Big Performance by Boozer Powers Jazz to VictoryCarlos Boozer scored nine straight points for Utah in less than three minutes in the fourth quarter to help the Jazz hold off a late Lakers' rally in game three of their second round series. He finished with 27 points and tied a playoff career-high with 20 rebounds in Utah's 104-99 win. The Jazz also got good efforts from Deron Williams (18 points, 12 assists) and Mehmet Okur (22 points, seven rebounds, 4-7 three point shooting). Utah's three stars combined to shoot 26-47 from the field (.553) . Kobe Bryant got off to slow start but he ended up with a game-high 34 points plus seven assists and six rebounds; he shot 10-20 from the field and 14-17 from the free throw line. "He had a tremendous second half, took the game over and pretty much almost won it by himself because that's who he is and that's what he's done in his career," Utah Coach Jerry Sloan said of Bryant. Lamar Odom had 13 points and 12 rebounds, while Derek Fisher also scored 13 points but Pau Gasol had a very quiet game: 12 points, six rebounds, five turnovers; after the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson explained, "This is a game in which Pau was looking at the referees every time he got stripped there in the first half, feeling he got fouled."
The Lakers took a quick 6-0 lead after Fisher hit a jumper, Bryant fed Gasol for an easy hoop and Odom made a strong drive. Williams answered with a three pointer but after Bryant hit a couple free throws and Vladimir Radmanovic drained a three pointer the Lakers led 11-3, all five of their starters had scored and it looked like it might be a long night for Utah. It might sound odd to say that the turning point in the game happened at the 9:07 mark of the first quarter but after Fisher picked up his second foul at that time the entire tempo and tenor of the contest shifted. Jordan Farmar replaced Fisher and the Lakers lost all of their rhythm offensively and defensively; they began turning the ball over and Williams--who Fisher had done a pretty good job of containing in the first two games--started getting loose and making plays. The Lakers did not score for nearly four minutes after Farmar entered the game, a dry spell that ended when Bryant made a free throw after the Jazz committed a defensive three seconds violation--and then nearly a minute and a half passed before the Lakers scored again. Meanwhile, Utah went on a 10-1 run to take the lead and they were able to play from in front for most of the rest of the game.
Bryant took his customary rest at the start of the second quarter with the score tied 23-23. Jackson left Gasol and Odom in the game to play with three reserves but Gasol and Odom combined to commit three turnovers in the next 3:24 and the Lakers fell behind 32-27. Bryant reentered the game at that point but the Lakers' had lost any semblance of continuity while the Jazz had gained a lot of momentum; Boozer, Williams and Okur each were in a good flow after not having much success in the first two games in L.A. and once you let good players get their confidence going--particularly at home--it is difficult to reassert control over them. The Jazz led 51-43 at halftime. Boozer had 10 points, Williams had nine points and six assists despite suffering a wrist injury on his shooting hand that bothered him the rest of the game and Okur led all scorers with 12 points. Bryant had only eight points on 1-5 field goal shooting. ESPN's Mike Tirico asked Hubie Brown what the Lakers could do differently in the second half and Brown said drily, "Maybe they could get him (Bryant) the ball more often."
Of course, any time that Bryant only attempts five shots in a half there is probably going to be a Congressional investigation to unearth exactly why that happened. Asked about it after the game, Bryant replied that he was just reading the defense and getting the ball to the open man--the same thing that he always says because that is they way that he has been playing for years: great offensive players understand when to shoot, when to drive and when to pass. Bryant missed a couple shots in the first half that he normally makes, but other than that there was nothing unusual about how he played; I'm still trying to figure out why in both the pregame and halftime shows Jon Barry acted like he expects that at any moment now Bryant is going to stop playing team ball and simply start jacking up shots wildly. What went wrong for the Lakers offensively in the first half was that Fisher's early foul trouble disrupted their rhythm and altered their substitution patterns, plus the Jazz played defense more aggressively than they did in the first two games.
In his postgame comments, Bryant said that in the second half the Jazz stayed at home more on the Lakers' shooters, so he responded to that adjustment by aggressively driving to the hoop. Bryant had 14 points and three assists in the third quarter, shooting 6-8 from the field. During a timeout, ESPN played the clip from Bryant's MVP press conference when Jackson said, "I don't know anybody who has ever deserved this trophy more. I've never known anybody who has worked as hard to accomplish what he has accomplished in this game as Kobe has." Tirico asked Brown for his thoughts and Brown replied, "The coach knows your work ethic the best. It was great to hear him compliment him on that stage because that is going all over the world. It's good for young people to understand that he (Bryant) thanked his family because they allowed him the time away from home to get to that level."
