If it feels like every year features the K Bros talking Lakers-Jazz playoffs, that's only because we do. It's the NBA's version of "Groundhog Day," starring Phil Jackson as "Phil Connors" and Jerry Sloan as one seriously dour "Ned Ryerson."
More analysis and video below the jump.
At the end of the third quarter, the Lakers held an 81-73 advantage over the visiting Utah Jazz in the opening game of their Western Conference Semi-Final matchup at Staples. The first half was, with the exception of a few plays here and there, a demonstration of why the Lakers are so heavily favored. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, two guys for whom the Jazz don't have a natural answer, combined for 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting over the first 24 minutes. Utah, meanwhile, had trouble generating anything but jumpers and as a result, save six free throws from Deron Williams, couldn't get to the line, either.
After the break, Utah, as is their custom, gamely made a run, cutting L.A.'s lead to from 12 to three in the third, but almost as fast as the Jazz pushed, the Lakers pushed back and seemed to restore order.
Or maybe not...
In the fourth, though, a Lakers reserve unit acquitting itself well in Friday's series ending Game 6 in Oklahoma City and again in the second quarter Sunday couldn't sustain any momentum. They managed all of one point- a Luke Walton free throw- as the Jazz went on an 8-1 run and closed to within a point. Phil Jackson called timeout, and got his starters back on the floor. They weren't much more effective, at least initially. The Lakers didn't manage to scrape together a field goal for another 90 seconds, and couldn't stop the bleeding at the other end as the Jazz built a four point lead with just over four minutes to play.
But just as it was against the Thunder, when the Lakers needed big plays down the stretch, they found them, and again they were fueled by stout defensive play. The Jazz were held scoreless for the next three minutes, and the Lakers didn't give up another field goal until Carlos Boozer tossed down a dunk with 19 ticks to play. Overall, the Lakers limited Utah to six points (two being a pair of meaningless Wes Matthews free throws) the rest of the way. Gasol and Lamar Odom both picked up critical blocks, Derek Fisher a critical steal. At the other end, similar energy earned Odom an offensive rebound and putback of a missed jumper from Kobe, putting the Lakers up by three.
From there, they protected their glass and made their free throws (seriously).
Meanwhile, the Jazz were burned by momentary lapses in judgment, as it was with 3:15 to play and C.J. Miles tried to flop against a Kobe bump. Play continued, and Kobe spun baseline and planted for the jumper, Miles fouling him in the process of trying to recover. And one. It was a terrible sequence for Miles at an important moment. Kobe- who finished with 13 in the quarter and 31 for the game- dropped the freebie, and the Lakers had a lead they wouldn't surrender.
Utah fought their way back into a game I don't think anyone expected them to be in late. And I'm including the Lakers, who took their foot off the gas periodically in the second half and allowed the Jazz an opportunity to steal a critical Game 1. In the end, L.A.'s superior talent and effort won the day, but as a group they made themselves work harder than they should have. After the game, there were pointed words for the work done by the bench to start the fourth.
SECOND UNIT CALLED OUT
After the game, Odom was pleased with the win but visibly distressed at the play of the reserves- his unit, he'll tell you- to start the fourth, a stretch of four-plus minutes littered with turnovers, missed jumpers, and layups surrendered.
"We have not played well as a group recently," Odom said. "The way [the second unit] is playing, the starting five can't get a rest and we can't hold a lead that they have built. That is not good. In practice tomorrow, we'll talk about what is wrong, get to it, and fix it."
Odom provided a quick peek at a potential agenda. "It's not about our play, it's about our collective energy," he said. "I'm just talking about our play as a group. It's been down all year. We've got to find out a way to get it back together. Our unity is bad."
Odom said the "unity" issue doesn't extend to locker room issues, but implied strongly it causes problems on the floor as guys aren't sticking to a sense of collective achievement, instead getting too centered on their individual games. "We should be able to build on leads. It shouldn't have to come down to Pau and Kobe having to make every play at the end of the game. I don't feel like this game should have had to go like that. We need to do a much better job as a unit. Guys will still have their stats."
"It's like when things get tense, we kind of separate. Kind of go our own way, something I don't think we can do," Odom said. ""You can't make it to this level without being a little selfish, but playing on a team like this you've got to give a little bit of yourself up to contribute to the big picture."
