The Lakers won Game 5 without an incredible performance -- in terms of raw scoring -- from Kobe Bryant. His 26 points on 10 shots was, however, another sign of his ability to produce incredibly efficient numbers when he has teammates who can perform at a high level.
The Lakers' other four starters did just that, scoring 72 points on just 47 shots. It looks like they are peaking offensively, and are poised to win Game 6 and move on to the conference finals. Unfortunately, to beat this Jazz team, in Salt Lake City, efficient scoring alone will not amount to much, other than a return trip to L.A. and a great Game 7.
As I've suggested here throughout the series, Utah is perhaps the toughest and most resilient team left in the playoffs. It always seems to be able to find a way to stay games, even when it is suffering from poor shooting or numerous turnovers. The Jazz do this by pushing the ball relentlessly, earning easy baskets or knocking down their free throws. L.A.'s transition defense looked much more sound in Game 5 than it had previously. It certainly will be a point of emphasis prior to Game 6. Utah will need to feed off its crowd's energy to race to the rim as often as it can. If the Jazz can't get to the rim, they are going to look for quick shots by open players on the perimeter. L.A. must get Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom back quickly, so its guards can find these shooters and close them out.
One of the best things L.A. did in Game 5 was to put hard-ball pressure on Utah's ball handlers and deny players out on the floor with more energy. The fact that Utah had 18 turnovers -- a series high -- will inspire L.A. to play similarly the rest of the series. Utah should counter this by opening up the floor on some possessions, move the ball quicker and look for face/backdoor cuts. Hard handoffs would work too. Once L.A. softens its defense up some to protect the paint, Utah can go back to its typical passing and screening actions.
For the second time, Utah killed L.A. on the offensive glass, pulling down 17 boards on that end. The Lakers secondary rebounders -- the guys not immediately next to the rim -- were especially poor at staying engaged with the ball until they or a teammate had gained possession. Many of those offensive rebounds came outside of the "rebounding zone." Better attention to that detail should help limit the Jazz's success. However, Utah's bigs, especially Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur, set up shop at the rim and refused to be moved out of the way. We can expect more of this in Game 6, so L.A.'s bigs have to be ready to do a better job at what we call "hand-to-hand fighting" inside.
L.A. will expect Utah to shoot well at home, so defending them in the half court will be more challenging. The Lakers' goal will be to eliminate the mental mistakes that give up easy looks. Vladimir Radmanovic has been particularly poor in this area. Early in Game 2 he lacked the awareness to realize that Gasol was in position to defend Boozer, so he stayed with Boozer and allowed Ronnie Brewer to run to the rim for an easy dunk. On the next possession, while defending Andrei Kirilenko as he used a Brewer screen, he stayed with Kirilenko instead of switching to Brewer, though Bryant had switched to Kirilenko (typically NBA teams switch guard to guard screens, which this was). Brewer ended up getting another dunk, and Radmanovic shot a "look" to Bryant. Since Game 6 looks to be as tight as the others, avoiding these types of easy buckets is a must for the Lakers.
Of course, the pressure is on Utah to win and stay alive. Doing so meansthe Jazz needs to find a way to make the Lakers -- other than Bryant -- struggle to score points. Specifically Odom, who has scorched them in this series, scoring 19 points a game on 60 percent shooting. He's not just beating people to the rim -- going left off the dribble -- but he's face cutting within the triangle offense to get to the rim. Boozer needs to be more aware in these situations, and bump or cut him off. Unfortunately, Boozer is normally preoccupied with Bryant. An example of how Bryant makes things easier for his teammates by just being on the court.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan probably showed some highlights (or lowlights) of how Gasol grabbed his six offensive rebounds to his team. In a few cases Gasol literally just ran to the rim or just simply stood there and grabbed the ball. Mental errors like that can really hurt this Jazz team, which already has a tough enough time defending not just Kobe but the triangle in general. Another way Gasol is a crafty player, happens in transition when Gasol smokes Okur in a race to the rim by initially jogging up the floor, then turning on the jets when he sees Okur in cruise control.
Usually in Game 6s and Game 7s the winner is determined by who does the little things best. Things like boxing out, sprinting back on defense and being strong on the ball. In this series there are two givens too: Utah will play a great game at home and L.A. does not want to play this Jazz team two more times. If the Lakers play with an effort in Game 6 like they will win Game 7 with a breeze, a win Friday does not seem possible. So expect another high scoring and tight game between the two clubs. In semifinal action this season the home teams have been unusually dominant, and not to mention the fact that Utah is the most dominant home team in the NBA. That is why I expect the Jazz to force a Game 7.
PREDICTION: Jazz win Game 6
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.