After Bryant made six field goals in a row, the Jazz began trapping him more aggressively and Bryant responded by getting assists on consecutive possessions, first dishing to Luke Walton for an open jumper and then passing to Fisher for a three pointer that cut the Utah lead to 73-68. The problem for the Lakers was even though they finally got their offense going--mainly due to Bryant--they could not get enough stops to gain much ground. At the end of the quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew the defense and made what Brown called "a gorgeous pass" to Ronny Turiaf for a layup and potential three point play but Turiaf missed the free throw; despite Bryant's offensive explosion, the Lakers only trimmed two points off of Utah's halftime lead and still trailed 79-72 going into the fourth quarter.
Bryant sat out the first 2:25 of the fourth quarter before Jackson hustled him back into the game after the deficit grew to 10; in five possessions without Bryant on the court the Lakers managed a layup by Walton, three turnovers and a missed three pointer by Farmar that he forced with plenty of time on the shot clock. People can cite all the regular season numbers that they want but I am not yet convinced that the Lakers' bench is truly a strength in the playoffs against good teams; the Lakers' best bench player so far in the playoffs has been Walton, who was often a starter in previous seasons, so I think that it is more accurate to say that the Lakers improved their starting lineup than anything else--Walton would never have been a starter on most playoff teams in the first place but he looked effective in that role relative to a couple other starters (Kwame Brown and Smush Parker) that the Lakers trotted out in recent seasons. Now the Lakers have replaced Brown with Gasol, Parker with Fisher and Walton with Radmanovic, so the Lakers actually have a legitimate playoff quality starting lineup as opposed to having three bench players masquerading as starters.
The Jazz briefly pushed the lead to 12 right after Bryant entered the game but then he answered with a three point play and the Lakers never trailed by double digits again the rest of the way. That three point play was interesting because it happened with Matt Harpring guarding Bryant on the perimeter. As I've emphasized previously, a major difference between Bryant and LeBron James is that Bryant must be guarded closely all the way out to beyond the three point line. That gives Bryant options that James simply does not have; in this case, Bryant took advantage of how close Harpring was playing him to sweep his arms through Harpring's, initiate contact to draw the foul and then make the jumper. Keep in mind that versus Boston James has shot 1-27 from the field outside of the paint--and Bryant has the skill and strength to make a long jumper while he is being fouled. Tim Duncan often uses this same move, although he is usually much closer to the basket when he does it. This is a great way to take advantage of a defender who is crowding you, particularly if you are an excellent free throw shooter like Bryant--but there is no need for a defender to get close enough to James outside of the paint for James to even have a chance to use this move.
Just like in the third quarter, Bryant carried the load (12 points, one assist) in the fourth quarter as the Lakers got into a nice rhythm offensively but they could not get enough stops, particularly in the paint--Boozer had 11 fourth quarter points and he did a lot of his damage at close range, including a killer sequence in which he split a pair of free throws, rebounded his miss and powered his way to the hoop for a layup that put the Jazz up 95-86 at the 4:40 mark. That came right after a remarkable sequence in which Bryant split a double team about 15 feet from the basket, jumped in the air, threw the ball off of the backboard, caught it and dunked it with two hands. Even Williams was awestruck: "That was an unbelievable play. I looked at (teammate) Jarron Collins and went, 'Wow!' And I was in the game. Sometimes you've got to give respect where respect is due." Bryant said of his improvisational move--which is reminiscent of a play that Tracy McGrady pulled off in an All-Star Game a few years back--"You know me. I'll try anything." The Lakers cut the lead to 95-92 at the 3:22 mark after Fisher split a pair of free throws but Boozer scored on the next three possessions to ice the game. The Lakers better hope that they have not awakened a sleeping giant in Boozer, because with his strength, footwork and shooting touch he can be a load for either Gasol or Odom to handle; Boozer inexplicably played without much confidence in the first round and in the first two games of this series but he seems to have his groove back now.
In the first two games, the Lakers took double digit leads only to be forced to survive fierce second half rallies and in this game the Jazz similarly withstood a strong Lakers' comeback from a double digit deficit. I never understood why there was any talk about the Lakers sweeping the Jazz; the first two games were competitive and Utah has the more physical team and the better overall roster even though the Lakers obviously have the best individual player. Each game in this series will be a struggle between Bryant and his pair of tall/finesse-oriented bigs (Gasol and Odom) versus Utah's deep and physical frontcourt; the other crucial matchup is Williams-Fisher, where the object for Fisher is not to produce better stats than Williams but rather to simply contain Williams to some extent and make him work for everything he gets. Bryant's production figures to be the one constant in this series, so the game by game outcomes will be heavily influenced by the finesse versus strength battle in the paint and the point guard duel. Another important consideration is that Utah plays much better at home than on the road, which is why it should have been obvious that after two close games in L.A. the Jazz were not going to lose both games at home. If the Lakers cut down on their turnovers and play a little tougher in the paint then they can win game four in Utah but otherwise this will turn into a six or seven game series.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM