Utah, which is up one game in the win column on the Lakers and has the tiebreaker, could go a long way towards securing their spot in the playoffs on Tuesday when they host Oklahoma City. The Jazz control their own destiny. If they win out, there's nothing L.A. can do and their game against the Thunder is the toughest one left on their schedule.
Oklahoma City, meanwhile, is still locked in a battle with San Antonio to get the No. 1 seed out West. After losing to the Knicks on Sunday, they are currently one game behind the Spurs as we enter the final two weeks of the regular season. As a result, Tuesday night's game could be a preview of a possible first-round series.
None of the three games earlier in the season between these two teams was very competitive. So far, both were able to comfortably protect home court, with the Thunder winning by an average of 18 points and the Jazz winning by 15 in Salt Lake City. The last time these two teams met, Utah was in the midst of their worst losing streak of the season. However, after losing a ton of ground to L.A., the Jazz have rebounded in the last few weeks, going 7-3 and moving back into the playoff race.
The key matchup on Tuesday could be on the low block, where Al Jefferson, Utah's leading scorer, is most comfortable. Jefferson, a wide-bodied 6'10 290 center, is one of the last of a dying breed, a big man most comfortable scoring with his back to the basket. Coming off the bench are two more massive young big men, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, both capable of hurting a smaller team on the backboards and punishing them in the paint.
As a result, the Utah big men give Kendrick Perkins, whose lack of lateral quickness makes him a liability defensively on the perimeter, something to do. Perkins hasn't proven he can adapt to the more wide-open playing style of the modern NBA, but he's very comfortable wrestling in the low block with someone like Jefferson. In their last meeting, Perkins and Serge Ibaka held Jefferson to 8 points on 4-13 shooting.
The Jefferson Dilemma
The 28-year-old Jefferson, averaging 17 points and 9 rebounds a game, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Many figured that the Jazz would deal either him or Paul Millsap, another impending free agent, at the deadline in order to prevent the possibility of losing either for nothing in the offseason. Instead, Utah elected to stand firm, creating a thorny dilemma for their front office to unravel. Do they let them walk in order to free up more playing time for Kanter and Favors? Do they shop them around and try to upgrade in the backcourt? Either way, it doesn't appear that this version of the Jazz will be staying together beyond the next few weeks.