Kobe Bryant makes return to Salt Lake

By By Jason Peterson

By Jason Peterson

The Utah Jazz (11-5) are back in action tonight at EnergySolutions Arena after a three-game road trip in which they went 2-1.

Utah will host the Los Angeles Lakers in an ESPN-televised showdown scheduled for 8:30 p.m. MST.

On Nov. 4, Utah traveled to L.A. and returned home with its second loss of the season — a 119-109 decision that was largely because of Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant’s 33-point, five-rebound performance. The Lakers won handily despite Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer teaming up for 49 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists.

Last season’s visit to the Staples Center spelled disaster for the Jazz when Bryant went off for 52 points and the Lakers routed Utah, 132-102.

In other words, the game plan for Utah tonight is to stop Bryant.

Guarding prolific scorers in the league has proved a thorn in Utah’s side in recent years. Under Jazz coach Jerry Sloan’s system, Utah typically relies on defensive rotations that allow for players to take occasional risks by leaving their man. Andrei Kirilenko, who is sixth in the league in blocks, and Ronnie Brewer, who is second in steals, clearly benefit from the helping defense.

However, opposing teams often choose to isolate their best offensive weapons (usually a wing player), leaving Kirilenko or Brewer to fend for themselves in one-on-one situations. New York’s Jamal Crawford and Philadelphia’s Andre Iguodala exposed that weakness this week by scoring 22 and 20 points, respectively.

Last week, Sloan divvied out rare praise toward the defensive improvements Brewer made this season.

“He just seems to be getting better and better as time goes on,” Sloan said. “And hopefully, he can continue to do that, because he has a lot of talent.”

Experience against the league’s top scorers — unfair as the challenge might seem for a second-year guard — is exactly what Brewer hopes to gain from tonight’s matchup with Bryant.

“The Lakers are always a tough game, especially when you gotta guard 24 (Bryant),” Brewer said. “I’ve gotta try to slow him down, make him take tough shots. He’s an amazing player.”

Despite Bryant’s trade demands that dominated NBA news for most of the offseason, he is averaging 28 points, six rebounds and five assists per game. Concerns from the Lakers’ front office that Bryant’s remarks would disrupt team chemistry were quelled when the club began the season with a 7-3 record.

Shortly after forward Lamar Odom recovered from surgery on his left shoulder and joined the team in mid-November, the Lakers enjoyed a four-game winning streak before dropping three straight. Odom is averaging 13.2 points and 7.4 rebounds.

Former Jazz guard Derek Fisher returned to the Lakers this summer after Utah released the veteran from his remaining three years and more than $21 million left in his contract. The 33-year-old Fisher gives the Lakers leadership and stability from the point guard position. The Lakers hope that Fisher will help groom up-and-coming points Jordan Farmar and Javaris Crittenton to quarterback the team into the future.

Ten days ago, the Lakers acquired small forward Trevor Ariza from the Orlando Magic in exchange for forwards Brian Cook and Maurice Evans. Ariza’s defense should bolster a Lakers’ bench already ranked fifth in the league.

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