This being the second round of the playoffs, there sure is a weird lack of suspense around here. Shouldn't we all be feeling a bit more anxious? The Utah Jazz were a good team this year, right? I didn't just imagine that?
Confirmed: in the regular season, the Jazz won only four fewer games than did the Lakers. Given the seemingly universal view that the Lakers are going to advance, however, you'd think the Indiana Pacers somehow slipped into the Western Conference playoff bracket, perhaps through a paperwork mixup. Even John Hollinger, historically the NBA scrivener most enamored with Utah's virtues, took the Lakers. I'm sure someone, somewhere - a Jazz blogger maybe, or a Deseret News columnist - picked Utah, but I can't imagine anyone co-signing that prediction who isn't (a) pandering to an audience, or (b) woefully uninformed.
Here at Silver Screen and Roll, we never pander to our audience. You're all too smart and sexy for that sort of thing. That top looks great on you, by the way. You been working out?
Yesterday C.A. explored how the sequence of events in Game One - big Laker lead, followed by a blown Laker lead, followed by a Laker win anyway - is amenable to a pair of interpretations. Maybe you're troubled that they didn't administer a killshot when up by double digits. Maybe you're reassured by how they asserted control when necessary. Maybe you're both. The two aren't directly in conflict. But whether one leans toward optimism or angst concerning this Laker team, I don't think anything that went down in Game One should alter expectations for how this particular series will unfold.
What I took from Game One is a reinforced view that the Lakers' core five - which, in light of Andrew Bynum's impairment, we should start to think of as comprising Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher - has an overwhelming advantage over Utah's. At full strength, the Jazz have superior depth. (Just think how giddy you'd be if the Lakers could bring an Andrei Kirilenko or Kyle Korver off the bench.) But the Jazz aren't anywhere near full strength, and in a playoff series, let alone a single game, depth isn't as much a factor. With days off and the season nearing its end, a team can ride its front-line talent heavily, and on that basis it doesn't look as if Utah has the goods to compete.
Plus-minus is a dodgy stat, especially when you're talking about one game, but the numbers from Sunday are instructive. All five of the Laker core players posted a +5 or better, while the Utah core (the starters, minus Kyrylo Fesenko, plus Paul Millsap) all posted a -4 or worse. The Jazz have some excellent talent, obviously. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Deron Williams sucks because he was -12 in Game One. What I think these figures do illustrate, however, is how Phil Jackson can call on his starters to build or rebuild leads, as needed. The situayshe can look a tad grim when the reserves are fumbling around, but unlike Jerry Sloan, Phil can dial up a 15-8 run in pivotal moments. It's for exactly the reasons you've been hearing since we knew Utah would be the second-round opponent: height and Kobe Bryant.
I admit to surprise with how well Kobe has recovered from his horrid April. I didn't think he'd be able to find his vintage offensive game until he'd had weeks, if not months, of rest and rehab. That he brought the fire on such short rest, less than two days after wrapping up the OKC win, suggests that his game is once again fully operational, or practically so. There's some chatter that Kirilenko will return tonight, and if he does he'll likely be on Kobe Detail at least part-time. Keep in mind, he hasn't played in over five weeks. If ‘Drei gets run tonight, he won't be in peak physical condition, and it's too much for Utah to ask that he go from zero to Kobe Stopper in his first game back. Granted, they need all the help they can get. Coming back from 0-2 will be nigh impossible, so for the Jazz it's all hands on deck.
The Lakers head into Game Two with a wounded soldier of their own in the form of Andrew Bynum. Everything we're hearing is that Drew's meniscus tear is a pain-management issue. It hurts when he jumps, lands or cuts, and it won't get back to full strength until he has reparative surgery, but doing so now would end his season. In the meantime no one seems that worked up about the possibility that he could do longer-term damage to that knee of his, so I guess I'll just put that worry out of my mind. If he continues to play with the same lack of explosion we saw in Game One, it'll eventually be a thorny problem for the Lakers, but not likely in this series.
Otherwise the Lakers have the look of a squad that's picking up some nice steam. It's a bit suspicious that they've taken on this encouraging appearance only 10 days removed from their disgraceful bludgeoning at the hands of OKC in Game Four. Seriously, is there some catch here that I'm missing?
All systems seem to be go, more or less. There's no excuse for not carpet-bombing this admirably resilient but not-exactly-conference-finals-caliber Jazz team in four or five games. Oddly enough, the needle on the Lakerdom stress meter has fallen since the first round. Even more oddly, it all kind of makes sense.
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