As the Jazz face their second must-win game of this postseason (Game 6 vs. the Rockets being the first), they are challenged with a task that few teams have been able to solve: stopping Kobe Bryant and his teammates. Yes, there are other issues to be concerned about, namely Carlos Boozer's struggles on offense. But disrupting the Lakers' scoring machine is the top priority. In Game 2 the Lakers shot 57.4 percent from the field, 7-of-11 from 3-point range and 35-of-43 from the free-throw line. They are truly clicking on all cylinders and playing extremely efficiently. What can Utah do?
One theory is to "cut off the head" of the offense, but because the Lakers employ the triangle offense, there really isn't a point guard in the half court to cut off. So adjusting the theory to focus on making it much more difficult for Kobe to score makes some sense. In Games 1 and 2, he hasn't seen nearly as much attention as he normally draws. He's repeatedly been allowed to catch and read, to patiently wait for the right cutter or the best angle to finish himself. Whether he's facing up, posting up or driving, Utah has placed scant pressure on him. Oftentimes they've not brought any help on his dribble drives, or they've executed a "soft hedge" when he uses a pick -- which Kobe just attacks with ease. Utah fears the play-creation talent of Kobe, and his MVP trophy is a product of the entire Lakers team playing better offense through him rather than off of him. One ploy the Jazz have tried is bringing a late double-team to him when he's posting: They wait for him to make his move before sending a big to contain him. In some cases they fake the double, hoping to confuse him just enough and get the shot clock to induce him into taking a tough shot. But it's not working, as his 72 points on 32 shot attempts attest. He's in a special zone right now, and fouling him repeatedly hasn't helped either because he's gone 32 of 35 from the line.
The Jazz can opt to flood the zone in which Kobe has the ball, adopting a move similar to what the Suns did to Tony Parker after getting pulverized by San Antonio's ball screens. Rolling extra defenders toward Kobe could invite him to take extremely difficult shots, or force him to pass the ball to wide open teammates. Theoretically, this could benefit Utah -- or it could create four 20-point scorers in addition to Kobe, who always find a way to score 20-plus. The Jazz have no easy options on the defensive side of the floor.
Utah has a great home record partially because of their terrific offense. But that offense requires Boozer to score effectively, draw fouls, and generally pound defenses that are intent on making things difficult for Deron Williams. But in Games 1 and 2, Boozer has scored a total of just 25 points (he averaged 21.1 during the season) on 9-of-24 shooting. Early in Game 2, before he had made any shots, Boozer settled for shooting jump shots from the pinch and mid-post areas. He missed, convincing L.A.'s bigs to play off of him even more and thus clog passing lanes in Utah's normally precisely spaced flex and UCLA offenses. When the Jazz tried to get him the ball inside, he came from the pinch post by using a vertical back screen on the ball side, but his defender easily got around the screen to reshape directly behind Boozer, effectively limiting his angles to the rim and often forcing him to make a contested baseline move. Remember, the Lakers are very long, and if someone tries to take a shot from "jail" (the area even with or behind the basket), they can easily make a block. They had nine in Game 2.
Utah started the second half by running Boozer off the same kind of back screen, only this he came from the weak side and got an easy layup. Los Angeles is very active on the ball side, so weakside action is a great way to set back, cross and flare screens.
His next touch came from a pick and pop, which he swished from 17 feet. "Easy shot, jump shot" is a great one-two rhythm for a shooter. Boozer also looks better when he faces up from the mid post and attacks with one dribble before taking the shorter jumper. His goal for Game 3 should be scoring from the paint as much as possible, making the Lakers deal with him inside all night. Once he knocks down some easy shots and free throws, his outside game should return.
One set that looks to be effective features Williams and Boozer running a high ball screen from the middle of the circle (above the free-throw line), with the other three Jazz players spaced flat on the baseline. When Pau Gasol jumps out in anticipation of Williams' attack dribble off the screen, Boozer can slip to the middle for a quick pass. (Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire are experts at this.) D-Will must fire this pass immediately, before the helpers can move up the floor. Getting the ball to your best offensive player in the middle of the paint is sound offensive basketball. Boozer must then finish or get fouled. If he can score more effectively, then he will open up more room to make Williams' drives easier, and his teammates will have more time to catch and shoot open jumpers.
The Jazz will likely have to play their best game of the season to beat Los Angeles in Game 3. In six playoff contests, the Lakers are undefeated -- and barely tested late in games. Phil Jackson has done an excellent job of getting Bryant some late-third/early-fourth-quarter rest, which allows Kobe to carry the team to victory down the stretch. If Kobe continues to be in the zone, no Utah lead will be safe. But the Jazz's record at home, and their collective toughness, should make this L.A.'s most difficult game thus far. D-Will and Boozer can carry the day, if not the series.
PREDICTION: Jazz win Game 3
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.