Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have been in a back-and-forth battle with the Jazz over the final playoff spot in the Western Conference for a few weeks now. At various points, both clubs have appeared ready to run away with the coveted position.
And yet, here we are.
With just four games remaining in Utah's schedule, the Jazz hold a half-game lead over L.A. for the No. 8 seed.
The possible outcomes for these two teams are simple: Either the Lakers will make the playoffs, or the Jazz will; there's almost no way both clubs end up in the postseason.
Knowing that, it would behoove Laker fans to get familiar with the Jazz from top to bottom. The two teams won't play one another again this year, but it'll still be helpful for the Laker fanbase to get to know its enemy.
That way, at the very least, L.A. fans might be able to figure out why their team ultimately failed (or succeeded) in avoiding the embarrassment of watching the playoffs from home.
*All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.
On balance, Mo Williams' sub-15 PER makes him a below-average NBA player for the season. But during Utah's recent run, in which it has collected seven victories in its last eight games, Williams has been darn good.
During that span, he's been averaging 15.3 points per game on 47 percent shooting from the field and from beyond the arc. His steady jumper has been critical to the Jazz's overall success during their late-season resurgence.
Williams isn't really a true point guard, though. He's essentially a scorer first, and his pull-up jumper is his primary weapon. Still, he has proved recently that he's got enough skills as a distributor to have essentially eliminated Jamaal Tinsley from the rotation.
Over his last eight games, Williams has averaged 6.1 assists, which is a big reason why Tinsley has logged an average of just 12.5 minutes per game during that span.
Because he's not a ball-handling whiz, a little pressure goes a long way toward disrupting Williams' game. In addition, he's a substandard defender. So one of the best ways to get him off of his game is to make him work on both ends.
As long as he's got time to square up open looks, though, Williams is a dangerous offensive player.
A specialist in the truest sense of the word, Randy Foye is on the court to do one thing: shoot threes.
On the season, Foye has taken a total of 702 shots from the field. Of those attempts, 411 have come from beyond the arc.
More than a volume shooter, Utah's second guard has knocked down nearly 41 percent of his long-range tries this year. Against the Brooklyn Nets on March 31, he showed how hot he could get, knocking down eight of his nine three-point attempts.
In the four games since then, Foye has hit at least two long bombs in every game, which is right in line with his season average of 2.2 made threes per contest.
As noted by The Salt Lake Tribune's Bill Oram, Foye showed off his range in the 97-90 win over the Golden State Warriors on April 7 that gave Utah its half-game advantage over the Lakers:
The Warriors don't move to San Francisco until 2017, but I'm pretty sure Randy Foye just hit that 3 from across the bay.
— Bill Oram (@tribjazz) April 8, 2013
As a floor-spacer, Foye has great value to the Jazz. His presence on the court makes it riskier to double-team Al Jefferson in the post, which is something most teams prefer to do. As long as Foye's shot is falling, the Jazz's offense has the kind of versatility it needs to be successful.
Gordon Hayward has come off the bench nearly twice as often as he's been in the starting lineup this season, which is a testament to his patience and versatility.
But since becoming a consistent member of the first unit, Hayward has shown that he belongs among Utah's starting five.
On the year, the third-year guard's raw scoring numbers haven't changed much whether he's been a starter or a reserve. At 14.6 and 14.3 points per game, respectively, Hayward tends to get his points one way or the other.
In fact, Hayward has scored at a higher per-minute rate as a bench player than he has as a starter this year. The same is true of his assist and rebound averages.
But those figures don't necessarily indicate a higher level of overall production. Hayward was filling up the stat sheet as a sixth man, but he was doing so at a relatively inefficient rate.
That changed when he became a starter, though.
The most notable improvement—and by far the most important—in Hayward's game as a starter has been his spike in his field-goal percentage. Off the bench, he was shooting just 41.7 percent on the season. Showing greater patience as a starter to wait for good shots, Hayward has pumped up his accuracy rate to 47.5 percent.
Those numbers have averaged out to a pedestrian 43.7 percent on the season, but make no mistake; Hayward is a different player when he gets the starting nod.
Percentages and splits aside, the Butler product is an aggressive slasher who gets to the line better than any other wing player on the Jazz. His ability to draw fouls is a nice change of pace from the jump-shooting ways of Foye and Williams.
Young, improving and finally in the right role, Hayward is Utah's best all-around perimeter player.
Put simply, Paul Millsap is one of the most underrated players in the NBA.
The undersized power forward isn't flashy, doesn't make highlight shows with signature dunks and rarely plays enough minutes to post All-Star worthy stats.
But a deeper look at the Jazz reveals just how valuable Millsap has been.
No player in Utah's rotation has as positive of an effect on the team's offense as Millsap. When he's on the floor, the Jazz post an offensive efficiency rating of 106.4 points per 100 possessions. Defensively, Millsap is hardly a star, but the Jazz do perform better on that end when he's on the floor than they do with either Al Jefferson or Derrick Favors.
