About beating the LA Lakers
The preseason doesn't matter, right?
To an offensive system that requires you to do your job without thinking about it, the preseason allows a plethora of fresh faces the time required to settle into it, to make the proper cut and curl after two screens, putting the player in the right position to catch and shoot in rhythm, leaving the opposition on it's heels forced to answer at the other end.
Which is exactly what rookie 9-pick Gordon Hayward did last night.
1- 1st Q 5:18 Gordon Hayward enters the game for Raja Bell
The kid from Butler immediately dove into the fray grabbing a rebound, as Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest shared a sly look. A minute and a missed Kobe-bomb later the ball was tossed to Artest on the right wing, who took it right at the rook, pushing him all the way to the paint. They intended to test him.
It looked bad for the rookie, one of the nastiest, most salty, seasoned vets in the league was set to abuse the poor kid. It was gonna be a looong night.
And then something happened. The light went on.
The ball ended up in his hands with a transition opportunity in front of him. He stalled, looking for the point to pass off to. Coach Sloan and CJ Miles yelled at him to "just go!"
Which is what he did the remainder of his minutes, finding the flow of the flex in a way reminiscent of the lost Kyle Korver, who was masterful at coming off a curl to nail a jumper. And when he wasn't knocking down mid-range shots he was driving at the Lakers, as if someone had forgotten to tell him that he was supposed to be scared of big, bad LA.
By the end of it all he'd played nearly half of his 33 minutes opposite Ron Artest, made the Lakers' Devin Ebanks look silly, and kept Kobe's second choice for nasty after he didn't get Raja Bell, Matt Barnes, utterly silent, dropping a team-high 26 points on 80% shooting and 11-12 from the FT line.
Hayward is now 19-20 from the charity stripe in the preseason. Another offseason-hole-in-the-Jazz's-game plugged.
As good as Hayward was in the NCAA season and tourney last year, he never put up that many points.
It may have been a preseason game, but it was still the LA Lakers. And chances are that Hayward plays the bulk of his minutes against the opposition's 2nd squad anyway. This was a bright break-out game for Hayward and the Jazz.
2- 2nd Q 6:41 Pau Gasol misses two point shot
A peek at the box score would suggest that Pau pulled his usual hijinks on the Jazz, but you would be mistaken to believe so. Gasol was a mere 2-8 from the floor after a half of play, due largely to the way Al Jefferson played him. Another of our questions about the new faces on the Jazz was answered.
It's no secret that the Lakers have owned the Jazz in the paint in recent years, Gasol and Odom waltzing into the paint at will. No longer, LA.
Jefferson kept Gasol out of his preferred work space much of the time, forcing him to shoot over him and challenging him at the rim when he did get there, resulting in moments like the 6:41 mark where Pau missed, then threw his hands down in disgust, clearly frustrated with not being able to find a way around the big frame of Big Al.
The opposite end of the floor found Gasol just as frustrated, unable to keep Jefferson from finding his way to the twine, Al pulling out "The Weezy" on him (that little shake 'n bake-half hook he does), other times spinning around a confused Pau to beat him to the bucket.
Jefferson finished with a relaxed-looking 14 points, 5 rebounds, throwing in a block and a steal for good measure.
Again, as with Hayward, that innate fear the Jazz are supposed to have when playing LA was nowhere to be found.
Well, maybe it was, but just a little bit. Paul Millsap looked hesitant against Lamar Odom, and it showed, Millsap finished his 34 minutes with just 5 points and 7 turnovers, while picking up 5 fouls.
But again, Utah had an answer, unlike last year.
Andrei Kirilenko stepped in and did to Odom what Al had been doing to Gasol, kept him on the perimeter and away from the paint, the place the Lakers have done the most damage to the Jazz.
When a team owns the paint the way LA has to the Jazz it puts you on a perpetual uphill climb. Giving up easy buckets is extremely disheartening. Years past have seen Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap unable to keep the Lakers' one-two-punch-in-the-paint from doing the bulk of the damage. Focus on one and the other would come out of nowhere to steal a second-chance bucket, as Odom often did in last year's playoff series with spectacular effect.
The prevailing wisdom to beating LA says you take their bigs out of it and make Bryant and Artest beat you from the perimeter, what Kobe tried to do in the 3rd quarter...
3- 3rd Q
9:56 Kobe Bryant makes driving dunk
9:42 Raja Bell makes 22-foot three point jumper (Earl Watson assists)
And he did it with an utterly straight face, answering Bryant the same way he did in the offseason when Kobe tried to lure him to LA; with silence.
The proverbial prodigal-son-returned may have played only 15 minutes and put up 7 points, but it's his veteran presence that matters most anyway. He brings a sense of calm with him. Weathering the sure comeback storm the Lakers always have lurking within them doesn't seem so daunting now.
After not making a 3-pointer for the entire preseason, Bryant broke loose of his heinous shooting slump in the 3rd quarter against the Jazz, a team that for whatever reason always seems to bring out the best in the opposition.
Bringing a 5-point lead out of the locker room to start the 2nd half, the Jazz found themselves once again faced with Hurricane Kobe, and yet were able to withstand the 19-point storm, losing the 3rd quarter by only six points to enter the 4th only down a single point.
Where panic previously prevailed, now calm collection did.
Answering the premiere wing player in the NBA was not only Bell, but also CJ Miles and Gordon Hayward, assisted often by Earl Watson. All-in-all, the Jazz got 14 points from the wings in the 3rd (including two FTs from AK, who was at the 3 until CJ came in for him at the 4:48 mark) to keep Kobe and Co. from getting away with it.
The wing spots in Utah have been something of an Achilles heel for some time now, so seeing a solid mix of veteran leadership (Bell), athleticism (Miles), and young, fearless blood (Hayward) is both refreshing and promising.
Miles and Hayward finished the night with game-high plus/minuses of +18 and +17, respectively, and Bell can often be seen pulling aside a young player to give him pointers.
Ultimately, the preseason may mean nothing in any standings. But it can be a launching pad for a promising season.
3, 2, 1...