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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Jazz Outlast Lakers 99-90 in Andrew Bynum's Return to Action

The Utah Jazz defeated the L.A Lakers 99-90 in the preseason opener for both teams. The game was played at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California and broadcast by NBA TV, which picked up the local L.A. Lakers feed featuring play by play announcer Joel Meyers and color commentator Stu Lantz (due to some kind of unexplained glitch, the only audio for the first couple minutes of the game consisted of the sounds on the court and P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter). Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap led the Jazz with 13 points each, while Deron Williams had 11 points and a game-high eight assists. Andrew Bynum, playing competitively for the first time since January, led both teams with 15 points and eight rebounds. Jordan Farmar also scored 15 points. Kobe Bryant had eight points, five rebounds and five assists while playing 24 minutes; he played the entire first and third quarters while sitting out the second and fourth quarters. Trevor Ariza played very actively at both ends of the court, contributing 10 points and five rebounds.

The Lakers moved Lamar Odom all over the court as they begin the season-long process of trying to find the proper role for him now that Bynum has returned to health but the only category Odom led the Lakers in was fouls committed (five). Odom finished with five points, five rebounds and three assists. The vision of him handling the ball at the top of the key instead of Bryant or Derek Fisher cannot be comforting to Lakers' fans but even more disconcerting is the vision of him chasing small forward shooters like Kyle Korver off of screens. Odom's best attribute is his ability to rebound and that was the one thing that he did well despite being shifted around to multiple positions. Pau Gasol got off to a good start--making his first three shots from the field--but after a hack by Mehmet Okur opened up a cut in Gasol's lip he left the game and did not return.

Both teams were shorthanded. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson was not at the game due to some swelling in his legs, possibly caused by an allergic reaction to medication that he is taking. It is unclear when he will return to the bench. Jazz All-Star Carlos Boozer sat out to rest a sore left hamstring and Matt Harpring did not play because he is still recovering from ankle surgery. Laker reserves Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton did not play due to minor injuries that will not likely sideline them for a significant period of time.

Although it is widely expected that Bynum and Gasol will both start, Bynum began this game on the bench as the Lakers opened with a lineup of Gasol, Odom and Trevor Ariza up front, with Bryant and Fisher in the backcourt. Nominally, Odom is the power forward in that lineup but on the Lakers' first possession, Odom handled the ball out front, while Bryant posted on the left block. After Bryant was double-teamed, he fed Gasol, who buried an open jumper from the right baseline.

On defense, Odom guarded center Okur, Gasol checked power forward Millsap and Trevor Ariza matched up with small forward C.J. Miles. Odom picked up two quick fouls--a silly loose ball foul right after he was stripped of the ball on a drive and a hack when Millsap drove to the hoop. Acting Head Coach Kurt Rambis kept Odom in the game anyway. The score was tied at 10 when Bynum made his first appearance at the 6:55 mark after Gasol had to leave the game due to the blood rule. The first time he touched the ball, Bynum drained a foul line jumper. Bynum's second touch came after he set a screen for Bryant on the left wing and both defenders collapsed on Bryant, who whipped a pass to a cutting Bynum. Bynum took one dribble and tried to make a power move but Okur swatted his shot out of bounds. Not long after that, Bynum caught the ball on the left block versus Okur and drained a nice turnaround jumper. Then Bynum received the ball from Bryant in the middle of the lane, hit another turnaround jumper and drew a foul on Millsap. Bynum completed the three point play by making the free throw.

Shortly after that, Vladimir Radmanovic checked in for Odom and promptly ruined an opportunity for an easy layup by fumbling a Bryant pass out of bounds. The ball hit him in both hands. Bryant put some pace on it but, as Lantz said, "You've got to catch that one." A few possessions later, Bynum got his first dunk of the game after Fisher lost the ball, dove to the court, recovered possession and flipped a no look lob pass over his head to Bynum right in front of the rim.

The Lakers shot 75% from the field and led 26-19 at the end of the first quarter despite committing nine turnovers. Bynum scored nine points on 4-6 shooting and had four rebounds. Bryant did not look for his shot much but made his presence felt as a playmaker (four assists) and on defense, including a sensational left handed blocked shot that wiped out a sure layup for Jarron Collins.

