NBA: At home, Lakers own Jazz
Los Angeles • Ron Artest was only about half-listening, fiddling with his iPhone at his locker stall after a recent Los Angeles Lakers victory at Staples Center until part of a question about the Jazz grabbed his attention.
"They haven't won here," the veteran forward said, looking up with his eyes widening, "in how long?"
Yeah, he heard right.
The Jazz haven't beaten the Lakers on the road in 16 consecutive attempts including eight in a row in the NBA playoffs dating back more than five years to Jan. 1, 2006, when superstar Kobe Bryant was suspended and only three of his current teammates were on the team.
The two-time defending champions are 26-3 overall against the Jazz at home since Staples Center opened more than 11 years ago.
They have eliminated the Jazz from the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, too, fueling widespread disgust with the Lakers along the Wasatch Front and making the Jazz's current streak of futility at Staples Center one of the most agonizing in franchise history.
It's one the Jazz almost certainly must reverse if they are going to do anything other than melt away in the early rounds of the playoffs again this season.
But it's hard to argue that they're in any better position to finally do so when they visit the Lakers for the first time this season on Tuesday night and not only because the Jazz just finished a disastrous East Coast road trip that featured the astonishing revelation that some of the players don't even know all the plays.
"They're the best team in basketball," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said of the Lakers. "They make you do things that you don't want to do, and that's what makes them a good team. Defensively, they have a ton of big guys inside, and Artest is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league."
It all looked so much more promising for the Jazz just a few weeks ago.
They were in better form, and the Lakers were a mess.
Artest was feuding with coach Phil Jackson over a confrontation at practice, Bryant was battling a knee injury that kept him from regular practice, and the Lakers had lost three straight games by at least 15 points two of them at home.
They looked, in a word, vulnerable.
But four weeks is an eternity in the NBA, and in that time, the Lakers appear to have mostly turned things around.
They have won 11 of their past 14 games, albeit with the help of a schedule heavy on home games and middling opponents. They thumped the Denver Nuggets on the road Friday night, and they started to look a little more like a team that could parade again down Figueroa Street with a big gold trophy once the NBA Finals are finished.
"Last year, we had a pretty bad end of the season, and nobody really had a lot of faith what was going to happen after that," forward Pau Gasol said. "But, you know, we got it together the quality of this team is tremendous and we won another championship. So we're going to have our ups and downs, and the main thing is, we bounce back quickly and refocus and do what we're supposed to do."
It's not hard to spot the turning point. Once the Lakers suffered that third straight loss at San Antonio on Dec. 28, Jackson inserted Andrew Bynum into the starting lineup for the first time all season.
The 7-foot center had missed almost the entire season to that point recovering from knee surgery, and the Lakers just weren't the same. Only one other team in the league gave up more offensive rebounds while Bynum was out, and they had started to appear too slow against their top rivals and too lackadaisical against weaker opponents.
The Lakers lost to lowly Indiana, Milwaukee and Phoenix, for example all at home.
With Bynum in the lineup, though, the Lakers were able to move the 7-foot Gasol to his more natural power-forward position and bring the 6-foot-10 forward Lamar Odom off the bench. Immediately, the Lakers began their current hot streak, which had been built mostly against unspectacular competition until impressive victories against Oklahoma City and the Nuggets within the past week.
"We've been playing better," Jackson said, but "we have some things to improve, as we always do."
Certainly, questions remain about the consistency of the Lakers' defense and their outside shooting. Everybody from Gasol to Artest to Jackson has said they remain a work in progress. But the 32-13 Lakers still have the third-best record in the league, and its fifth-best home record at 17-5.
They also have all that length and size that's seemed to swallow the Jazz in recent years, something that hasn't changed much with the addition of Al Jefferson in place of the departed Carlos Boozer.
Just the same, the Jazz did beat the Lakers 102-96 at home on Nov. 26, and even Bryant charitably claimed he couldn't put his finger on why the Lakers have so owned the Jazz.
"I'm not really sure," Bryant said. "We play well against them. A lot of it has to do with matchups. They have a new look this year, so we still haven't figured them out. We played them up in Utah, and they made some big plays down the stretch. We really don't know what that team looks like yet."
He's been with the Lakers for only the past four of their home wins against the Jazz. But that's long enough for him to have formulated a painfully simple theory about why his team has mastered the Jazz at home for so long.
"We're just a tough team," he said with a shrug. "We have Kobe Bryant. So when you come in here, it's going to be hard, you know what I'm saying? To stop Kobe, it's going to be tough."
Nobody but nobody knows that better than the Jazz.
Please, make it stop
The Jazz are 3-26 all-time against the Lakers at Staples Center:
May 4 • Lakers 111, Jazz 103*
May 2 • Lakers 104, Jazz 99*
April 2 • Lakers 106, Jazz 92
Dec. 9 • Lakers 101, Jazz 77
May 27 • Lakers 107, Jazz 96*
May 21 • Lakers 119, Jazz 109*
May 19 • Lakers 113, Jazz 100*
May 14 • Lakers 125, Jazz 112
Jan. 2 • Lakers 113, Jazz 100
May 14 • Lakers 111, Jazz 104*
May 7 • Lakers 120, Jazz 110*
May 4 • Lakers 109, Jazz 98*
Dec. 28 • Lakers 123, Jazz 109
Nov. 4 • Lakers 119, Jazz 109
Nov. 30 • Lakers 132, Jazz 102
Feb. 13 • Lakers 94, Jazz 88
Jan. 1 • Jazz 98, Lakers 94
Feb. 15 • Lakers 102, Jazz 95
Jan. 17 • Jazz 102, Lakers 94
March 28 • Lakers 91, Jazz 84
Dec. 7 • Lakers 94, Jazz 92
Feb. 1 • Lakers 99, Jazz 87
Dec. 8 • Lakers 110, Jazz 101
April 9 • Lakers 112, Jazz 82
Nov. 4 • Lakers 100, Jazz 96
Jan. 3 • Lakers 82, Jazz 71
Nov. 1 • Jazz 97, Lakers 92
Feb. 4 • Lakers 113, Jazz 67
Nov. 24 • Lakers 90, Jazz 82
* NBA playoffs
Jazz at Lakers
P Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah