In their final game of the regular season, the Lakers made it clear that they don't mind the idea of playing the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. Though Utah kept pace in the first half, LA was true to form by opening up a lead in the third quarter and increasing it in the fourth.
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For a brief moment, we toyed with the idea of letting the Jazz take the game and possibly facing either New Orleans or Dallas in the first round of the playoffs. In the end, however, we agreed that while we wouldn't be opposed to such a strategy if it truly were in the team's best interest, such was not the case last night. From there, the goal was simple: Come out strong, crush Utah's spirits, get in their heads, and make them dread the series that will start in a few short days.
As TheOdenator put it:
Beat the bejesus out of them, get in their heads, and make that first round match-up all the easier. ... Dictate how the series will go right now, clearly pick them, saying you know who we want to face in the first round, its you! Mwahahaha.
Make them dread having to face the Lakers. ... Get in there, crush them, leave them with spalding tattooed across their forehead, and then crush them again this weekend.
LAKERJK agreed, saying, "why not just discourage them from even believing that they have a chance against us in the first round!!" and Adamas hoped the Lakers would "pound the Jazz ... so the Jazz don't get any fancy ideas."
Unfortunately, the Lakers failed to come out strong and end the game early, allowing Utah to keep it close and even hold a lead for much of the first half.
While the Lakers' failure to dominate in the first half disappointed many Lakers fans who had hoped for both a Lakers win and plenty of rest for the starters, LA came through in the end, outscoring the Utah by seven in a classic strong third quarter and taking an eight point lead into the fourth. They quickly built on this lead, creating a 19-point advantage less than three minutes into the period.
While Utah tried to push back, Los Angeles was in control the rest of the way. They led by 20 at the seven-minute mark, and 21 with only four minutes remaining, before finishing with a 12-point victory.
While they didn't come out as strong as hoped from the opening tip, it was clear by the third quarter that losing the game and letting the Jazz move up to the 7-seed was never an option in the Lakers' minds. With slightly over three minutes remaining in the period, the Jazz were down only two points; if ever there were a moment to rest the starters, give Utah credit for playing hard, and give the Jazz a shot at the win, this would have been it.
Instead, the Lakers initiated what would become a 30-13 run, including a 13-2 spurt that put the game away for good, definitively designating the Jazz as the Lakers' first round opponents.
The game was an ugly one at times. The Lakers committed 16 turnovers and 31 fouls, sending the Jazz to the line 47 times (compared to 24 for LA). In fact, the free throw disparity was what kept Utah in the game in the first half, as Los Angeles led in every other significant category in the box score.
Nevertheless, there was plenty to be happy about in the win. As pookeyguru pointed out, "Whenever you play Utah you can expect a disjointed game." With that in mind, some sloppy play and a few too many fouls and turnovers in the first half can be forgiven, as the Lakers controlled the second half and turned a chippy, physical game against a highly motivated opponent into an easy win.
Andrew Bynum was a positive for the game, showing continued signs of improvement. His timing — one of the primary concerns as expressed by both Bynum and coach Jackson — appears to be improving, as he secured a couple key rebounds, cashed in on a very difficult alley-oop in traffic, and registered three blocks on the night, including an impressive come-from-behind block of quick-footed Deron Williams in the first quarter.
While the fact that Bynum collected only four rebounds in 30 minutes of play indicates that he's still a bit rusty and his timing still has a ways to go, these are things that will come in time. Fortunately, he appears to be getting back into game shape much quicker this time around than he did coming back from his first injury at the beginning of the season. Meanwhile, his offensive game appears to be close to pre-injury levels, and his conditioning appears to be solid, as he has consistently played more minutes than expected since his return, without showing significant signs of fatigue.
Sasha Vujacic was another positive for the game, finally seeming to find his stroke. He hit three of four 3-pointers and was six of eight from the field overall, scoring 15 points in only 21 minutes and helping to spread the floor for the Lakers. If he regains his shooting touch and can play like this in the playoffs, and especially the Finals, he will be a huge asset, pushing the Lakers one step closer to a championship.
Pau Gasol was his usual self, posting 20 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks, and a steal in what felt deceptively like a quiet game for him. Lamar Odom was solid off the bench, shooting 7-11 for 16 points, to go along with four assists, in only 19 minutes. If he can continue this level of play off the bench, it's hard to see anyone beating the Lakers, even in June.
Shannon Brown continued to impress, creating some spectacular plays with his athleticism on offense, and working hard on defense. While the game didn't provide a decisive answer to the question of whether Phil Jackson will use him as the primary defender against Deron Williams, he showed some promising signs, and Lakers fans seem to be excited about what he brings to the Lakers' game.
Statistically, Kobe Bryant had a quiet night, scoring only 16 points on 5-11 shooting, to go with five assists and two steals. His numbers were deceptive, however, as he spent much of the first half on the bench with foul trouble, and much of the second distributing and getting other players involved.
Though his numbers were fairly tame, it was impossible not to see his fingerprints all over the game, especially in the second half. While some expected Kobe to come out gunning in the third quarter, he spent much of that critical period orchestrating the offense, setting up teammates for easy shots, and playing hard on defense. As intuitive put it, Bryant "made sure [the Jazz] didn't control the game when the [went] on runs."
In all, the game was at times sloppy and often broked up by fouls, but aside from a slow start, the Lakers controlled the game and secured what ended up being a fairly easy win — which is what matters. They responded well to Utah's attempts to play tough and physical with them, and though this first round series may be a bruiser, last night's preview showed that it is one that the Lakers shouldn't struggle to control.
Derek Fisher had a quiet night, shooting 2-5 for just five points in 16 minutes, but in watching him, one got the sense that he was feeling a bit more comfortable, and his shot was looking better ... Anyone who predicted that Boozer would be blocked twice wins the Boozer Block Sweepstakes ... With the win, the Lakers became the first 65-win team not to have a winning streak of more than seven games ... They also became the second team to reach the 65-win plateau, the first time that has ever happened in a season ... 65 wins is the third best regular season record in franchise history ... After a scare on Sunday in which Andrew Bynum's knee survived a hard hit from Marc "The Tank" Gasol, Bynum appeared to have much more confidence in his knee tonight.