Los Angeles Versus Utah PreviewWestern Conference Second Round
#1 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #5 Utah (53-29)
Season series: L.A. Lakers, 3-1
Utah can win if…Deron Williams performs at an MVP level, Carlos Boozer and the other Utah bigs are able to be effective inside despite the length of L.A.'s bigs and the Jazz find a way to hold Kobe Bryant below 26-28 ppg on .450 field goal shooting without compromising their overall team defense to the extent that other Lakers get easy looks.
L.A. will win because…the Jazz have no one who can effectively match up with Bryant, so they will constantly have to double team him; that will open things up for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum inside and/or the Lakers' perimeter shooters. The Jazz' undersized and injury-depleted frontcourt will also have trouble dealing with the Lakers' length--provided that Gasol and Bynum play with poise and appropriate aggressiveness.
Other things to consider: Utah's only win versus the Lakers this season came in the game after Bryant suffered his infamous broken right index finger; Bryant shot just 7-24 from the field in the second game of a back to back and the Jazz won 102-94 at home. The last time these teams faced each other in the postseason was in the first round of the 2009 playoffs; Bryant averaged 27.4 ppg on .466 field goal shooting plus 5.6 apg and 5.0 rpg as the Lakers cruised to a five game series victory. When the Lakers and Jazz faced each other in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, Bryant averaged 33.2 ppg on .491 field goal shooting plus 7.2 apg and 7.0 rpg as the Lakers won in six games. Bryant set the tone right from the start in that series with 38 points in a 109-98 game one victory and the Lakers were never seriously threatened as the Jazz had no answer for Bryant--and they still have no one on their roster who can effectively check him.
Bryant struggled at times with his shot during the Lakers' six game win over the Oklahoma City Thunder--averaging 23.5 ppg on .408 field goal shooting--but he came up big in the decisive game with 32 points on 12-25 field goal shooting. That is the sixth straight time that Bryant has scored at least 30 points in a potential closeout game on the road, tying Elgin Baylor's NBA record and topping Michael Jordan's streak of five straight such games from 1988-90. Before the series I said that the Lakers would be in serious danger of losing unless Bryant scored 26-28 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field but the Lakers managed to advance even though Bryant fell short of both of those benchmarks. How did they do it? Bryant was off target in game one (team-high 21 points but only 6-19 shooting) but Kevin Durant shot even worse (24 points on 7-24 shooting) thanks to Ron Artest's suffocating defense, so the Lakers got an important win (despite what you may hear or believe, game one is very significant and the team that wins that game usually wins a series). Bryant had a series-high 39 points in game two and although his overall field goal percentage was less than optimal (12-28, .429), he controlled the game in the fourth quarter and carried the Lakers to victory. The Thunder bounced back in games three and four as Bryant first shot poorly (24 points on 12-29 shooting in game three) and then did not shoot enough (12 points on 5-10 shooting in game four). Game five proved to be the pivotal contest and Bryant did something that I did not expect considering how much his right knee has been limiting his bounce: Bryant took the challenge of guarding lightning quick point guard Russell Westbrook and completely disrupted the one player no other Laker could guard. This is actually a pretty standard move for Coach Phil Jackson--dating back to when Jackson put Scottie Pippen on point guards like Magic Johnson and Mark Jackson to cut off the head of the snake during the Bulls' championship runs in the 1990s--but I did not even mention this potential adjustment in my series preview simply because I did not think that in his current condition Bryant would be up to the task. Bryant's Pippen-like performance in game five--dominating a game with defense and playmaking despite not scoring much (13 points on 4-9 shooting)--shifted the series in the Lakers' favor and then Bryant closed out the deal in game six with his best all-around performance of the series.
All season long media critics have been carping that the Lakers made a mistake when they essentially swapped Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest but in the first round we saw just how valuable Artest is as a one on one, lock down defender versus elite scorers; Ariza used his strength and savvy to force 2010 scoring champion Durant into a miserable series (25.0 ppg on .350 field goal shooting, including 26 points on 5-23 field goal shooting in the clincher). Ariza is great at playing the passing lanes but he lacks the strength and overall defensive ability to do what Artest did to Durant; Ariza is a very solid role player who performed well for the Lakers in a limited, specified role last season (spot up three point shooter, rangy defender in the passing lanes) but Artest is a former Defensive Player of the Year/All-Star who can have a bigger impact on a game than Ariza can.
It sure is nice to be Pau Gasol; although he did good work on the glass in game six (18 rebounds) versus the Thunder, Gasol had shot just 3-10 from the field--looking tentative and off balance--before converting the game-winning putback of Kobe Bryant's missed baseline jumper: Gasol had a wide open path to the front of the rim because Nick Collison slid over to contest Bryant's shot. That kind of play is exactly what I mean when I say that Gasol is so fortunate to play with Bryant; during the first 47:59.5 of that game we got a pretty good sense of how much trouble the Lakers would be in if they needed Gasol to be the first option offensively in a closeout game--but Bryant's ability to draw double teams provides easy scoring opportunities for Gasol. When he is at his best, Gasol exploits those opportunities but--as Artest put it after the game--during game six Gasol "fell asleep" at times but fortunately for the Lakers he woke up literally at the last second to save the day. If the Lakers are going to return to the NBA Finals for the third straight year it is imperative that Gasol take more advantage of similar easy opportunities throughout the upcoming games, particularly since Bryant's injuries appear to be preventing him from dominating offensively to the extent that he usually does.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 AM