The last two days did not provide a lot of hope to other teams in the West. The Los Angeles Lakers finally settled in on their best rotation — starting Trevor Ariza and bringing Luke Walton off the bench — and started to step up their defensive intensity again. They beat third seeded Houston and second seeded San Antonio on back-to-back nights on the road. And they did it without Andrew Bynum, who started running on a treadmill and looks to be back for the playoffs.
The Utah Jazz may be the last, best hope for the legions of Lakers haters around the nation.
Remember back to last playoffs, only one team in the West took the Lakers to six games — the Jazz. And they are now the hottest team in the NBA, having won 12 in a row until the schedule-makers loss on a back-to back in Atlanta. They are now the four seed, half a game back of Houston and two-and-a-half back of the Manu-less Spurs.
And they have a couple of the ingredients that it will take to beat the Lakers.
One is great point guard play. Derek Fisher is a solid, professional point guard who makes big shots and smart plays, but he can’t stay in front of a quick guard. Deron Williams is quick, and his dribble penetration could give the Lakers fits, and has in the past. Last playoffs D-Will just abused Jordan Farmar in a way that bordered on the obscene.
That brings us to the other thing the Jazz have — centers and power forwards who can hit a 18-foot jumper. The Lakers new defensive system is about providing help defense from Bynum or Gasol early to stop the penetration of a guy like Williams. The way to beat that is to have the guy Bynum or Gasol is supposed to be covering 18-feet away and have to be covered that far out. Meet Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer. Two guys hard to sag off of.
Of course, the Jazz had all that last year and still lost to the Lakers. That’s in part because they believe in a physical style of defense that leads to a lot of fouling, only four teams have a higher ration of fouls to shot attempts. Opposing teams get to the line 27 times a game. And the Lakers are a very good free throw shooting team.
If the Jazz can figure out how to play defense without the fouls, they stand a chance. But that’s a hard thing to learn in the final 17 games of the regular season. Otherwise, the Lakers look poised to make David Stern happy by returning to the finals.
Kurt Helin has never made David Stern happy. He runs the Forum Blue & Gold blog about the Lakers and the NBA.