10:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Jazz -9, Over/Under: 218.5
Western heavyweights square off as the surging Utah Jazz play host to the shorthanded reigning NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers, from Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. Throughout the abridged offseason onward through the early stages of the truncated 2020-2021 Regular Season the themes surrounding the Lakers (22-10, 2nd in Western Conference) have thus far been predominantly resiliency and fatigue. After winning their NBA-record seventeenth Larry O’Brien trophy, Los Angeles was left to enjoy the shortest of turnarounds from one season to the next, with Game Six of the NBA Finals having been contested on October 11th, 2020 and the ensuing Season Opener taking place just seventy-two days later on December 22nd. Compare that to some teams like say, the Golden State Warriors, who weren’t even invited to the Bubble (having concluded their campaign on March 10th) and you have a chasm of rest between one side and another as wide as the Grand Canyon itself. With that said, if this lack of rest was indeed the price to be paid for championship glory, we highly doubt that you’ll hear any complaints lobbied from anyone within the organization, even though it seems that they are paying for it at the moment. Coming into this campaign, (General Manager) Rob Pelinka and (Head Coach) Frank Vogel made a concerted effort to bolster the supporting cast of their roster, particularly when you consider that they were very much a veteran-laden unit last season, led by (four-time MVP) LeBron James (25.8 PTS, 50.1% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 8.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.6 PER) and (All-NBA Forward) Anthony Davis (22.5 PTS, 53.3% FG, 29.3% 3FG, 8.4 REB, 3.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.8 BLK, 24.7 PER), who each logged HEAVY minutes during their championship run. Needless to say, the mandate was to give these guys a breather whenever they could, particularly James, who despite continuing to play at an elite level even at this stage of his career is still 36-years old. And it’s with that said that Management parted ways with a bevy of veterans including (Centers) Dwight Howard and JaVale MaGee along with (Point Guards) Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, as well as (Swingman) Danny Green, each of which played key roles in their run to glory. Incoming were veterans Marc Gasol (4.5 PTS, 39.7% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.3 BLK, 10.7 PER) and Wesley Matthews (5.0 PTS, 38.3% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.5 STL, 7.5 PER), while both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (9.0 PTS, 45.4% FG, 42.7% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 10.2 PER) and Kyle Kuzma (11.5 PTS, 44.5% FG, 36.3% 3FG, 6.2 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 BLK, 12.9 PER) were retained on team-friendly deals, but the biggest additions came in the form of (Point Guard) Dennis Schroder (14.2 PTS, 44.1% FG, 31.1% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.6 PER) and (Forward) Montrezl Harrell (13.8 PTS, 63.9% FG, 6.4 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 22.2 PER). At 27-years old apiece, Harrell and Schroder finished one and two in the voting for Sixth Man of the Year honors last season, with the added benefit of poaching the former from their city rivals, the Clippers. Of course these additions must now prove their value as Davis suffered a strain to his right Achilles tendon on February 14th, and will be sidelined for roughly a month meaning that Vogel won’t expect him to return until after the All-Star Break (March 5th-10th). Unfortunately, Schroder too has been out of action due to the league’s COVID-19 Health/Safety Protocols, and has missed each of the last two outings and isn’t expected to be cleared for action until this weekend, robbing the Lakers of their second and third leading scorers and not to mention a pair of excellent defenders to boot. With their depth being sorely tested, they’ve dropped four of their last five outings, including three straight, with James left to pick up the pieces surrounded by role players forced to perform well outside of their respective roles. Over the last three contests alone they have slipped noticeably on both ends of the floor, proving to be inefficient and uninspired on the offensive end where they’ve shot 45.0% overall, including a dismal 30.3% from beyond the arc, while getting outrebounded (Minus-3.4) and committing 16.7 turnovers, while on the defensive end they’ve been less formidable than advertised in yielding 46.9% shooting, including 38.0% from downtown, and enjoying a Plus-6.3 advantage from the free-throw line.
