Lakers Finally Play Like Champions
L.A. took a 3-0 series lead over Utah by a final of 111-110, and did so in thrilling fashion. The visitors were able to get contributions from a variety of sources and made big play after big play in a hostile environment, showing they may finally be ready to defend their title against the league's elite teams.
And it's worth reviewing exactly how they did it.
With just under six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant scored inside to cut the Utah lead to three at 98-95. It would be the Lakers' last field goal for the next three and half minutes of game time. But after Lamar Odom made a free throw to make it 98-96, neither team was able to score for the next two minutes.
Deron Williams finally broke the drought with a couple of free throws to extend the lead back to four. On the following possession, Bryant missed his fourth shot in a row, a short jumper that was cleaned up by Odom who was then fouled. After he hit both free throws to make it 100-98, this is when things started to get nuts.
2:34 -- Carlos Boozer fumbles the ball out of bounds after receiving a perfect pass from Kyle Korver that should have, at the very least, resulted in two free throw attempts. Instead, the Jazz get nothing, and the Lakers make them pay on the following possession.
2:25 -- Lamar Odom hits a wide open three-pointer in stride, a little to the left of the top of the three-point arc. Many observers might have questioned the shot selection, but when Odom has that much space off the dribble, he's at his best from distance. Lakers take the lead at 101-100.
2:10 -- Paul Millsap scores on a twisting layup inside after the Jazz run their half-court set to perfection. Jazz retake the lead, 102-101.
1:43 -- Bryant answers, dribbling left to the baseline and elevating for an 18-foot fade-away that's an extremely tough shot for anyone else but one that Bryant has practiced enough for it to be a high-percentage look. 103-102, Lakers back on top.
1:23 -- Deron Williams drives into the paint, draws the defense and then kicks it out to find Kyle Korver all alone behind the three-point line. Korver was 8 of 9 from the field and 4 of 4 from three-point land for the game up until then, so it wasn't at all surprising to see him calmly knock down the huge shot, which put the Jazz back up two at 105-103.
This is where things got a little dicey for L.A., and would likely have unraveled to the point where it would have cost the game to any other team. But the Lakers finally showed that in this postseason, they can no longer be considered "just another team."
Ron Artest missed a spot-up three-pointer on the following possession. He had finally broken out of his shooting slump by hitting 4 of 6 from downtown up until taking that one, but if you're playing the Lakers, you'll take Artest shooting threes with the game hanging in the balance every single time. Wesley Matthews grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Pau Gasol, and the rookie hit one of his two free throws on the other end to extend Utah's lead to three at 106-103.
Not an insurmountable deficit by any means, especially when there's still over a minute to play and Kobe Bryant happens to be on the team that's trailing. But again, it's the postseason, in one of the loudest arenas in the league, and the home team is asserting itself, doing everything in its power to win a game and get back into the series. And yet, the Lakers were not only able to hold them off, but managed to come from behind in the closing minute to do so.
0:54 -- Derek Fisher hands it off to Bryant at the top of the arc, and does a nice job of screening Matthews to get Kobe some space. Bryant dribbles to his right, and Fisher's man, Deron WIlliams, gets caught behind Pau Gasol, giving Bryant just enough space to hit a game-tying three-pointer. The only surprise here was L.A. actually screening to get Kobe some space instead of putting him in the all-too-familiar isolation situation.
0:42 -- Deron Williams has played as well as anyone in these playoffs, averaging over 24 points and 10 assists per game. He proved clutch here as well, finding his way to the right baseline and hitting a tough fall-away jumper over the outstretched arm of the seven-foot Gasol. Jazz go back up by two at 108-106.
0:28 -- Bryant uses a screen by Gasol to begin a drive towards the lane, when a couple of Jazz defenders sag to cut him off. This leaves Derek Fisher open behind the arc, and Bryant finds him for a high-arcing three-pointer which put the Lakers up for good at 109-108.
The Jazz had a better-than-average shot to win it on the final possession, after the Lakers inexplicably had Artest making the inbounds pass that led to the L.A. turnover that gave Utah one final chance. (Lamar Odom almost always is the one making that pass in those situations, but for some reason, Shannon Brown had checked into the game and Odom was on the bench. Oddly enough, Odom went back in for Brown immediately following the turnover).
Deron Williams had a good look at a jumper just inside the three-point line but missed; Wesley Matthews got his hands on the ball in the air for a follow-up tip-in as time expired but the ball rattled out -- and the Lakers came away with the victory.
Some might say L.A. was more lucky than good on that final possession, and maybe a better team like Cleveland or Orlando would have made them pay for the turnover by Artest followed by the failure to box out Matthews. But the bottom line is that the Jazz couldn't do it, and the Lakers were able to withstand their best shot.
The fact that L.A. had guys not named Kobe Bryant making big shots down the stretch on the road and in one of the league's most hostile environments showed that at long last, the team is ready to defend its title. It may have taken a while to get here -- the entire regular season plus a round and a half of the playoffs -- but it's clear now that the championship is the Lakers' to lose.