Posted by Neil Paine on April 18, 2009
Regular Season: I expected great things from Utah this year, and I wasn't the only one. But key injuries to Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Andrei Kirilenko derailed the Jazz's best-laid plans over the course of the season, and the Jazz were only 4 games over .500 through January. But near the All-Star break, they went on a tear, winning 20 of 26 games in February and March, and put themselves in a position to move up in the West standings. But things fell apart as the regular season came to a close: Utah lost 7 of their final 10 games, including a 125-112 defeat by L.A. in the season finale that doomed them to face those same Lakers in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Prime-Time Players: 1. Deron Williams. Utah's top player must be at his absolute best if the Jazz are to upset Los Angeles in the quarterfinals, but I have a feeling he'll be up to the task. Williams, the game's 2nd-best PG behind Chris Paul, had another strong season, and he did some of his best work against the Lakers this year (he averaged 22.0 PPG & 12.0 APG vs. L.A.).
2. Ronnie Brewer. I don't know why, but Brewer is mad underrated in the mainstream media. He just got finished putting up another terrifically efficient season at the offensive end, posting an ORtg of 113.4 on 18.3 %Poss, and has never shot below 50% from the field in any of his 3 NBA campaigns. He also averaged nearly 17 PPG on 54.3% shooting against the Lakers this year, which will certainly come in handy for the Jazz in the 1st Round.
3. Paul Millsap. Millsap was second on the Jazz in Win Shares during the regular season and continues to improve as a player to near-All-Star levels of production. The team's top interior defender and its second-best rebounder behind Boozer, he's going to be key to any success Utah has against the Lakers.
But don't count on... Carlos Boozer. Boozer has frequently been injured this season, and when he has played he has not been the Boozer of old. With his contract option set to kick in this offseason, you can't help but wonder if he's going to lay an egg against L.A. -- the same team, by the way, that dominated him anyway during the Jazz's 6-game semifinal ouster last spring. I'm just saying.
Why they can win: This is a more talented team than its record suggests. After battling injury problems all year, the Jazz might have everyone in the lineup for the L.A. series (Okur?). If Boozer truly brings his "A" game, there's at least some chance -- however slim -- that they upset the Lakers.
Why they can't win: They collapsed down the stretch, and as a result they drew the dreaded Laker card in the playoff shuffle. That would even be a killer draw for a healthy team that had played well down the stretch, much less a squad with durability issues that collapsed badly in the season's final 2 weeks.
X-Factor: Mehmet Okur's health. The 3rd-leading Win Share man on the Jazz, Okur hurt his hamstring last week and the team is still not sure if he'll be at 100% by the time the Utah-Los Angeles series tips off on Sunday. Okur's ability to stretch the floor and draw opposing big men away from the basket is pretty important to Jerry Sloan's offense, so he needs to be ready to play if Utah is to advance past the defending conference champs.
|Jazz vs.||Off.||Def.||Reb.||Coach||Exp.||The Skinny||Prediction|
|Dallas||X||X||Utah is the better team, when healthy||Jazz in 6|
|Denver||X||X||X||Tight series will likely come down to playing in Denver for Gm 7||Nuggets in 7|
|Houston||X||X||Push||Jazz have eliminated Houston in each of the past 2 postseasons||Rockets in 7|
|Los Angeles||Los Angeles simply the more talented team||Lakers in 6|
|New Orleans||X||Push||X||X||X||Top to bottom, Utah has the overall talent advantage||Jazz in 6|
|Portland||X||X||X||Portland's home-court advantage the difference in close matchup||Blazers in 7|
|San Antonio||X||X||Even without Ginobili, Spurs have edge||Spurs in 7|
(Key: "X" = Advantage; blank = disadvantage)