Maybe this result was destined from the beginning. Missing their veteran big man that could stretch the floor for the entire series and their lanky forward that could match the Lakers’ length for two of the four games (and limited in the ones that he did play in), the Jazz were out manned and overmatched from the very start of their match up with the Lakers. Even the most die hard Jazz fan would have said that this series was always going to be an uphill climb for the team from Utah. Personally, I thought they’d win a game or maybe even two and give the Lakers a good scare along the way. In cases like this, I really don’t mind being wrong. In fact, I kind of enjoy it. ‘Cause while the Jazz certainly showed that they were a good team and had chances in each of the first three games to take home a victory, they ended up not winning a single one as they fell in game four 111-96 to get swept by your Lakers. Let that sink in for a moment…
All series one of the predominant themes was familiarity and this game could be described the same way as it started out just like the last two contests between these two teams. The Jazz began the game making shots and taking an early lead only to see the Lakers chip away, take control of the game, and ultimately show enough mettle and poise to hold off a Jazz run to win the game going away. And if that was all that needed to be said, I’d end this recap now and link to my favorite broom related video of all time. But, really there were some stand out performances by a couple of guys that deserve a few words.
First was the effort of Pau Gasol. If there’s a big man playing better basketball right now, I’m not sure who he is (though Amar’e is kind of close). Pau continued his dominance of the Jazz front court with a stellar night of shot making, rebounding, defending, and creating shots for others. His line for the night was one of the best of his entire tenure with the Lakers and surely one of, if not the best, of his entire playoff career in the forum blue and gold – 33 points on 18 shots, 14 rebounds (7 offensive), 2 assists, 2 blocks, 1 turnover, zero fouls, with a +18 in 40 minutes of superb play. And as fantastic as those stats look, I’m not sure they even do his performance justice. He was just dominant in all phases of the game and was in complete control for every minute he was on the court. He flashed all the tools of his multi-faceted offensive game with an array of jump hooks, face up jumpers, turn around jumpers, drives to the hoop, and tip-ins/finishes from his offensive rebounds. Simply amazing. On one play in particular he jab stepped twice, took a dribble into a post position, then turned and fired a turn around jumper from 15 feet that hit nothing but net. The man was just in a rhythm that could not be broken by any Jazz defender.
Then there was the fierce competitiveness of Kobe Bryant. From the get go of this contest, Kobe seemed determined to not let his team lose. He was consistently aggressive and looked to get the ball into the paint so he could inflict damage on the interior of the Jazz defense. Whether off post ups or off the dribble, Kobe was in attack mode all night and constantly put the Jazz defense into situations where they were forced to choose between leaving perimeter players to double him or leaving Wesley Matthews on an island to defend a bigger, stronger, and more talented player. Per ESPN stats and information, Kobe took 18 of his 23 shots from within fifteen feet and converted on 11 of those shots. And when he wasn’t getting up a makable shot, he was getting fouled and earning trips to the line – taking 12 free throws and making 10 of those attempts. Kobe ended the night with 32 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists and countless will imposing plays that make him the player that we all love to watch perform. My favorite play of the evening was one where Kobe started at the extended left wing with a live dribble, then after Pau came to set a screen for him, Kobe zigged and zagged his way through the lane ending up all the way on the right side of the key where he elevated, hung, and then double-clutched home a bank shot as he drifted out of bounds.
But this wasn’t just about Kobe and Pau. Even though those two did the heavy lifting on offense, they were supported by their teammates as the other guys were determined to patiently run our sets and seek out good looks. For most of the evening, the ball crisply moved from player to player with each pass building on the next with getting a good look the ultimate goal. Be it Fisher, Shannon, Odom, or Farmar, the Lakers played with the poise of a championship team and with the mindset of closing out this series tonight. Especially solid were Shannon and Odom who both posted double digit scoring nights off the bench and made some key plays to extend Lakers runs or halt those of the Jazz as they made their customary second half push to try and close the gap. This was a team win that all the players could take pride in as evidenced by the great statistical *team* numbers where the Lakers posted an offensive efficiency of 120.7 while holding the Jazz to a 104.4 on the other end of the court.
And speaking of the Jazz, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give this team a lot of credit for how hard they fought in this series and the class they showed after the game was finished. As I mentioned earlier, this team was severely out manned but not once did you hear an excuse about an injured player or any complaints about their circumstances. Led by the always classy and fantastic hall of fame coach Jerry Sloan, this team just competed as best they could and came up short. After the game, the players congratulated our guys and Sloan went up to Phil and told him “I hope you win it all”. That guy is as hard nosed and competitive as they come, but he’s also one of the all time greats at leading men and that should not go unnoticed by us or anyone else.
So here the Lakers are. A four game sweep has led them to the conference finals for the third straight season. The Phoenix suns await and I’m sure revenge is on the mind of Kobe, Phil, Lamar and every other hold over on this team from those teams that got eliminated by the SSOL Suns that were led by Nash/D’Antoni. But that’s still a week away and we’ll have plenty of time to dissect that match up over the break between series. So for now, enjoy this win and what it means to advance again. The Lakers are half way to their ultimate goal and that is something to be celebrated. And while no one is content to just reach this point, it does feel good to move on.