Lakers Reach A Familiar Halfway Point
Sweeping aside any doubt, the Los Angeles Lakers completed their 4-0 ouster of the Utah Jazz with a 111-96 win at Energy Solutions Arena. Pau Gasol (33 points on 12-18, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots) and Kobe Bryant (32 points on 11-23, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal) led the way for the Lakers, who now face the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals set to begin next Monday at Staples Center. Utah started hot, converting their first 10-17 shots for an early 16-12 lead. But the Lakers settled in and began to go to their strength in their inside game with Gasol and Andrew Bynum (6 points on 2-6, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocked shots in 25-minutes) scoring easily inside. But it was Gasol who carried the team in the 1st quarter, scoring 10-points as Kobe chipped in eight for the 29-24 lead after one. Shannon Brown (12 points on 5-10, 3 rebounds, 1 steal) ended the period with a vicious throw-down that had his teammates jumping out of their seats.
Brown opened the 2nd quarter with another thunderous jam off a Jordan Farmar (3 points, 2 assists, 1 steal) steal and dish. Bynum scored inside on a point-blank drop-in and suddenly the Lakers were ahead, 33-24. Bynum would then block a shot by Carlos Boozer (10 points on 4-11, 14 rebounds, 4 turnovers) and follow that up with a rejection on a Ronnie Price layup attempt that sent the ball sailing out-of-bounds. After a Paul Milsap (21 points on 8-14, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot) 7-footer, the Lakers went on a 12-2 tear that put them ahead 45-29. Another 12-6 run and the Lakers enjoyed their largest lead of the game at 57-35. Deron Williams (21 points on 7-18, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocked shots) three-point play at the close of the 2nd period would help trim the lead to 17-points at the end of the first half. Pau led all scorers with 17-points as the Lakers shot 50% from the field while limiting the Jazz to 39.5%. They also held a decisive 23-18 rebound lead and converted 12-14 free throws for 85.7% while the Jazz struggled at 9-14 for 64.3%.
With their playoff lives on the line, the Jazz made a concerted effort that was sorely missing in the first half. CJ Miles (15 points on 6-12, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 3 blocked shots) started slashing through the lane for good lucks at the basket. But Kobe responded by scoring the first seven points keeping Utah at arms length and a 65-50 lead. Miles scored on another layup, and then followed that up with a 3-pointer as Utah went on a 9-0 run to trim the lead to 65-59 as the crowd finally had an opportunity to stand up and cheer. Boozer’s layup drew the Jazz to within 68-63 with 3:59 left in the period but Derek Fisher (10 points on 3-8, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 steals) would drain a long 2-pointer to momentarily stop the bleeding. Things started getting ugly as the desperate Jazz began to hack away at the attacking Lakers.
Kobe would score on an uncontested layup off the Wesley Matthews (12 points on 5-10, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot) flopperoo and boos rained down on the officials. Fisher would steal the ball from a fumbling Williams only to have his layup attempt swatted away by a high-flying Miles. But the Jazz ran out of gas late in the quarter after running on full-speed off their emotionally charged rally. The Lakers would methodically wear out the Jazz and used an 8-2 run to close the period with an 80-67 lead.
After a pair of Milsap free throws, Fisher would drain a 26-foot 3-pointer, then get fouled on another trey attempt by D-Will. His three free throws made it 86-69 and things began to look bleak for the Jazz. The Jazz would score seven unanswered points to draw within 86-76 but Kobe would convert 4-4 from the charity stripe after two hard fouls and Brown would drop in a bail-out 3-ball as the Lakers regained control of the game and a 93-79 advantage. Williams and Milsap would combine for a quick 6-points but Brown would answer with another 3-pointer. Pau then scored the next 9-points as he single-handedly pushed the lead back up to 105-85 with 3:31 left in the game. Kobe’s 15-footer would seal the deal as Jerry Sloan pulled the plug on the season and send in the scrubs. Lamar Odom (10 points on 2-4, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 blocked shot in 23-minutes) was severely limited due to early foul trouble but continued his string of games in which he played aggressively from the start. Ron Artest (5 points on 2-8, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal) didn’t quite match his previous scoring binge, but kept up his good play on the defensive end. The Lakers now get a week off before opening play against the Suns as they’ve reached the halfway point of their mission to repeating as NBA World Champions.
• dEDGE Post Scriptum •
Already waiting in the wings for their Western Conference Finals showdown are the surprise team of the 2010 NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns. Not Denver, the team that boasted that they wanted to face the Lakers. Not San Antonio, with their wily veterans and fading glory for one last shot at the title. Not even Dallas, this season’s number two seed in the Western Conference with additions Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood brought in to specifically battle the Lakers. Instead, it’s the defensive-minded Suns. Funny as that may sound, the Suns actually employ a defense (primarily with their second squad) while the starters continue to try to shove the ball down your throats. Smoke and mirrors actually. The Suns still try to beat you with their offense but have raised their defensive pressure in the playoffs, just like all of the other remaining contenders. Except that this is a relatively new concept for them.
Not since the KJ/Barkley/Thunder Dan days have the Suns shown this much tenacity on D. Give credit to coach Alvin Gentry for finding the delicate balance between simply throwing the reins out to Steve Nash, to actually setting up a defensive scheme during a time-out. Something that neither run-and-gun Mike D’Antoni or defense-first Terry Porter could accomplish. But it’s still the same old Suns who want to control the tempo and dare you into a shooting contest. The Lakers have gradually settled into their playoff rotations and roles and appear to be peaking at precisely the right moment. And with the Machine, the Pest, or whatever you care to call him due back in time for Game 1, this match-up between former foes should be a fun one to watch. ***More Phoenix Suns previews to come.***