By now, Odom had been speaking to the media for probably 15 minutes, and was running out of juice. The frustration, though, was still there, growing as he kept having to repeat himself. Eventually, he ran out of words.
"I don't know how to explain it," Odom said.
If Odom, played a pretty strong game overall and was particularly good down the stretch, is looking for someone to echo his sentiments, Kobe will be happy to back him up. "Second unit has got to play better. Simple as that," Bryant said. "They've done a great job in certain parts of the season. Tonight, in the third quarter, fourth quarter, they didn't. But they have to figure it out. It's their responsibility to figure out how to work together. They will."
Remember, though, it wasn't all bad. In the second quarter, the group of Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum, and Odom pushed L.A.'s lead from seven to 12 before Phil Jackson sent Kobe, Fish, and Pau back to the floor with 8:17 remaining before the half. The trick will be figuring out what went wrong when they were deployed later in the game. Walton, who contributed seven points in just under 10 minutes, said he won't have an answer until he breaks down the film. "I don't know. I have to go back and look at the tape. We did a great job in that second quarter as a unit out there, and we didn't get it done in the fourth. I don't know if it was execution, defensive rotations, or what. When you're out there, it's harder to see it. So I'll watch the tape tonight and try to get a better feel for what happened."
"I don't know why we didn't play well in the second half," he said, "but we didn't."
The Jazz see opportunity in the battle of the benches, pointing to it as a matchup they have to win. "When they come in with that second unit, that's the time for us to try and take over the game. Try to separate ourselves. When Kobe goes out, when Ron goes out. When they go out to get some rest, we have to try to elevate our level of play during that stretch," Deron Williams said after the game. "They're definitely a deep team, but I think our bench, a big part of our success last year was how well our bench played. Offensively and defensively. Our bench is going to have to outplay their's for us to be successful."
No doubt there will be a lot of attention put on L.A.'s bench in Game 2, because things will only get tougher heading to Utah over the weekend.
INJURY UPDATES: KOBE AND BYNUM
Based on his performance- 12-for-19 from the floor, including many visits to the rack- Kobe looked a lot healthier today than he had during the series with Oklahoma City. The eyes seemed to confirm it, and after the game, so did Kobe.
"It's a lot better," he said of his bum right knee. "I was able to move around. In a game where we had [only] a day in between, and it's an early game at that, it was very encouraging for me to be able to move around and do what I wanted to do."
Bynum seemed reasonably pleased with how he came through this afternoon, one day after being diagnosed with small tear of the meniscus in his right knee. He noted some pain in the first quarter, saying when it comes it can be sharp, and a "flat tire" in the third- a moment when the leg didn't have any lift- but overall thought things went well.
"It is there with me every step," Bynum said, noting as well it impacts the quality of his movement, "but it is the kind of thing that I can play through till the end of the season."
Asked if he considered surgery when the news was delivered, Bynum shook his head. "Not yet," he said. It might happen in the offseason, but he won't quit playing on it unless the injury worsens. "I'm going to ride it until I need to have it. I don't need it now. I'd rather play like this than have it now."
He'll cross that bridge if/when he gets there.
For now, he's willing to play in pain, but has a good prescription. "We've got to play the game. What happens is we get more rest if we play the right way. We definitely need to do that. We can't keep playing seven games, because it's gonna get worse."
Amen to that.
THIS OPPONENT DOESN'T ROLL OVER
If the opening video didn't drive home the point well enough, I'll say it again: I consider the Jazz quite overmatched in the series.
On a position by position basis, Deron Williams is the only starter better than his respective member of the Lakers' first five. The defending champs may be banged up, but at least they're competing at more or less a full roster. No disrespect to Sasha Vujacic, but his absence pales by comparison to going without Andrei Kirlenko (until probably game three at the earliest) and Mehmet Okur (for the postseason). Ronnie Brewer used to be their best option guarding Kobe, and he's now in Memphis. With AK-47 hurt, the job falls to rookie Wes Matthews and C.J. Miles and, while both quality role players up for giving it an honest whirl, they're not good enough. This is particularly problematic when you factor in how the Jazz aren't likely to enjoy much success slowing Pau Gasol, either.
Throw in how the Lakers have dispatched these guys two years running in the playoffs and now own 15 straight victories inside Staples Center and the likelihood of a Utah advancing strike me as, shall we say, scant.