“It’s something I’ve done before. I can continue to do it, but I would much rather us be whole.”LeBron James lamenting the weight of carrying the Lakers moving forward after the lost their fourth game in five outings missing both Anthony Davis (Achilles) and Dennis Schroder (COVID)
When we last saw the Lakers, their struggles without Davis and Schroder continued as they lost a season-high third-consecutive contest, this one against the surging Washington Wizards in a spirited 127-124 affair that required overtime to claim a victor. This was the fourth game for in the last nine outings that was decided in extra time for Los Angeles, who really showed signs of fatigue in this affair, particularly in the Second Half; the hosts led by fourteen points at Halftime, but were nonetheless outscored 66-52 during that stretch in which Washington got back into the game by getting to the free-throw line (15-of-17), catching fire from the perimeter (7-of-18), and forcing turnovers (11). Both sides missed clutch free-throw attempts that could have prevented the game from ever getting into overtime, including James who missed what would have been the go-ahead single after drawing a three-point play with less than ten seconds left in regulation. The seventeen-time All-Star appeared visibly tired in the extra period, often settling for long three-pointers that could only draw the front of the iron, with the team as a whole only netting 3-of-10 from the field in overtime (30.0%), including 1-of-5 from three (20.0%), while the visitors had no such issues with the tandem of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook accounting for all twelve of their team’s points on 6-of-7 shooting (85.7%). In the end, Vogel’s troops lost this affair due to two factors. First and foremost, they couldn’t refrain from sending the Wizards to the charity stripe where they were outscored by thirteen points on a whopping thirty-three attempts, while their own inability to take care of the basketball (20 turnovers) was exploited mercilessly to the tune of twenty-six points. James led the team with thirty-one points on 14-of-29 shooting (48.3%) along with nine rebounds and thirteen assists, but in over forty-three minutes of action was clearly fatigued, evidenced by his poor shooting from downtown (2-of-10) and eight turnovers. Remember when we said that Los Angeles would prefer to keep his minutes down this season? Well, that hasn’t really gone according to plan at all, particularly since Davis went down for the eighteen-year veteran is currently third in the Association in minutes played (1,120) which is over 200 more than any other player on the roster. It appears that the All-Star Break can’t arrive soon enough for the Lakers, who in the meantime must receive more consistent production from the varying members of their supporting cast; Caldwell-Pope totaled twenty-one points in Monday night’s loss, while Harrell scored fifteen of his twenty-six points in the First Half though playing sparingly after Halftime due to foul trouble.
Meanwhile, arguably the biggest surprise of the 2020-2021 season is the Jazz (25-6, 1st in Western Conference), who have been in a form that has been rarely seen in the National Basketball Association. Utah have won twenty-one of their last twenty-three games, with a staggering NINETEEN of them by ten or more points. During this run, they’ve averaged 118.7 points per game on 47.6% shooting, including 40.7% from beyond the arc, outscoring the opposition by a margin of 13.6 points, all the while allowing just 105.1 points on 43.6% shooting from the field. Three-point shooting has proven to be the difference-maker for Quin Snyder’s side, who have bested their opponents by a commanding 21.6 points in that regard, which really isn’t much of a surprise given their standing as the league’s most prolific unit from the perimeter. Through thirty-one games, no team has attempted (42.5) or made (16.8) more threes than these guys, all the while netting a stellar 39.7% of their attempts (3rd Overall), with a whopping 48.6% of their field goal attempts coming from long-range, which is the highest such percentage in NBA history. So what the hell has happened in Salt Lake City, you ask? Well, for all intents and purposes this team that has been so successful thus far is the side that we were supposed to be treated to last season. The Jazz made a concerted effort to improve their firepower two summers ago when they signed (sharpshooting Forward) Bojan Bogdanovic (15.3 PTS, 42.7% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 2.1 AST, 12.6 PER) in Free Agency, while engineering a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies for (veteran Point Guard) Mike Conley (16.4 PTS, 44.7% FG, 41.2% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.4 STL, 19.8 PER), with both players expected to transform the offense into a more efficient unit. However, the acclimation of the latter was much slower than anyone could have predicted, while the former unfortunately