SALT LAKE CITY — No. 24 is missing. Los Angeles is without Nos. 5, 10 and 16, too.
It’d be foolish to believe the absence of Kobe Bryant, Steve Blake, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol isn’t noticeable. It’d be equally dumbfounding to assume the Lakers don't still generate the same buzz.
“They’re a historic franchise. They have some fans here in Salt Lake, too,” Jazz guard Gordon Hayward said. “It’s always fun going against the Lakers regardless of who (is in their lineup).”
Fans claiming Lakers loyalties span nationwide, and whenever Los Angeles is in town the purple and gold clan is certainly present.
“There seems like a lot of them before the game when we’re out there shooting,” Hayward said. “It’s kind of annoying, but by the time the game time comes around they’re usually dispersed on the upper deck, so we really don’t see them that much.”
Considering the franchise's illustrious history, many current NBA players grew up in adulation of the Lakers, including Jazz forward Richard Jefferson, who was born in Los Angeles.
“I was a huge Lakers fan growing up,” he said. “Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) — those are the guys I grew up watching, especially when I first started watching the game of basketball. But, after you lose to the Lakers in the NBA Finals your rookie year that kind of wears off.”
When asked whom he perceived as the better point guard — Magic or John Stockton — Jefferson didn’t hesitate.
“I was a Magic Johnson fan,” he said. “John Stockton is the all-time leaders in assists and steals — he doesn’t need me to be a fan in order to validate everything he’s accomplished in his career. I was born in Los Angeles; I actually grew up not liking Stockton because he was so good.”
GROWING PAINS: Be it youth or injury, both Utah (8-23) and Los Angeles (13-16) are trying to establish an identity for the future. The Jazz are still working on producing consistent performances on a nightly basis.
“We’re always concerned whenever we step out onto the floor, being the young team that we are,” Jefferson said. “We know, no matter our opponent, we have to come out and bring our most focused game if we’re going to come out with a victory. We understand that when guys are out it gives other guys opportunities, and (the Lakers) have maximized that opportunity.”
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni relates: “It goes back to the character of the guys and how they’re trying. We had a nice rhythm, because of the circumstances we broke up the rhythm, and we got to get it back. Hopefully (Friday) will be another step forward.”
“BACK” TO NORMAL: Jefferson missed practice Thursday with a sore back and was expected to be a game-time decision. Early Friday morning the Jazz announced that he’d be in the starting lineup, a position he’s maintained in every game this season.
“The back is fine — 100 percent fine. I’m just old,” Jefferson said jokingly. “Really, it’s a non-issue.”
BACKCOURT PROBLEMS: Jordan Farmer and Jodie Meeks have anchored the Lakers' backcourt. Farmer averages 8.8 points and 4.3 assists per game, and Meeks is averaging 12.9 points per game, the highest total in the starting lineup.
Jazz rookie Trey Burke said that a lack of depth in the backcourt isn’t a deterrent to the Lakers’ capabilities.
“I know they have a really good team with a lot of capable scorers,” he said. “That’s all that matters in this league. They got a good point guard in Jordan Farmer. It’s not anything that I feel like I can relax on. I’m definitely going to have to bring it against a veteran guard like him. I’m looking forward to it.”