If the hand of Wes Matthews is angled an eighth of an inch in another direction, perhaps his buzzer beating tip of a Deron Williams miss drops through the net rather than off the side of the rim, and the story is different. Perhaps we're chastising Ron Artest for an errant inbound pass on the previous possession (or the refs for not calling a potential foul as Derek Fisher went/was brought to the floor), turning the ball over with the Lakers up one and giving Utah a chance to win. Or maybe we're critical of Kobe Bryant, despite a top shelf 35 point, seven assist night, for ball watching on Williams' shot and letting Matthews, his man, slip inside on the play.
Maybe in Salt Lake City they're beating up Williams for missing the jumper, or Matthews for botching the opportunity.
But really, to do any of that- on either side- would be a disservice to both teams and to the game itself. Saturday night, the Lakers and Jazz engaged in 48 minutes of what playoff basketball is supposed to be. Two teams playing at an extremely high level, rising to the occasion to make plays down the stretch, and through the game generally. How many of you stood in your living rooms for the final moments of the game? Or were so wired after the buzzer you inhaled all the leftover Zankou Chicken still sitting on the counter after a halftime dinner? (Okay, that's a little specific, but you get the point...)
In the end, it came down, quite literally, to a matter of inches. The Lakers were on the right end of it, and now own a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Jazz. (With Phoenix sitting on an identical advantage over San Antonio, it's fair to start busting out all your Suns scouting reports.)
The game wasn't elegant from start to finish, had compelling moments throughout. How about Artest blowing up in the third quarter for three triples, nearly half of his total through the first eight games of the playoffs? Artest continued to be a force offensively, shooting and moving off the dribble en route to a postseason high of 20 points. But his unexpected outburst was matched by Kyle Korver, who kept Utah in the game with an unconscious nine-of-10 shooting, including five threes in five tries, for 23 points of his own.
Lamar Odom, quiet for much of the game, hit two clutch free throws with 2:47 remaining, then a three on the next Lakers possession, in 22 seconds taking the Lakers from down four to up one. Bryant, who missed four shots over a two minute stretch between the five and three minute marks of the final quarter, came back with two huge jumpers and a pinpoint pass to Fisher for a clutch corner three. Fish, by the way, finished with 20 points on seven-of-13 from the floor, continuing a run of strong postseason play. Pau Gasol, non-existent in the first half, hit an array of jumpers in the second, and at the buzzer had a typically productive stat line, with 14 points and 17 rebounds, including critical tap-backs on the offensive glass to give the Lakers more opportunities.
Add in a fun strategy decision with about eight seconds remaining- with a three-point lead Phil Jackson chose to foul with intentionally, sending Williams to the line and starting the chain of events likely giving every basketball fan in southern California and the Beehive State some sort of coronary attack- and it's fair to say this one had everything.
While in all honesty the Jazz were unlikely to win the series even if they won Saturday night, any shot they had of making this a series evaporated as Matthews' tip rolled off the rim. From here, the Lakers seem destined to eliminate the Jazz for the third straight season. The Lakers were obviously happy to do it, but with much of the drama sucked out of Monday's Game 4, it's a shame they can't simply replay Saturday's action, because it's hard to imagine a scenario in which anything else in this series will hold a candle.
Much more to come...