The Los Angeles Lakers are on a four-game losing streak, 2-10 in the month of January, and their battle does not get any easier when the defense-minded Utah Jazz come to the Staples Center. Los Angeles has gone 0-2 against Utah this year, and supposed drama in the locker room is not helping matters.
The fact is that the team should have been contending for a title from the get-go this season, but injuries and a coaching change have the Lakers struggling just to make the playoffs in 2013. Los Angeles needs a win badly, and some consistency to boot.
That could be hard to come by against Utah. The Jazz have won four in a row, including an upset victory over the defending champion Miami Heat on January 14, and their defensive approach headlined by Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap has the team playing some incredible basketball.
Slowing those two down will be the key to the Lakers winning, but that will be hard to do if Dwight Howard is unable to play after aggravating his shoulder injury. Lack of size can prove to be devastating against the Jazz, and Los Angeles would prefer to not learn that the hard way.
Tonight is also a chance for the Lakers to avoid a sweep by Utah in the season series, so this game is sure to have tons of adrenaline pumping from start to finish.
Time: Friday, January 25th, 10:30 p.m. EST
TV: ROOT Sports, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet
Records: Utah Jazz (23-19) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (17-25)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, January 24, 11:03 a.m. EST
Injuries: Steve Blake (abdomen, out), Dwight Howard (shoulder, day-to-day) Jordan Hill (hip, out), Mo Williams (thumb, out)
Key Storyline: Lakers Seek to End Futility and Salvage Season Series Against Utah
As an offensive team coached by Mike D'Antoni, the Lakers have struggled mightily on defense this year. They rank sixth in points scored, but 26th in points allowed. Playing a defensive team like Utah, that's going to spell trouble.
Granted, when the Lakers faced the Jazz on December 9, it was a high-scoring affair even with Steve Nash sitting on the bench with an injury. Los Angeles lost 117-110, committing 14 turnovers in the process.
Paul Millsap had 24 points and nine rebounds for the Jazz in that game, and Mo Williams contributed 22 points of his own to go with nine assists. On Los Angeles' end, Kobe Bryant had 34 points while Jordan Hill contributed 17 points and nine boards off the bench.
But the Lakers cannot rely on a similar approach this time. Hill is out for the season, and Nash is back in the lineup as the team's floor general and chief playmaker. More importantly, though his role in the game has yet to be determined, Pau Gasol will be available after missing the previous game against Utah with knee tendinitis.
The facts are simple. Utah is out to win its fifth straight, and the Lakers cannot afford to lose their fifth game in a row. They'll need to be like their old selves tonight, choosing shots wisely and putting in a complete team effort rather than just getting the ball to Kobe Bryant and hoping for the best.
Otherwise, they will lose yet again and their season will inch closer and closer to being lost.
Key Matchup: Earl Clark vs. Paul Millsap
In the event that Dwight Howard is unable to play, slowing down Al Jefferson will be borderline impossible for the Lakers to do. Thus, they'll just have to take out his counterpart, Paul Millsap.
Though he stands just 6'8", Millsap is an excellent power forward with solid size at 253 pounds. He plays a great low-post game, and has averaged 14.8 points to go with 7.8 rebounds and a field-goal percentage of 48-percent. Also, in the few times Millsap has attempted a three-pointer, he has made 41-percent of his attempts.
This makes it all the more important for the inexperienced Earl Clark to play solid defense against Millsap. As Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register reported, the former Louisville Cardinal is now the team's starting power forward, and it's time for him to start playing like the tough defender he was in college.
Clark may not have as many NBA games under his belt as Millsap does, but he does have more height at 6'10", despite being a skinnny 225 pounds. Over his last five games, he has posted 9.8 points and 9.4 rebounds.
It may be tough, but Clark needs to go into defensive beast mode when guarding Millsap. He must force him to take bad shots and stick to him like glue. Jefferson will likely be running wild in the paint, depending on who D'Antoni starts at the 5 if Howard cannot play, and the Lakers cannot afford to let Millsap have as good a game as he did in December.
That all starts with Clark's defense, which needs to be top notch in spite of his inexperience.
X-Factor: Pau Gasol
Assuming that Howard is unable to play, Pau Gasol is likely going to start at center. In such a case, he would finally get his wish of having more time in the low-post.
Gasol has visibly struggled in D'Antoni's system this season, averaging a career-worst 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, while shooting a career-low 43-percent from the field. This can be attributed to him taking more jump shots and not having as much time in the low-post, the area that has made his NBA career a success.
However, in his four games since returning from a concussion, Gasol has posted fairly respectable numbers. The Spanish seven-footer has averaged 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds over that stretch, and has also shot 52-percent from the field.
He will need to be in that form tonight, and maybe even better. Al Jefferson has been hot as of late, posting 18.2 points and 10.4 rebounds over his last five games, and Gasol will need to use his excellent low-post game to stop him.
On offense, Gasol just cannot back down at all. He must take open shots, if he has them, and not be afraid to stand and bang under the basket.
Long story short, he needs to put his poor numbers behind him and go out and play his hardest against a tough and defensive Jazz team. He is the key to the Lakers breaking their losing streak, and must reassert himself as the dominant power forward Lakers fans know him as.
All losing streaks need to end at some point, and the Lakers will end theirs against Utah. Fortunately for Los Angeles, the Jazz have gone 9-15 on the road this season, and that will keep the team from extending its winning streak to five with a rowdy Lakers crowd cheering its stars on.
Kobe Bryant will have another excellent scoring night, and the playmaking skills of Steve Nash will also come into play. Metta World Peace will sink key threes, and Pau Gasol will turn in another solid performance.
Who will win?
Earl Clark will struggle a bit on defense, but still pull down a respectable number of rebounds in defending Paul Millsap. In this game, the lack of a reliable guard will ultimately damn Utah, no matter how well either Millsap or Jefferson performs as a whole.
The fact of the matter is that the Lakers are just due for a win, and they will get one against the Jazz, finally defeating them this season. The team's overall problems will not be solved with just one victory, but a win can certainly start moving them in the right direction.
Los Angeles Lakers 109, Utah Jazz 102