We knew coming into this series that the Lakers had developed a flip-the-switch mentality, mainly because they're often bored with, and unmotivated by, lesser competition. We had hoped, however, that the start of the 2009 Playoffs would be motivation enough to get the Lakers playing at or close to full potential. We expected them to come out strong in Game 1, putting the game so far out of reach that the starters could rest the entire fourth quarter.
That didn't happen. True, LA did come out strong in the first half, building a 22-point lead by half time. But they came out just as flat to start the third quarter, and the Jazz got within nine points on more than one occasion in the fourth, forcing Kobe and the starters to play significant fourth quarter minutes, and resulting in a far less convincing win than Game 1 should have been.
They said the right things after the game, fromt the coaching staff, to Kobe and Pau, to the last man on the bench: They were disappointed with their effort, and needed to play better in Game 2.
Again, that didn't happen. Once again, the Lakers got out to an early 20-point lead, but this time, the Jazz cut that lead to 11 by halftime. In the fourth quarter, they got within three points, before Kobe Bryant and Trevor Ariza sealed up the win.
Never have a pair of double-digit wins felt less satisfying.
Game 3 is the pivotal game of the series, and has been since before the playoffs started. It is in Utah, where the Jazz play extremely well. Given that, the Lakers should come out with energy and effort enough to make up for their first two lazy outings. But can we really expect that?
Tonight's game has the potential to determine how long this series is. Win and the Jazz will be demoralized by their inability to win a game, even on their home court. Kobe and Crew will be unlikely to pass up a chance at ending the series in Game 4, and the Lakers will sweep the Jazz in the first round, getting plenty of rest while the Rockets and Blazers "duke it out."
Lose, and the Lakers will finally have the motivation they need to bring their best game in Game 4, setting up a series-ending Game 5 back in Los Angeles. It all hinges on tonight.
Defensive effort and intensity are the keys to the game. The Lakers' offense is not a cause for concern, as Utah has done little to stop them. Offensively, they cruised through Game 2, putting up astronomical numbers — they scored 41 points on 86 percent shooting in the first quarter, and 119 points on 60 percent shooting overall. The problem was, the Jazz scored almost as easily, as the Lakers returned the favor and did little to stop them, allowing Utah to shoot 50 percent for the game.
So far, the only defensive showing has been in the first half of Game 1. In the first 24 minutes of this series, the Lakers were active on defense, disrupting Utah's sets, forcing them into unfavorable shots, and creating turnovers that led to easy offense. That defense hasn't been seen since.
Make no mistake: the Jazz have the best home court of any team in the league. In Utah, the Jazz average 4.2 points per game more than they do on the road — but more significantly, the Jazz' opponents average a whopping 9.5 points per game fewer than they do in their own buildings. This gives Utah a +10.8 point differential at home, as compared to a +2.9 differential on the road, making them 7.9 points better at home than they are on the road.
By comparison, the Lakers (who own the league's second-best home record) are only 4.9 points better at home than they are on the road.
EnergySolutions Arena is insanely loud, and the fans there are borderline mad with fanaticism (a stark contrast to the lazy, disinterested atmosphere of late in Staples Center). Knowing that it is their best chance to give their fans a taste of playoff satisfaction, the Jazz will play their best in Game 3. How will the Lakers respond to their first game in a true playoff atmosphere?
It's possible that the Lakers will be very aware that they have, in a sense, given the Jazz hope for a win at home — and that that, combined with a keen awareness of the innate difficulty of playing in Utah, will push them to play their best basketball in weeks. But would you bet on it? After two frustrating, disappointing performances to open the series — two blown opportunites to completely demoralize a terrible road team in LA — that is not a bet I would take.
While I tend to prefer an optimistic approach to my team, I have to be realistic here. I'm expecting the Jazz to take a solid lead in the first half, which the Lakers will begin trying to chip away at in the final minutes of the second quarter. In the third, they'll surely intend to "flip the switch," dust off the defense, and take the game over.
The question is, will that be enough to secure a win in Utah, against a highly motivated Jazz team with nothing to lose?
You tell me.