By halftime, there was an air of inevitability. It wasn’t just the game, the first of the Western Conference semifinals, but the series itself already seemed like a fait accompli. For those of you requiring a translator, that’s French for “waste of time.”
Floyd Mayweather-Shane Mosley held more suspense than this ABC rerun. Not that Sunday’s episode began as a blowout. Hell, it wasn’t even a bad first half, not with Deron Williams – probably the best point guard in basketball now – picking himself off the floor after an early collision and going off for 17. Indeed, after two quarters, the differential between Utah and Los Angeles was a mere eight points and five rebounds.
But it sure didn’t feel like a playoff game. So you wonder: when does May feel like February? When the Lakers are hosting the Jazz.
The last time Utah got a game here was Jan. 1, 2006. Williams was a rookie thrown in against the inestimable Smush Parker, who started along with Luke Walton, Brian Cook, Chris Mihm and Lamar Odom. That’s right, no Kobe Bryant.
But now the Lakers own the Jazz, having beaten them in three of four regular-season games this season and having eliminated them from the playoffs in each of the past two years. Don’t get me wrong, the Jazz are a good team, and a very tough one. But this series won’t be any different, certainly not with Utah down two starters – Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko – who won’t be back before Game 3, earliest.
Jerry Sloan’s players don’t talk about injuries, yet another reason for you to admire them. Instead, they speak of the need to be aggressive and attack the basket. It’s a mindset. Still, there’s a limit to what the power of belief can do.
“They’re huge,” conceded Carlos Boozer, who averaged 13.3 rebounds and 22.3 points on 58.3 percent shooting last series against the Nuggets. “But we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. That’s just the bottom line. Ain’t no secret. They got more big guys than we have, no excuses. We’re David. They’re Goliath.”
Little wonder, then, that the Bible featured no seven-game series, nor did any of the ancients have a front line like the Lakers, with two 7-foot starters and 6-foot-10 Odom coming off the bench.
As it happened, the Jazz got more out of their short, short-handed selves than anyone – even Jerry Sloan – had a right to expect. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Lakers fielding a team of Odom, Walton, Jordan Farmar, Andrew Bynum and Shannon Brown, the Jazz managed to take a lead, 82-81. It was enough for even Phil Jackson to call timeout.
Now the responsibility of guarding Kobe Bryant fell to rookie Wes Matthews. The 23-year-old had a sober understanding of the task. “I grew up a basketball fan,” he said. “My favorite player was Kobe Bryant. I watched everything he ever did. You know it’s coming; you just got to prepare yourself for it.”
And for a time, the matchup went just fine for Matthews and the Jazz. With 4:10 remaining, Utah had upped its lead to four. Then everybody suddenly remembered this was a Lakers-Jazz playoff game. And once again, Bryant did what Bryant does. It was another standard playoff reel: 10 points in the last four minutes.
“Kobe obviously finished us off,” Sloan said.
Actually, it wasn’t just Kobe. It was the Lakers’ superior size. In those last minutes, Boozer had his shot blocked by Odom, a play that led to a Bryant jumper. Then, with 49 seconds left, Odom went over Boozer for a put-back layup. Matthews had his shot blocked by Gasol, one of his five blocks in the game. Gasol was fouled and went to the line for his 24th and 25th points.