So much for the clash of the titans. With the Utah Jazz surging their way to 21 wins in their past 23 games and the Los Angeles Lakers wearing the crown as defending NBA champions, Wednesday’s battle between the two looked, on paper, like one of the marquee games of the year. But with Anthony Davis dealing with a calf strain and Dennis Schroder out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, the Lakers didn’t have close to enough firepower to hang with the NBA’s best team so far this season. The Jazz blew them out, 114-89.
The Lakers will see the Jazz again for a two-game series in April and, by then, Davis and Schroder should be back in the lineup, but they were completely outgunned in this one. No Laker scored even 20 points. Ironically, neither did any Utah player. The difference is that the Lakers had only two players, LeBron James and Montrezl Harrell, reach double-figures. Utah had six. Their balanced attack was too much for the Lakers, who rely heavily on a superstar that didn’t play. That is one of the major takeaways from Utah’s victory. Here are a few others.
1. Can the Lakers stretch Utah’s drop defense?
The Jazz play a highly conservative drop-coverage-based defense. It makes sense. Rudy Gobert is the NBA’s best rim-protector, so they’ve built a scheme around keeping him close to the basket. He is often the only defender near the basket, because Utah tries to take advantage of his rim-protection schematically by having the rest of its defenders stay at home on 3-point shooters.
This poses something of a problem against big men that can shoot. The Lakers had one on Wednesday in Marc Gasol. For only the fourth time this season, he attempted at least five 3-pointers. Just look at Utah’s defense on some of them. On the second, Derrick Favors is practically ignoring Gasol because LeBron James is posting up against a smaller defender.
Gobert offers no meaningful contest on Gasol’s third 3-point attempt of the night.
LeBron sets up Gasol’s fourth attempt on the pick-and-roll. Gobert drops to protect against his drive. Another swish.
Finally, on his fifth attempt, Gobert hangs near the nail to watch Gasol and steps up to contest his shot.
Drop defenses have struggled in the past few postseasons. Utah knows that well. James Harden and Houston’s unlimited supply of shooting has tortured the Jazz in the playoffs, and the Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll knocked them out last season. Between Gasol and Anthony Davis, the Lakers have big men capable of drawing Gobert away from the basket, and in LeBron James, they have a shot-creator capable of punishing the Jazz when they do.
Without Davis in Wednesday’s game, we didn’t get a true sense of how the Jazz plan to attack this problem. They might have to compromise on their drop-coverage. They might have to stick Gobert on a non-shooting perimeter player to keep him close to the basket. This is going to be one of the most important battlefields on which a Lakers-Jazz series is fought. The closer Gobert is to the basket, the better Utah’s defense is. The Lakers have to be able to draw him away from it to beat the Jazz. Gasol may have finally done that towards the end of this game but, by then, it was too late.
2. More math problems
The Lakers go through this every time they play against a contender. When they played the Clippers on opening night, their Staples Center rival attempted 11 more 3-pointers and made five more. When the Brooklyn Nets came to town, they rained in 10 more 3s on nine more attempts. Tonight was the worst yet. The Jazz made 14 more 3s on 15 more attempts.
On their road to the championship last season, the Lakers played against the team that attempted the most 3-pointers (Houston), and they played against the team that made the second-highest percentage of its 3-pointers (Miami), but it never played against an opponent that paired elite shooting with high volume. The Rockets took the most 3s in the NBA, but they finished No. 24 in attempts. That allowed the Lakers to sag off of the right shooters and stifle the more dangerous ones. The Heat may have been ninth in 3-point attempts, but without Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo, weren’t creating the same kinds of 3s that they did for most of the season.
But most contenders, aside from the Lakers, this season not only take an inordinate amount of 3-pointers but makes most of them. The Jazz lead the NBA in attempts and are third in 3-point percentage. The Nets are eighth in attempts and second in percentage. That puts the Lakers at a significant disadvantage entering every single game. Most of their shots are worth two points. Most of their competition’s shots are worth three. They have to make a significantly higher percentage of their shots just to keep up, and so far this season, they’ve struggled to do so.
3. The silver lining
Rarely would a team rather lose by 25 than five, but the Lakers are in a somewhat unique position. LeBron had averaged 38.5 minutes per game across his past nine appearances. Four of those games went to overtime. He is 36 years old. Ideally, the Lakers would probably prefer not to play him that much, but with Davis and Schroder out, they’ve had no choice but to lean on James. Even if they wanted to be more careful with his workload, James made it clear on Monday that he doesn’t want to sit out.
“I think this whole narrative of ‘LeBron needs more rest’ or I should take more rest or I should take time here, it’s become a lot bigger than what it actually is,” James told reporters after a loss to Washington. “I’ve never talked about it, I don’t talk about it, I don’t believe in it. We all need more rest, s—. This is a fast turnaround from last season, and we all wish we could have more rest. But I’m here to work, I’m here to punch my clock in and be available to my teammates.”
Wednesday turned into something of a compromise. The Jazz blew the Lakers out, so James only needed to play 28 minutes. The game was decided by the last several, so his overall exertion was limited. The Lakers will have Schroder back on Friday, and that will further help James manage his workload. In a perfect world, the Lakers would have just won the game, but the silver lining here is that it at least gave LeBron a bit of a breather.