In addition to his unsung contributions to the Jazz's statistical success, Millsap's versatility allows coach Tyrone Corbin to toy with some unconventional lineups. When Millsap plays the 3 alongside Jefferson and Favors in the frontcourt, Utah boasts one of the most imposing front lines in the league.
Millsap's blue-collar work ethic plays well in Utah, but his skills as a shooter and his overall smarts don't get nearly enough attention.
If folks are familiar with one player on the small-market Jazz, it's Jefferson.
The post-up savant has one of the deadliest one-one-one games from the low block in the league. Jefferson's array of drop steps, jump hooks and head fakes makes him a devastating scorer underneath.
But while it's easy to be awed by Jefferson's polished post game, an objective analysis of his worth as a player has to include the fact that he's truly abysmal at the defensive end.
On the season, the Jazz have allowed 108 points per 100 possessions when Jefferson has been on the floor. That figure is the worst among any Jazz regular and almost totally offsets his value on the offensive end.
Against teams that aren't smart enough on offense to consistently involve Jefferson in pick-and-rolls (where he appears lost more often than not), the Jazz can get away with playing their center big minutes. But when opponents are wise enough to exploit Jefferson's hopeless defense, Utah runs into trouble.
During Utah's recent solid stretch, Jefferson really hasn't been any better on defense, posting an on-court efficiency rating of 107.4. So in many ways, the Jazz are playing their best basketball of the year in spite of Jefferson's lopsided contributions.
Utah plays with a relatively short rotation. In fact, over the past 10 games, only Favors, Alec Burks and Marvin Williams have averaged more than 15 minutes per game off the bench.
Some of that has to do with the loss of backup center Enes Kanter, a savagely strong and extremely useful backup center. The second-year big man separated his left shoulder on March 27, an injury that should keep him sidelined for another week or two.
But much of the reasoning behind the Jazz's shortened bench has to do with the fact that the rotation is working nicely.
Burks is a good open-court athlete, who doesn't shoot well but gets to the rim and competes on defense.
Favors is a long, defensively solid rebounder, who bothers shots and works himself to the line with great activity on the interior. Despite limited minutes, he has led the Jazz with an average of 2.4 offensive rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game over his last 10 contests.
Williams is the lone outlier among Utah's effective bench. He's shooting just 32.5 percent from long range on the year and has failed to make any meaningful contributions elsewhere. The Jazz are playing with a short rotation, but it might be smart to truncate it even further—by sitting Williams down.
Corbin certainly has his flaws as a coach. In particular, his rotation decisions took far too long to arrive at their current state. A cursory glance at the numbers makes it pretty clear which members of the Jazz should be playing minutes, both as starters and reserves.
But for most of the season, Corbin seemed oblivious to which players deserve time on the court, as tweeted by noted poker player and NBA bettor Haralabos Voulgaris:
Burks has actually played decent the last few games so naturally Corbin goes with Tinsley.
—Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) March 25, 2013
Despite some mistakes, though, Corbin appears to have retained the trust of his players.
According to Bill Oram of The Salt Lake Tribune, Foye said of Corbin:
I think coach did a great job of explaining to us every day that it's an uphill battle and you just got to keep working through it and it's not just basketball it's life. It's something that he explained to us. You have setbacks in life, are you going to quit and give up? No. I think that we had a couple setbacks but we stayed together and continued to fight as a family.
As the Jazz head down the stretch, they're doing so as a committed group. Corbin deserves all the credit for that.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about the Jazz—from a Laker fan's perspective, anyway—is that their schedule features an almost guaranteed 2-2 finish.
With an April 9 contest at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder and a season-ending road game against the Memphis Grizzlies sandwiching a home-and-home set against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah figures to play .500 ball to end the season.
OKC will still be fighting for the No. 1 spot in the West and Memphis needs to keep winning in order to finish with a better record than the L.A. Clippers (which they'll need to earn home-court advantage in the first round, despite the fact that the Clips have already won their division).
So, essentially, the Lakers need to hope Utah slips up in one of the games against the Wolves and for the superior Grizzlies and Thunder to take care of business against the Jazz.
Here's a simple breakdown, from TWC SportsNet's Mike Trudell:
So, if UTA goes 3-1, LAL have to go 5-0. If UTA goes 2-2, LAL must go 4-1. If UTA goes 1-3, LAL must go 3-2.
—Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) April 8, 2013
They'll have to if Utah finishes the season with a pair of wins to match its likely pair of losses. If the Jazz stay hot, though, and somehow win three out of four, L.A. will have to be perfect.
The Lakers are facing long odds, and now time has run out and the schedule is against them. It certainly looks like the Jazz are positioned to edge L.A. out of the final playoff spot.