Jazz face road nemesis: Lakers
With the snow that greeted them on the drive to practice Tuesday morning, the Jazz could be forgiven for feeling as if they couldn't wait to get on the plane to Los Angeles later in the day in advance of tonight's game against the Lakers.
Whether they'll be just as ready to head home, however, after facing the defending champions remains to be seen.
Having eliminated the Jazz from the playoffs the past two seasons, the Lakers (16-3) provide a towering measuring stick. They fortified their lineup with the free-agent signing of Ron Artest and are riding a nine-game winning streak dating to a Nov. 15 loss to Houston.
"You look at our league," Carlos Boozer said, "they've got to be at the top of the charts for a team that you play against that you get a chance to see if you're a championship-caliber team or not. We had an early test like that against Boston that we failed miserably up there.
"This will be our second chance to play one of the last two champions and see how we measure up early in the season, which for us is a huge test because we know how much we've got to continue to improve whether we win or lose."
The Jazz have known little but losing to the Lakers at Staples Center in recent seasons. They have dropped 12 consecutive road games to the Lakers, counting three losses each in the 2008 Western Conference semifinals and 2009 first round.
How much have the Jazz struggled to win on the Hollywood stage? Deron Williams took it for granted that he never had beaten the Lakers at Staples Center in his four-year career, only to be surprised to hear otherwise.
"When have I won there? Williams asked. "I haven't won there in the playoffs. Maybe my rookie year? No. Maybe my second year? I don't know. You tell me."
The Jazz's last victory over the Lakers at Staples Center came Jan. 1, 2006, the first of a back-to-back set of games against Utah for which Kobe Bryant was suspended after hitting Memphis' Mike Miller with a flagrant-foul elbow.
No surprise that Williams doesn't remember the game. The Jazz started Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, Jarron Collins, Keith McLeod and Gordan Giricek. Williams had five points and two assists in 15 minutes off the bench.
More recently, the Jazz have known little but frustration against the Lakers. They staggered into the playoffs last season, losing seven of their final nine games, and were little more than a five-game speed bump for Bryant and Co. on the way to the title.
Even before the series started, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan summed up the situation as "pretty bleak" for his eighth-seeded team, which might as well have been "a little dent in the road as far as they're [the Lakers] concerned."
Sloan went on to criticize the Jazz for not being a "nasty team" after losing Game 1. He was asked Tuesday about facing the Lakers for the first time since such a one-sided playoff series.
"I hope that we don't play these guys being intimidated by them," Sloan said. "They're a great team, but I'd rather play these games than teams that you go out there and you're expected to win.
"I mean, that's where you make yourself better. If you can compete against them, get out and do that, then you should be able to do that all the time. Learn how to be able to compete against the good teams and not be intimidated by anybody."
The Jazz will play the Lakers twice in four days with a Saturday game at EnergySolutions Arena. If it is possible, they are both cautious and confident heading into the game, having won eight of their last 10, but also knowing their history against the Lakers.
Carlos Boozer has been a force, scoring 21 points or more in eight consecutive games. Wesley Matthews has been an inspiration since joining to the starting lineup. The Jazz are soaring after beating the nemesis Spurs for a third time this season Monday.
"I think everybody's looking forward to playing them," Ronnie Brewer said of the Lakers. "Everybody's got them picked as one of the favorites, so it's going to be good to see where we measure ourself and see how well we got out there and compete."
"We've got a team with a bunch of fearless guys right now playing good basketball," Boozer added, describing the Jazz's evolution: "Ever since that East Coast trip [last month], we came back home with a renewed sense of pride and a renewed sense of a team."
Brewer also has something to prove after barely shooting 40 percent in last season's playoffs, when Bryant again abandoned him on defense. He is coming off his first double-double of the season (17 points, 10 rebounds) and has shot his jumper well.
"I felt like I didn't have a good series shooting the ball, but that happens," Brewer said. "I still think I didn't play terrible. I just want to go out there and contribute and if I can just continue to do that, I'll do my job."
The Utah Jazz have been on a 12-game slide in Los Angeles, counting playoff games. In the last 10 games, the Jazz have only lost by less than 10 points once:
April 27 107-96
April 21 119-109
April 19 113-100
April 14 125-112
January 2 113-110
May 14 111-104
May 7 11-120-110
May 4 109-98
December 28 123-109
November 4 119-109