The Lakers will say all the right things -- it's a best of seven, not a best of five, nothing is done until they get that fourth win and officially advance to the Western Conference Finals. They can't say it, so I will (likely on your behalf as well):
L.A. may be taking the floor tonight for Game 4, but the Western Conference seminfinals are over.
Including Phoenix's series-clinching win Sunday night over the Spurs in San Antonio, teams building a 3-0 advantage in the NBA playoffs are a robust 91-0. I suppose you can argue "0" is due, but it's pretty clear the Jazz won't be the team to bust through the wall of history. It'll be Lakers vs. Suns in the WCF-- the question is when, and how much rest will the Lakers get going in.
As Kobe Bryant pointed out Sunday afternoon after practice, extra games are a bad thing in the playoffs. Weird things can happen. Ankles get turned, knees get wrenched, fingers get broken. The only foolproof way to guarantee guys won't get hurt in a game is to make sure they don't have to play it. So that is as good a reason as any to wrap this puppy up Monday night in Game 4. Will it happen? Here are five things to watch:
1) Psychology: Obviously they can't say, "We're done, so don't bother showing up, fans!" but the Jazz are profoundly aware of the long odds against them. A Jerry Sloan team likely won't quit, but it's not easy to take the floor as dead men walking. Of the aforementioned 91 series that have gone 3-0, 55 have ended in a sweep. If the Jazz get down early will they cower in the face of inevitability? Or do they go the other direction, raising the level just a little more to avoid losing in front of the home crowd?
It's hard to picture the Jazz being any more motivated tonight than they were Saturday, and the Lakers still squeaked that one out on Utah's home floor. Still, if the Jazz are just a little more desperate tonight, they'll have the ability to make things that much harder on L.A. If they're not, it'll be that much easier to break out the brooms.
2. Which Andrew Bynum will we see? On L.A.'s first possession of Game 3, Bynum received an entry pass at the left block from Kobe Bryant, and squeezed the air out of the ball feeling for a possible double team from the Jazz. Bodied up by Krylylo Fesenko, Bynum eventually faced up and against a late double let go a long, high skip pass to Ron Artest on the right wing. Bynum's indecision forced a long out-of-rhythm three from Artest, and the play basically summed up Bynum's effectiveness. In 20 minutes on the floor he managed to take only one shot and pull down just four boards. He was such a non-factor, Bynum said Sunday he doesn't really remember playing.
In that, he has much in common with Lakers fans (sorry, that was too easy to pass up). Bynum took ownership of the bad night, and I expect he'll come out motivated and looking for some redemption. How much he'll get depends in part on his own aggressiveness, but also upon what Sloan does with his rotation. Seven-footer Kyrylo Fesenko played only 12 minutes, 12 times as many as his backup Kosta Koufos. With Andrei Kirilenko on the floor, the matchups change enough to mandate the presence of the more mobile Lamar Odom . . . unless Bynum and the Lakers can punish the mismatches up front.
3. Derek Fisher: Given all the dirt tossed on him this season, it's amazing Fish's uni looks so sparkling clean at the start of every game. Saturday, Fisher scored 20 points on seven-of-13 shooting, and among his trio of three-pointers was a bomb from the right wing with only 28 seconds remaining, putting L.A. up for good. Only once in the last seven games has Fisher been under 50-percent shooting, and he is a big reason the team's offensive efficiency has picked up during the playoffs.
The 20 points were a season high, and it's probably not coincidence a revitalized Fisher busted out against a hostile Utah crowd. We talked about it before the series -- those fans at EnergySolutions are not simply passionate, they're nasty folk who spent Saturday night raining insults down on Fisher. Dude may be getting older, but the competitive fires are still there. It'll be interesting to see the level of vitriol tossed his way tonight.
4. Where do the shots come from? The Lakers were outstanding from the perimeter on Saturday, keeping themselves afloat early despite getting virtually nothing from their bigs. (At halftime, Shannon Brown had more FGAs (nine) than Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Odom combined (seven)). In the second half, the Lakers moved Gasol off the block and higher up the lane, forcing the Jazz, who had worked hard to pack the paint and send bodies to the post when the ball managed to get inside, to make more decisions: open up space by coming out on Pau, or let him shoot mid-range jumpers. They tended towards the former, and Gasol made them pay.
Meanwhile, the Lakers may have taken a lot of perimeter shots, but in the second half they did a particularly good job creating them off of penetration -- whether with the dribble or on the pass -- and kicks. When the Lakers create catch-and-shoot situations, they're a much more effective group.
5. "All I'm trying to do is help you understand that The Name of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory." Those were the immortal words of Sick Boy in Trainspotting, as he described the arc of Sean Connery's film career to his buddy Renton. Here, they could apply just as easily to Artest, and his incredible bounce back game from the perimeter Saturday night. His four threes represented more than half of his total (seven) for the eight previous games of the postseason combined.
Accurate shooting from Artest isn't totally out of character, though. Remember, he was easily the team's best perimeter shooter before falling off a cliff (not literally, though with Artest it's important to point that out) in the latter weeks of the regular season. If Saturday's game represents a true slump-busting effort, the Lakers offense becomes much more potent.
Particularly if Artest continues to be aggressive off the dribble. In Game 3, he was able to get inside a few times and take advantage of interior passing skills. Artest is a good passer when he's not trying to think about the mechanics of the offense.