Well, the first round is over and done with. Let's hope this series was just a tune-up after playing mediocre teams for the final few weeks of the regular season, because the Lakers have some serious work to do if they hope to advance to the Finals.
First, I want to congratulate the Jazz and their fans on a terrific series. They were perhaps the most overlooked team in the playoffs and played with true passion, poise, and respect. I know Lakers fans always consider the Jazz to be not rivals but rather worthy adversaries, and always enjoy (and worry) whenever we see them in the playoffs. Most importantly, they gave Kobe and I think this entire team the wake-up call that they needed sooner rather then later.
Now I am going to divide the analysis of last night's game into two parts: the wonderful first 40 minutes and the horrific (and all to familiar) final 8 minutes.
For the first 40 minutes the Lakers played their finest basketball this series. The ball was moving with ease, everyone was contributing, and Kobe didn't have to distribute or score. It was the triangle run to perfection, and the Jazz had no answer. Oh, and our defense after the first quarter was outstanding. It seemed like the Jazz just wanted to crawl in a hole and let it end as little substituting was done and Sloan refused to call a timeout during one of the Lakers various runs.
Lamar Odom had what was perhaps his finest game and a Laker, and here's why. His numbers (26-15-4) although outstanding, were not his career best. The reason this was his finest game was because he finally pulled all of his talent and potential together and ran the Lakers' system to perfection. I don't think he made one mistake tonight. More importantly, however, he took charge and led the team almost the entire time that he was on the court (including when Kobe was out there with him). He would do his usual work on the glass and bring the ball up, but instead of passing to the high-post and cutting, he would drive and kick or start swinging the ball to an open teammate. In a nutshell, the offense was running through him and not Kobe, and I could not be more happy because this culmination of his talent has been 5 years in the making. He is finally starting to look like the Pippen to Kobe's Jordan. If he continues to play with this kind of confidence and play-making mentality, then I will guarantee a Lakers' championship right here, right now.
Aside from Odom, I keep waiting for Ariza to come back down to Earth, but he continues to kill opponents who lay off of him on defense. His play in the fourth quarter of game five was not spectacular, but he was nursing an injured ankle (although he could have fooled me). Of course his defense and hands are just as active as ever, why justifies his position as a starter all by itself.
Lastly, I felt that the bench played very well, so long as either Kobe or Lamar was out their with them to run the offense. Our second unit is deep and strong, but just doesn't seem to have the right chemistry when all four or five are out on the court together.
(On a side note, I think we need to come to grips with the fact that Bynum once again will not be a contributor in the Lakers' playoff run. He doesn't have his rhythm or timing back yet, and unfortunately the solution to this problem is long stretches of continuous playing time, which the Lakers just cannot afford to give him right now. I feel bad for the kid, but he just needs to stay positive and be ready if and when his number is called, especially against Yao.)
The near collapse in the final 8 minutes was entirely expected, and quite frankly it is getting old. The solution is actually pretty simple, and I think Phil Jackson sees it. What remains to be seen is whether he will put aside his stubbornness and mind games and make the necessary changes. My guess? Yes. The bottom line is that at least a couple of the starters and Kobe must remain in the game until the final minute or so. This is the NBA, where everybody can score and the emphasis is offense, so no lead is safe. Leave the starters in, and let the lead continue to grow, even at the expense of the other team's ego. This is the playoffs, so as far as I'm concerned sportsmanship with regards to the score goes out the window. If other teams aren't going to pull their starters, neither should we (although I realize that this time it was the Jazz bench that did us in).
Also, PJ needs to shorten the rotation to DF, KB, TA, LO, PG, UPS, SV, and AB, barring injury of foul trouble. There is no longer a need to get players (except maybe Fisher) extended rest, so limit the number of substitutions in order to keep momentum going. The first round is over, and the Lakers need to throw everything they have at their opponent each and every game. The Lakers are the most talented team on the league, so why leave anything to doubt. If it's pedal to the metal from here on out, then I doubt we will see many more blown leads.
That's it for Game 5 and the Jazz series. I can't wail for round two to start.
Go Purple and Gold!