But to paraphrase Han Solo while staring down an asteroid field survival rate of approximately 3,720-to-1, never tell the Jazz the odds.
Having spent a year in a Utah uni, Derek Fisher's awareness of franchise culture provided specific insight when asked why the Lakers gave up a second half lead. Factors like missed free throws and poor offensive execution were cited, but as Fisher mentioned, their opponent's heart is a key issue.
"We've had several of these games against this team where we've had big leads. There have been times where we've got out to a 20 point lead at the end of the first quarter. They don't quit. Jerry coaches that way, he teaches that way. The guys in that locker room are not quitters. They're competitors. They're talented players. They just keep playing. That has a lot to do with it, as well as some things on our end."
Gasol's respect for the Jazz was evident when asked if the Lakers should be blowing out their guests. "I don't know about that," reacted El Spaniard when asked.
FES AND KOUFOS DON'T EQUAL A NIGHT OFF DEFENSIVELY
With Okur out, the Jazz are relying on the duo of Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos to man the middle. The two have combined to average a shade under 5 points per postseason contest. Getting assigned either guy isn't exactly the same thing as checking Shaq in his prime. For all intents and purposes, the Jazz are playing four-on-five when one of them is included, but this doesn't mean leisure time for whichever Laker center happens to be on the floor. As Gasol explained, the five man's defensive responsibilities revolve around keeping your head on a swivel.
"Like we did against Oklahoma, we gotta make sure we support our guards. They tried to go to more penetration in the second half, and they were successful at it. So I'm sure we're going to see a little bit more of that in game 2. Deron Williams is always going to be probing the lane, so you gotta be alert to him. And then, (Paul) Millsap and (Carlos) Boozer are two very good players, so you have to be alert and make sure you don't lose sight of them."
JERRY SLOAN DOESN'T CONSIDER THE LAKERS A FINESSE TEAM
Jerry Sloan, on the Lakers' toughness: "I just hope our guys come with enough toughness to withstand their toughness. They have a terrific team and you learn by playing against them if you want to make yourself better. They will take your nose and stick it in the ground and turn around on their heels on top of it. That's how good they are. We have to learn to fight through that."
FYI, Jerry Sloan's standard for toughness would raise the eyebrows of your average cage fighter. There are many ways you can describe Utah's coach, but "namby" and/or "pamby" do not fit the bill. If he deems the Lakers sufficiently gritty, I'll take his word for it.
12: The total amount of Laker launches from behind the arc. A fairly low number, which is why I really didn't care the Lakers hit only two of them. When the Lakers are discriminate about launching from downtown, a 16.7 percent clip from three-point may not help, but it doesn't necessarily hurt. When they're bombing like a Nellie-coached squad, that's when the lack of marksmanship becomes a serious issue.
18: Boozer's point tally for the afternoon. Certainly a respectable outing, but what stood out to me were two other numbers attached to it. 17, as in "shot attempts," and zero, as in "number of trips to the line." The former nearly matching the points with the latter non-existent make this an outing I imagine the coaching staff will take any day of the week.
24:41: Andrew Bynum played nearly 25 minutes after it was announced a "very small" meniscus tear turned merely "small" after hyper-extending his right knee in the game 6 win over the Thunder. Drew's availability was in question heading into the game, along with how much run he'd be able to handle. I consider this afternoon's PT, along with eight points and 10 rebounds, fairly reassuring. Phil was pleased with Drew's activity and this isn't a series where Bynum strikes me as critical component to begin with. If he can balance reasonable minutes with reasonable production, all gravy as far as I'm concerned.
12: Lamar Odom's rebounds, five of which came of the offensive glass. Generally speaking, when LO is active in this particular aspect of the game, good things happen for the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant on the game 1 win and his knee:
Kobe Bryant on the second unit, rebounding and an advantage in the paint:
Maybe it was just me, but I sensed a bit of sarcasm from Derek Fisher when it was inferred Kobe and Kobe alone carried the Lakers down the fourth quarter stretch.
It's probably just me.
More from Fish about, among other topics, how the whole series won't come down to stopping Deron Williams:
When asked if he wished he pulled the second unit a little eariler in the fourth quarter during Utah's comeback, Phil's response was low on ambiguity: "Absolutely not." He cited their strong play during game 6 in OKC and an effective enough second quarter this afternoon. He felt an opportunity to redeem the frame was in order.