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Tonight the Lakers face the Utah Jazz on a Charles Barkley-approved national broadcast — a face off of two surprising first-place teams.

So it begs the question: Can these teams stay on top for an entire season? In the case of talented and now healthy Utah, it’s pretty easy to answer yes. For the Lakers, well, they get a qualified yes — if they start playing some defense.

Most Laker fans have been feeling pretty good about that 9-5 start, but that record is padded by a bunch of home games combined with good offensive play (except when faced with the dreaded zone defense, something high school teams have no problem with but confounds the Lakers). The good things have masked the squad’s problems — the Lakers turn the ball over too much and have played spotty defense.

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So far this season the Lakers are turning the ball over — coming down the court and not getting off a shot — on 19.2% of their possessions. That’s a lot, nearly one in five trips, the second worst rate in the league.

And those turnovers play right into the other problem — opponents are converting those turnovers to fast breaks and easy baskets. So far this season other teams are getting too many good looks against the Lakers, shooting 50.3% (eFG%). Think about it this way, only seven teams in the NBA are doing worse, and only one of them has a winning record (the Denver Nuggets).

It's really one of the simplest ideas in basketball: You win more games if you can stop the other team from scoring. San Antonio has been an NBA power for a decade doing it; UCLA went all the way to the NCAA tournament finals last year doing it. The Lakers right now are not. And they are struggling to stop opponents at just about every position: opposing teams are getting about 22 points and 9 assists from their point guards against the Lakers, and nightly opposing centers are kicking in 17 points and 14 rebounds.

Traditionally Phil Jackson's teams have been good defenders, this season things have been, to be kind, inconsistent. The offensive staple of the NBA right now is the "high pick and roll" and only rookie Jordan Farmar fights though it and plays it tough (Smush Parker just rolls under that pick most times, giving up a lot of good shots and opening passing lanes). There are other defensive concerns: Kobe is not 100% and Luke Walton has never been great on defense.

If the Lakers don't turn the defense around, they will burn up the padding they've built up because more ugly losses like the one Tuesday night will be on the way. Right now the Lakers are on a 53-win pace for the season, but don't fix the defense and it will be closer to 43 when it is all said and done.

For fun, here are a couple things to look for in the Laker/Jazz game tonight: Utah is a powerhouse rebounding team and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds against the Lakers last meeting, do that again and they win again; the Lakers are one of the best teams in the league at getting to the free throw line and Utah fouls a lot, so look for a lot of Laker free throws.

The Lakers/Jazz broadcast theoretically starts at 7:30 on TNT (of course, the last time TNT got to the second game of its Thursday night double header on time, Kyra Sedgwick was Single, not a Closer).

AP Photo by Kevork Djansezian

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