It was very interesting and telling to see Bynum posting up in the second quarter when Bryant was not in the game. Without Bryant attracting defensive attention, perimeter defenders feel free to sag into the paint and dig for the ball. Bynum does not have sufficient court awareness to deal with this just yet, so the first time this happened he had the ball stripped right out of his hands. The next time Bynum caught the ball on the block, he reacted to the double-team by hastily throwing up a weak shot that clanged off of the rim. Bynum is a talented player with a lot of the proverbial upside but what many people don't recognize or understand is that when he is on the court with Bryant he gets to play one on one--or often one on none after a screen/roll play--and that is a whole different scenario than having to create his own shot when the defense does not have to be concerned about Bryant.

After a sloppy second quarter contested largely by reserve players from both teams, the Lakers led 42-40 at halftime.

Bryant gambled for a steal and gave up a backdoor layup to Brewer on the opening possession of the second half but then Bryant quickly answered with a jumper after using a nice jab step to create some space. The Lakers' court balance and transition defense were very poor in the third quarter, resulting in a lot of fast break dunks for the Jazz.

Lantz really liked Ariza's activity and early in the third quarter Lantz made an excellent observation: "Kobe looks for his teammates but you can only look for teammates who are moving without the ball. Trevor Ariza is always slashing, trying to get to the paint. You make that kind of movement and you are going to find yourself in position to get easy opportunities."

Bynum did not do much in the third quarter but on one possession he faced up Okur at the free throw line extended and made a nice drive, finishing strongly with his left hand, to put the Lakers up 57-56. However, the Jazz closed the quarter with a 20-12 run.

Like the second quarter, the fourth quarter was largely contested by reserve players from both teams. Bynum reentered the game with 5:51 remaining. He immediately caught the ball deep in the paint and made a left handed hook over Kevin Lyde, a 28 year old undrafted free agent rookie who has played four seasons in the NBDL. However, on the next possession we once again saw the difference in Bynum's game when Bryant is not on the court: Bynum caught the ball in the midpost area and was stripped of the ball by a guard (Ronnie Price) digging down. "That one's on Andrew," Lantz explained. "He made a commitment to that particular move without reading the defense first, reading where the weakside was, reading if a double-team was coming." Lantz could have added that when Bryant is in the game, such reads are much simpler because the double-team is likely not coming at all, so Bynum can simply go to work against his defender.

Anyone who thinks that Bynum is a franchise-level player right now simply does not understand the game; he may develop into such a player but thus far in Bynum's brief career a lot of his offensive production has come as a byproduct of the defensive attention that Bryant attracts. That is not a bad thing nor is stating this meant to be a criticism of Bynum; at least Bynum can take advantage of such situations, unlike Kwame Brown. Rather, this is a criticism of fans and "stat gurus" alike who overstate Bynum's value. There is a big difference between Bynum's potential and his value right now--right now, Bynum is valuable for his rebounding, shotblocking and ability to finish in the paint, not because he is a franchise-level player.

That said, Bynum made a nice adjustment the next time he caught the ball, making a quick move against Lyde before the double-team could arrive and drawing a foul. Bynum made both free throws to cut Utah's lead to 95-86. On the next possession, Bynum held on to the ball longer, but the Jazz did not double-team him. Bynum attempted a turnaround jumper that Lyde blocked.

After the game, Bynum offered a very candid and realistic answer when asked if he was happy with his performance: "Nah, it was decent. I think I can do better. I need to do better."

This game did not really answer the questions about the Lakers' player rotations because we still have yet to see Gasol and Bynum on the court together, let alone seeing Gasol, Bynum and Odom in action at the same time. Ariza looked very good and if he can play like that consistently he really should be the starting small forward. The Jazz were shorthanded as well but they obviously have a nice group of young, athletic players--Millsap, Brewer, Miles--to complement the Williams-Boozer duo. Okur had a solid game in limited action and although Andrei Kirilenko had a quiet night his versatitility and his ability to defend multiple positions make him very valuable.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM


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