suffered a torn ligament in his right wrist shortly before the team’s return to action following the NBA’s four-month hiatus due to COVID-19. This season both have been integral pieces to their success, with Bogdanovic averaging 15.3 points on 39.0% shooting from three, and Conley adding 16.4 points and team-highs in both assists (5.6) and steals (1.4). Furthermore, the Bench has been very productive with the return of (Power Forward) Derrick Favors (6.2 PTS, 61.9% FG, 5.6 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.0 BLK, 19.9 PER) in Free Agency coupled with the eruption of (Combo Guard) Jordan Clarkson (18.3 PTS, 45.7% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 19.2 PER), with the latter looking like the early favorite for Sixth Man of the Year honors. The 28-year old is averaging career-highs in points (18.3) in 26.2 minutes a night off the bench, with some huge performances highlighting his campaign, most notably a 40-point outburst in last week’s 134-123 victory over the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers. Oh, and you may have noticed that we’ve failed to mention Utah’s two pillars, (All-Star Guard) Donovan Mitchell (24.5 PTS, 43.0% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 5.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 19.3 PER) and (two-time Defensive Player of the Year) Rudy Gobert (13.9 PTS, 64.0% FG, 13.5 REB, 1.3 AST, 2.8 BLK, 22.8 PER), who have clearly put their differences in the past en route to making beautiful music in Salt Lake City. Mitchell has thrived with a veteran playmaker such as Conley beside him in the Backcourt, while Gobert appears to be on a mission since signing a massive five-year/$205 million contract extension to remain with the franchise, making sure that the Jazz don’t regress defensively despite becoming so prolific on the offensive end of the hardwood. Utah ranks third overall in points allowed (106.4) and field goal percentage defense (44.2%), while leading the league in assists allowed (21.8), and three-pointers yielded (11.0), all the while being the only team in the NBA to rank in the Top-3 in both offensive (117.7) and defensive (107.9) rating, with a stellar net rating of Plus-9.7 (1st Overall).
“The No. 1 team in the league wins a game like that. That’s really where our head is at. That’s where we need to continue to be. It looks good, but I think the biggest thing was our defensive energy. Everything stepped up and made it tougher on them.”Donovan Mitchell praising the Jazz’s performance on defense late in Monday’s 132-110 thumping of the Hornets in which they set a franchise record with 28 three-pointers
When we last saw the Jazz, they managed to rebound from their first defeat in nine games by completely obliterating the young Charlotte Hornets in a 132-110 affair in Salt Lake City. Though this game was relatively close through three quarters of play with the hosts holding a slim 91-90 lead heading into the Fourth Quarter, they would put their proverbial foot on the gas and run Charlotte out of Vivint Smart Home Arena over the final twelve minutes. During this stretch they outscored the visiting side 41-20, shooting a ridiculous 15-of-22 from the field (68.2%), including a blistering 11-of-16 from beyond the arc (68.8%), outscoring them THIRTY points in that regard. There must be something about playing the Hornets for Quin Snyder’s troops have absolutely relished these encounters; when they met back on February 5th, Utah set a franchise record with a remarkable twenty-six three-pointers in a 138-121 victory in Charlotte, and just two weeks later they shatter that record with TWENTY-EIGHT treys on fifty-five attempts (50.9%). Five different players buried at least three triples, with key reserves Joe Ingles (11.9 PTS, 51.9% FG, 46.3% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 4.6 AST, 16.9 PER) and Georges Niang (5.2 PTS, 41.7% FG, 36.6% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 0.7 AST, 9.8 PER) alone outgunning the opposition from long-range, combining for 14-of-17 shooting between them (82.3%) with twenty-one points apiece. In fact, when you consider that nineteen of those twenty-eight three-pointers came from the Bench, and the Jazz broke set a new NBA record for most by any reserve unit. Furthermore, this team became the fastest to reach 500 threes in a season, needing only thirty-one games to reach that milestone. Clarkson (5-of-10 3FG) added another twenty points off the bench, while Mitchell scored a team-high twenty-three points on 8-of-17 shooting (47.1%), along with four rebounds and eight assists in the win, with Conley contributing with fifteen points, five assists, and three steals. Defensively, Utah smothered Charlotte in the Fourth Quarter, relegating them to just 7-of-19 shooting (36.8%), including 1-of-8 from downtown (12.5%), with far more turnovers (7) than assists (1). Gobert again played a large role in their defensive prowess late, totaling a dozen rebounds and six blocks to go along with his ten points.