The Game One Victory That Almost Wasn't, But Then Was

Three words you're going to hear a lot between now and Tuesday night are killer instinct and focus. The suggestion will be that the Lakers don't possess those things in adequate quantities, which is why a 14-point lead against the Utah Jazz today fell apart and became a three-point deficit. Of course, that three-point deficit quickly disappeared and became a five-point win, so try sorting out what it means that the Lakers both allowed a heroic comeback and accomplished one themselves, all in the span of a single game.

Best I can tell, that's a fool's errand. Just as there are no moral victories in the playoffs, there are no moral losses either. The Lakers won today, 104 to 99, putting them one game closer to getting out of the second round and one game closer to defending their title. I personally don't intend to fry any neurons attempting to draw conclusions about the Lakers' inner lives and possible character flaws from how they went about it.

Granted, for a while there this game had the look of a blowout. The Lakers were incredibly sharp offensively through the first quarter-and-a-half. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol orchestrated the attack as well as they've done all year, and all sorts of supporting players (Shannon Brown, Derek Fisher, Luke Walton) knocked down timely shots. Utah struggled to find good angles to the basket early on, not really getting into any sort of offensive groove until the second half. The absence of Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko hurt them visibly. Kyrylo Fesenko was a total zero. Either Okur or Kirilenko would've given the Jazz much-needed length to help defend the Lake Show's inside shots, as well as someone to stretch the Laker defense and punish them for keeping the gimpy (but nonetheless effective, at times) Andrew Bynum on the floor.

The Utah surge started in the third quarter when secondary guys like C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews started to connect on drives and open outside looks. That stabilized the deficit until Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap could get their pick-and-roll sets working. I'm not going to say I wasn't surprised that the Lakers' lead evaporated, but we shouldn't have been completely shocked that the Jazz made it a contest. Teams don't reach the second round by rolling over and dying when they fall behind on the road. 30-point thrashings just don't happen much at this stage. The remaining teams are too good and will find ways to implement their systems even when circumstances are dire.

What we saw from the Lakers in the final minutes of the game I found very encouraging. There was Kobe, and there was Pau, executing a patient and coordinated attack to seal the win. Kobe looks better now than he has at any time since the early days of the season. He's getting great lift on his jumpshots and is finding the right balance between distribution and finding his own points. Special kudos as well to Lamar Odom. His three balls are still off-target, but he did fine work on the boards today. Just in the fourth quarter, Lamar collected four offensive rebounds that led to six Laker points.

What must be frustrating for Utah is that they lost despite getting decent production from second-tier dudes Miles and Matthews. Those contributions aren't going to be there every game, so they'll need even more from Williams, Boozer and Millsap. They also need Fesenko to give them something. There are almost four full days of rest between Tuesday's Game Two and Saturday's Game Three, so by the time this series gets to Utah we could see Bynum functioning at something closer to 100%. If we get to that point and the Jazz still haven't stolen a win in Staples, the series could be over fast.











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