3 keys for Lakers to end Utah's nine-game winning streak
Even with just one game remaining before the All-Star break, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has attached significant importance to tonight's game against the Utah Jazz. He has acknowledged that the 102-94 loss on Dec. 12 still resonates among team members. After Monday's game against San Antonio, Jackson said Utah (32-18), winner of 13 of its last 14 games, was "playing the best ball in the West right now." And then there's the probability the Lakers will play without guard Kobe Bryant (left ankle sprain) and center Andrew Bynum (right hip).
Though the Lakers (40-13) would obviously like Bryant in the lineup, they have won their last two games without him. That's a much better showing than their recent 5-3 trip, a loss to Denver and their sluggish play in a win against Charlotte. Three key points would help keep up the recent success and help the Lakers to enter the All-Star break on a good note.
Lakers forward Pau Gasol has an easy theory on why the Lakers have played well the last two games without Bryant and Bynum in the lineup.
"We just played the triangle," Gasol said.
Sounds simple enough, but when you don't have a definitive go-to option. it becomes necessary to approach the game by committee. Consider the stat lines of the Lakers personnel against Portland and San Antonio compared with their season averages beforehand: Ron Artest (21 points, 18 points, 11.5 points), Shannon Brown (19 points, 8 points, 7.5 points) Derek Fisher (14 points, 13 points, 7.1 points), Jordan Farmar (12 points, 13 points), Lamar Odom (10 points and a career-high 22 rebounds, 16 points and 10 rebounds, 9.7 points and 9.6 rebounds) and Pau Gasol (13 points, 21 points, 17.1 points).
Notice not everyone had a great game in Portland and San Antonio. Brown mostly struggled against San Antonio as a starter and only went three of 13 from the field. Gasol shot only six of 14 against Portland but then rebounded with a pretty impressive stat line against San Antonio beyond his 21 points. That also included 19 rebounds, eight assists and five blocked shots.
That team balance ensured a solid outcome, regardless of anyone's individual performances.
2. Secure leads
Even if Utah is on a recent tear, the Jazz recently has displayed warning signs that another loss could be looming.
The Jazz had to overcome an 11-point third-quarter deficit Tuesday against the Clippers and struggled securing a victory Saturday against Denver, despite missing All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups.
The Lakers can avoid the same fate if they secure the game early. That's something the Lakers struggled with in their Dec. 12 loss to Utah. They allowed the Jazz to put together a 20-0 fourth-quarter run, including eight consecutive points from Utah guard Deron Williams.
The fourth quarter for the Jazz was a much different story three days earlier in the Lakers' 101-77 victory. The Lakers held Utah only to two field goals in the final 12 minutes, outscored the Jazz 28-6 and forced nine turnovers, including three shot-clock violations. It became the Lakers' best effort in surrendering their fewest points in a quarter since limiting the Clippers to three in December 1999 in the second quarter of a 95-68 victory.
The Lakers put that together after trailing 59-53 in the first half after allowing the Jazz to put together 17 assists on 23 baskets.
3. Don't feel overwhelmed with a depleted lineup.
Beyond resting for the second half of the season, there are benefits for Bryant not to play hurt.
One example why includes the Lakers' earlier loss this season against Utah. A day after fracturing his right index finger, Bryant scored only 16 points on seven-of-24 shooting, including going one of nine from three-point range. The finger wasn't the only thing bothering him. Bryant had missed the morning shoot-around because of an upset stomach and needed to take intravenous fluids before the game and at halftime.
Jackson said the game planning without Bryant had become easier -- even if it involved having fewer players playing heavier minutes -- because opponents had to figure out another player to focus on defensively.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol, who finished with 21 points, 19 rebounds, eight assists and five blocked shots against San Antonio, celebrates with guards Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar after drawing a foul while making a basket in the fourth quarter Monday night. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times