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Lakers 96, Jazz 102: Hey, The First Quarter Was Fun!

It's hard to complain about the hospitality the Lakers received in Salt Lake City tonight. The Utah Jazz were kind enough to spot the champs an early 19-point lead. That cushion lasted, oh let's see, almost until halftime. Then there was a five-point Laker lead with less than three minutes left in the game. That lasted all of two possessions. An opportunity to claim their first big road win of the season was put on a tee for them, and the Lakers shanked it. At both ends of the court they disintegrated down the stretch, and the Jazz were more than happy to take advantage for a 102 to 96 victory.

Say this for Utah: they can take a punch. In the first quarter they didn't belong on the same court as the Lakers. The gold and purple used a sparkling display of ball movement and shooting touch to sprint out to a massive early lead. After 12 minutes the Lakers' large three of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom had combined for 25 points on 11-for-14 field goal attempts. Ninety seconds into the second period, Matt Barnes dropped in a bucket to make the score 36 to 17, and it seemed the Lakers had picked up right where they left off in last May's playoff sweep of the Jazz.

That Utah fought their way back into the game wasn't wholly surprising. A team with their talent, playing at home, doesn't go down easily. What did surprise, though, was the source and swiftness of their counterattack. Backcourt reserves Ronnie Price and Earl Watson were the catalysts. In the second period they blitzed the Laker D off the dribble and from behind the arc and thoroughly outplayed Shannon Brown and Steve Blake during a 29-9 Jazz run. Kobe, who had an excellent night, scored the last five points of the half to send the Lakers into the break with a four-point lead, but the initiative had swung to the hosts. Utah's surge would portend all sorts of unsexiness to come in the second half.

Deron Williams began the night quietly, not asserting himself much in the Jazz offense nor exploiting his gruesome mismatch against Derek Fisher. But from when he reentered the game in the middle of the second quarter, he was simply splendid. In the third and fourth periods he dominated the Laker defense with dribble penetration that set up both himself and his teammates with easy scores. Obvs Fish stood no chance of staying in front of him, and once Williams got into the paint it was child's play for him to read the help D and either toss in a floater or feed one of his big men for a lay-in.

Williams finished with an awesome stat line of 29 points on only 17 shots (including free-throw possessions) with 12 assists and just a pair of turnovers. After snapping out of their first-quarter funk, the Jazz scored 1.31 points per possession, a testament to D Will's brilliant generalship of the offense. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap teamed up for 33 points, every one of which seemed to result from Gasol and Odom needing to leave their assignments to attend to Williams.

(This is where I'd usually mention how helpful Andrew Bynum is to the Lakers' defense. Today I don't really feel like cutting-and-pasting that paragraph in, but the point stands. I think you basically know where I'm coming from.)

Kobe did what he could to match D Will highlight-for-highlight. Late in the fourth he treated us to a vintage Kobe eruption, scoring 14 points in five possessions to put the Lakers up 96 to 91. But Williams just calmly kept on doing what he do. On Utah's next three trips he found Millsap for a layup, hit a trey and then found Raja Bell for a layup. Just like that the Jazz were up two. The Lakers wouldn't score again.

Indeed, the endgame was especially unpretty. Shot-clock malfunctions made for choppy, stop-and-go play. And when the Lakers had the ball with less than a minute to go and down only a pair, the Jazz succeeded in getting the rock out of Kobe's hands. Two critical possessions ended with missed shots by Ron Artest. Neither were terrible looks, but clearly it's not ideal to route those shots to Ron. This was the second time this season (the first being the loss in Denver) when the Lakers' late-stage offensive execution failed them in a close game.

The broader problem is that no one outside of Kobe, Pau and Lamar played well. The bench had its first real clunker. Barnes was so-so, but Brown (five points on eight shots) was off and Steve Blake (zero points on seven shots) was way off. As a team the Lakers made only four of 15 attempts from long distance, their worst effort of the year.

So the champs drop to 13-3, still second place in the West. They fly back to Los Angeles tonight to play the Indiana Pacers on Sunday before hitting the road again for a back-to-back in Memphis and Houston next week. There's plenty to iron out between now and then.











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