Maybe I'm just making lemonade, but that loss to the Los Angeles Lakers right before the All-Star break might have been a good thing for the Utah Jazz in their (one-sided, little-brother) rivalry with the Lakers.
It was Wednesday, February 10, year of our Lord 2010. It had been one of those days, and I considered skipping the Jazz-Lakers game because a) the Jazz were at home, b) Kobe Bryant was out with an injury, and c) the Jazz were playing the best basketball the franchise has seen since Malone and Stockton were around. This game was going to not only be a blow-out, but one where Jazz fans proclaimed an end to the Lakers' domination of the Utah team. Nothing about this game was going to be good or worthwhile. I didn't really want to be a part of it.
The Lakers started hot, and game got out of hand early. For most of the game, the Jazz seemed like they were a nice run away from being within striking distance of the Lakers. The run never happened. In fact, the Utah never even got started, and Los Angeles outscored the Jazz in every quarter but the fourth--when the game was over. Utah had quarters of 18, 23, 16 and 24 points. The final: Lakers 96, Jazz 81.
This loss was very disheartening. The Jazz not only had their nine-game winning streak halted, they also lost a game that wasn't expected to be close. It was a terrible loss, but maybe something good will come of it. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
Since the Boozer-Okur-Williams era started, Bryant has been considered the only reason Utah has been unable to beat the Lakers. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol are good, but not particularly terrifying fellows to face. Derek Fisher is nobody's All-Star (except Deron Williams'). Ron Artest is showing how hard it is for a star player to down-shift to a role player. Andrew Bynum has “potential”.
Bryant is the best player in the NBA, and it isn't even close. Kevin Durant isn't quite ready to supplant him. One of the drawbacks to having a great player like Bryant is his teammates' tendency to sit back and watch him make all the plays. The Lakers don't seem to have this problem.
When facing a player as great as Bryant, the other team can fall into the same trap as his own teammates. The opponents sometimes spend so much of their attention watching the defense of the player assigned to Bryant, waiting for the defender to mess up, so they can try to help out. This is a horrible way to play defense. In football, a defense sets up a bit of a wall. To make offensive progress, the offense needs to weaken the wall and go through it, or find a way around it. Defense in basketball is similar, though less literally. A defense needs to be ready for Bryant to beat his man, but when they focus their brain on it they, as a whole, become less firm, more movable.
This misguided focus comes from fear. Fear cannot play defense, and it also affects offense. “If we don't score here, the other team will score, and our deficit will get larger (or our lead, should we be so lucky, will get smaller).”
Kobe Bryant gets in the Jazz's head when the Lakers are on offense, and he stays when the Jazz are on offense. Even when he is on the bench, Utah feels the pressure to make something happen during that small window of time.
So, what might the Jazz have learned by losing without this fear? Well, hopefully that they were letting Kobe beat him a lot more than he actually was.
By giving so much attention to how Bryant was being guarded, Utah essentially made his main defender their star player. In past years, this was BruBru, who the Jazz just traded for a second round draft pick. Not a star player.
Now that they know Los Angeles can wipe the floor with them without Eagle County's favorite tourist, the rest of the Jazz players should now realize that they all have their own challenges to face. Bryant will be dealt with when he needs to be.
Mr. Boozer needs to realize that length shouldn't be so hard for power to dominate. There are many “long” NBA players who never became more than bench players because they kept getting over-powered by stronger, usually smaller players.
Williams can't let his respect for Fisher shrink the talent gap between the two players. Fisher has never been a good player. He is average. He was they one who was left open on the Shaq-Kobe Lakers teams. He was the veteran on a bad Warriors team. He was the fellow who missed every single shot he took in a Jazz uniform, save for a few in the playoff series against the Golden State. Even his leadership gets overrated. Remember the long losing streaks the Jazz had at the end of the season when he was in Utah? Larry Miller had to point out that they “sucked.” The best thing he did for the Jazz was to leave them and let them give a real shooting guard a shot.
Each Jazz needs to simplify his role. They have to stop (mentally) defending Bryant when they are on offense. On defense, they need to stop thinking that Bryant is their problem. Calvin Miles or Andrei Kirilenko need to focus on Artest. Williams only has to stop Fisher, or Dry Farmar. Mr. Boozer and Okur need only pay heed to Gasol or Odom or Bynum. Ronnie Price should be deciding which Laker player he wants to start a fight with, and nothing more. On offense, they need to work towards outscoring these players, which most of them should be able to do.
Utah now knows that perhaps they had their match-up with the Lakers all twisted. It isn't if-we-can-stop-Bryant-we-should-win, it is now we-need-to-outplay-the-other-players-first-then-work-on-Kobe. This can make a difference. The Jazz have the offensive firepower to compete with the Lakers, but none of them can outscore Bryant individually.
Or it could have been a terrible loss and the Jazz are in more trouble with the Lakers than they ever have been. Like I said, I might be making lemonade.