that Conley will able to maintain this level of play, particularly given the unfortunate loss of Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 PTS, 44.7% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 2.1 AST, 15.7 PER), who will miss the remainder of the campaign after undergoing surgery on his right wrist.
However, the good vibes of that triumph were quickly placed in the rearview mirror during Saturday’s 94-110 defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. In this particular outing, Snyder’s troops simply looked fatigued from the word go, as the Thunder pounced on them early, outscoring them 29-15 in the First Quarter before heading into Halftime with a commanding 66-42 advantage. As has been the case with so many teams since the return to action, the Jazz proved wildly inconsistent on both ends of the court, shooting a miserable 39.1% from the field, including 8-of-31 from downtown (25.8%), committing Fourteen Turnovers in comparisons to handing out Seventeen Assists, and getting manhandled on the glass, 35-47. Defensively, they struggled mightily to simply stay in front of their young counterparts, with Oklahoma City netting a blistering 53.2% shooting from the floor, including 10-of-26 from the perimeter. The aforementioned Mitchell had a hard night, totaling Thirteen Points on just 5-of-15 shooting (33.3%), including 0-of-4 from three, with as many Turnovers (4) as Assists. Conley too was subpar, adding Twelve Points on 3-of-9 shooting (33.3%), Four Assists, and Three Turnovers. Needless to say, Snyder will be calling for much better production from his Backcourt than this. With six of these “seeding” games left before the Playoffs begin, there is plenty at stake for Utah in terms of seeding; currently holding onto the Fifth Seed in the West, they sit mere percentage points ahead of the Thunder, while sitting on the wrong end of a tiebreaker with the Houston Rockets at No. Four. Granted, there is no such thing as home court advantage in the Bubble, but matchups are very significant, and a meeting with Houston, who has eliminated them with relative easein each of the past two postseasons, opposed to say, the Denver Nuggets at No. Three, could absolutely be worth thinking about for the Jazz.