Except for one thing, this game started out very badly. Except for a singular force, the Lakers were all set to dig themselves into an early hole, a deficit from which they might not have recovered. Except for one player, the Lakers couldn't buy a basket in the first quarter.
That exception, as you might have guessed, was Kobe Bryant.
While the rest of the Lakers were busy missing their first five shots, Kobe Bryant hit his first four, and six of his first seven. He wasted no time, either, his first basket coming a mere 18 seconds into the game.
All totaled, the Laker players not named after high grade beef combined for only two field goals in the second half. In one stretch spanning two and a half minutes, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol missed mid-range jumpers, and Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher missed wide open 3-point attempts. The dry spell was bookended by jumpshots by Kobe Bryant which found nothing but net.
While his teammates struggled early on, Bryant put the Lakers on his back, keeping the game close until they could get their act together. Probably inspired by their leader's resolve, his teammates responded to start the second quarter. Three consecutive 3-pointers by Walton, Vujacic, and Brown erased a five-point deficit with Kobe on the bench. With the game tied at 36, Bryant promptly opened up a Lakers lead.
Hitting jumpshot after indefensible jumpshot, Kobe led the Lakers to a 40-point second quarter and a seven-point halftime lead. He followd a 13-point first quarter with an 11-point second, and entered the break with 24 points on 10-13 shooting.
As predicted, the Lakers as a team bounced back in a number of areas. The Jazz had a staggering 15-rebound advantage in Game 3, but in Game 4 the Lakers won the battle of the boards by seven. They still tallied only 19 assists, and the ball movement at times remained below Lakers standards, but it's hard to complain when a large reason for this was Kobe Bryant's hot shooting, given that few of his baskets came on assists from his teammates. LA also bounced back from a terrible shooting night by hitting 51.9% of their shots from the field in Game 4, including 42.1% shooting on three-pointers.
Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom combined for 25 rebounds, and Gasol looked more comfortable at the charity stripe, missing only two free throws on the night (as compared to six in Game 3). The bench, which had been a no-show in the previous game, played very well, particularly during the early second-quarter run that erased Utah's five-point lead — as well as the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarter, when a lineup featuring Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, and Shannon Brown turned an 11-point lead into a 20-point blowout.
Walton was another improvement over Game 3 (in which he had no points, assists, or rebounds), shooting 3-6 on the night and adding five rebounds, three assists, and three steals in 18 minutes.
The defense was nothing to write home about, but it was certainly much improved over the previous game. One can only hope that against a team like the Cavaliers, the Lakers will be even better and (most importantly) more consistent on that end of the court. Nonetheless, LA buckled down and got defensive stops during several key stretches, which enabled them to go on runs and open up a lead that the Jazz were never able to cut into.
Carlos Boozer (23 points, 16 rebounds) and Deron Williams (23 points, 13 assists) still had good games, but both shot below fifty percent and their impact on the game was not what it had been in the Jazz' only win of the series.
Pau Gasol still looked confused on defense for much of the game, and the Lakers' bigs at times still struggled to box out Utah's active, physical rebounders. Gasol, in particular, continued to be bothered by Utah's physicality on both ends of the court, as did Andrew Bynum, who is struggling to scrape the rust off in the midst of a very physical playoff initiation. Lamar Odom, on the other hand, continued his stellar play against the Jazz, tallying 10 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, two blocks, and a steal, as well as numerous other positive contributions that don't show up in the box score.
All things told, Laker fans should still expect significant improvement from their team. The front line will need to toughen up, rebound better, and learn to deal with physical playoff basketball. The team as a whole will need to give even more effort on defense, and more consistently. But on a night where the Lakers needed to show that they could turn up the intensity when the situation called for it, they did just that, and the result was an easy win.
Of course, having Kobe didn't hurt.