The Lakers, up 1-0 on the Utah Jazz, remain undefeated during these playoffs at Staples Center. For their part, the visitors remain a shorthanded team (no Andrei Kirilenko or Mehmet Okur) and short-sized against L.A. Can the Lakers make it 2-0 before game 3 resumes in seven weeks? Here are five factors I think could shape the outcome:
1) Ron Artest noted during Monday's practice how his quartet of Game 1 layups marked his highest single-game count for the playoffs thus far. This success at the rim comes in conjunction with a recent effort over the last three games by Artest to operate more in the painted area and less from behind the arc. As a result, Artest has grown increasingly more useful as a playmaker (11 assists during that time frame) and decreasingly less problematic as an erratic gunner from outside. Plus, good luck to C.J. Miles or anyone else saddled with the unfortunate task of trying to stop Artest with a head of steam. Shockingly inelegant handle be damned, his forward motion is difficult to thwart.
Artest hinted after Sunday's win there could be mismatches to exploit down low. I hope that instinct is explored. The difference in his triangular comfort level inside the lane vs. spotting up in a corner has appeared night and day different.
2) All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer shot 53-percent from the field on Sunday on a reasonably sizable 17 attempts. Moreover, a few of the makes were seriously impressive: Baseline J's fading back, high-arching launches from the lane, and a very emphatic dunk. Dude was in a pretty good offensive flow. So why did he finish with just 18 points (1.5 below his average) and a lack of discernible impact on the game? Because he didn't visit the line, not even once. Boozer ranks eighth among power forwards for free throw attempts (4.9) per game and connects at a solid 74 percent. If Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom can continue to defend him without fouling, the ceiling for Boozer's damage lowers dramatically.
3) Who and what Lamar Odom is and should be as a player is the NBA's "chicken or egg" debate: A consensus answer isn't likely to emerge in out lifetime, much less the immediate future. I consider myself firmly a member of Team Lamar, convinced the world harps far too much on what he doesn't do (score 20 ppg) rather than what he does do (everything else, often at a high level). But there is one aspect of LO's game where I agree with his detractors: His propensity for finishing games with only a handful of shot attempts is, by and large, not a good thing.
I don't necessarily care how many points he actually scores, but he needs to represent a scoring threat on the floor, particularly while teamed with Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, and Luke Walton as bench mob leader. Those guys aren't threatening enough to consistently keep a defense honest. Odom is. Thus, an appropriate number of launches is reasonable to expect.
What's the exact number? I don't know for sure, but Sunday's 10 strikes me as reasonable. It's important LO remain involved in the offense, and in ways beyond popping up for J's. Neither Boozer nor Paul Millsap can stay with LO in space or deal with his length. LO needs to attack whatever creases emerge in Utah's D and get to the rack or the line.
4) Utah loves to pass the ball (67 percent of their buckets come off an assist, a league-best clip), but with that selfless enthusiasm often comes a rub. 14.15 percent of their possessions end in turnovers, fifth highest in the league. They did a pretty good job taking care of the ball in Game 1 (11 turnovers), but in their six games against Denver in the first round, three featured games of 15 turnovers or more. The Lakers can and should look to wreak havoc along these lines.
5) The Lakers need to recognize the importance of a potential win for the Jazz. They've lost 15 straight inside this building and haven't won a game with Kobe Bryant on hand since 2000. Put them down 0-2 with a pair of contests still to be played at Staples (*if necessary) and their climb appears more futile than Sisyphus pushing two rocks up the hill. By definition, my "Lakers in 5" prediction expresses confidence in the defending champs' ability to win one in Utah. Maybe even two. But I have serious doubts in the Jazz's ability to return the favor even once.
Were they injected with truth serum, it wouldn't shock me if every member of Utah's roster concurred.
Despite my opinion tonight is considerably more "must win" for the visitors, that doesn't take away the advantage gained by the purple and gold upon putting the screws to Utah. A win equals an opponent fighting like a Monty Python knight. While certainly admirable, gumption only takes you so far. They're basically cooked, for all intents and purposes.
Get 'er done, Lakers.