In a game that was easier than the final score indicates but more difficult than it probably should have been, the Lakers defeated the Jazz 104-99 to earn that all important game 1 win to go up one game to zero in this western conference semi-final. As a result, the Lakers now get another chance to improve on Phil Jackson’s 45-0 record in playoff series where his team wins the first game. But, even though this was a playoff game, the contest played itself out much like a regular season Laker game. It was quite a familiar script: the Lakers start fast and get a big lead. The opponent fights back through hustle and desperate play to make the game close. The Lakers raise their level of play in the closing minutes and make enough plays to win. The end. I feel like I’ve seen this type of performance 15-20 times during this season – which may be understating the actual number – and it made the game all too familiar in it’s flow and arc of progression.
What also seemed very familiar was the way that the Lakers seized control of this game early using the same advantages they’ve held over the Jazz for the last several seasons. Simply put, the Lakers size and length is a real problem for Utah and the Jazz still don’t have players that are good defensive options for Kobe and Gasol. And considering that the Lakers seem hell bent on running all their sets through these two, that’s got to be a major concern for the Jazz over the course of this series.
Early on, what stood out to me the most was how much different Utah’s defensive intensity was versus what the Lakers saw from the Thunder in the first round. The Lakers easily got to the places on the floor that they liked and found much less resistance in their attempts to get to the basket or establish post position. Gone was the fronting defense and the closing off of driving lanes. No longer present was the threat of a shot blocker or a defender sliding in at the last second to draw a charge. The Lakers were able to do what they wanted on offense for most of this game and their efficiency only fell off when they decided that they’d rather not execute and fire up long jumpers (more on that later). The proof was the Lakers making 14 of their first 16 shots and ending the first quarter shooting 79% from the field.
And it was all on the shoulders of Kobe and Pau. In the first quarter, Kobe made all five of his shot attempts and Pau made four of his six tries from the field. Both Pau and Kobe were not deterred by the Jazz attempts at defending them and feasted on the one on one match ups that they saw early. As I thought might occur, Pau and Kobe both got good looks in isolation on the weak side of the offense where they could go at their defender in space without worry of aggressive help defenders taking away their looks at the basket. Their early success fueled the Lakers offense and enabled them to jump out to a 53-45 halftime lead.
However, as I mentioned earlier, this was not a lead that would be safe as the Jazz showed the resilience of a Jerry Sloan coached team. Sparked by the defensive pressure and overall hustle of Ronnie Price (as well as the other Jazz reserves), Utah clawed its way back into this game by executing their offense and taking advantage of the sloppy and inconsistent focus of the Lakers reserves that they were matched up against. Maybe the positive stretch of basketball that the Lakers bench played in the second quarter of this game went to their heads because when the bench players started to trickle into the game near the end of the third period they just didn’t seem like they were ready to play. When the Farmar/Brown/Walton/Odom/Bynum unit was in together to start the 4th period, everything the Lakers had done to that point to be successful disappeared. Gone was the crisp ball movement, solid screens, and player cuts. Missing was the desire to run the offense inside-out. Even when the ball did go into the post, every Laker just stood around and watched as Utah defenders executed hard double teams on Bynum and Odom to force turnovers. By the time that the Lakers reserves were mercifully pulled from the game, an lead had been cut to one point and the game became a dog fight.
However, when games get close it’s always nice to have Kobe and Gasol on your side. Offensively, it was all Kobe as he scored 13 of his game high 31 points in the final five and a half minutes of this game. He got to the foul line, he made jumpers, he went into the post and drew a foul on a play where he bodied up his defender and then spun to shoot a turn around leaner that also dropped. Then with the Lakers only up by three and less than 30 seconds remaining, Kobe had possession of the ball and back dribbled to near the mid court line. With his defender pestering him, Kobe drove by his man, crossed over at the foul line, elevated and made a lay up to put the Lakers up 5 with only 22 seconds left in the game. Meanwhile in those same closing minutes, it was Pau that was showing his all around game on both ends of the floor to help shut the door on the Jazz. Gasol got his share points (5 points in the quarter, 25 in the game), but his but his biggest impact was on defense as he rebounded the ball (4 boards in the 4th, 12 total in the game) and protected the rim (5 total blocks on the day) by turning away Jazz shots and then securing the loose balls to give the Lakers the extra possessions that they would need.
In the end, the important key is that the Lakers won the game. But, there are things that need to be improved upon if the Lakers are going to have continued success in this series while also building for future rounds. Because even though the Lakers advantages over the Jazz are not going to suddenly vanish, LA will need more consistent play from their bench and will need a greater commitment to defense to close this series out. As Odom said after the game the bench needs to play better collectively and bring an energy and togetherness that can impact the game. And defensively, the Lakers gave up a few too many easy looks inside by Millsap and Boozer while also allowing Williams to have his way for most of the game. The Lakers will also need to adjust to the defensive schemes that incorporated hard double teams and dig downs from perimeter defenders that the Jazz employed in the second half. But for now, I’m just happy with the win. We’ll have more analysis on this game and the rest of this series a bit later.