I'm man enough to admit it. I did not see that coming. My thoughts on the Utah Jazz's ability (or lack thereof) to compete with the Lakers over a 7 game series are well known. Those thoughts have been proven correct. The Jazz lacked the necessary tools to defeat the Lakers. They just don't have enough ... not enough height, not enough defense, not enough offensive threats, not enough healthy contributors. They maximize what they have, but even that maximum was never going to derail the champs. I'm not trying to shit on the Jazz here. I have the utmost respect for everyone on that team not named Carlos, and while Jerry Sloan has never, and probably will never, hoist a Larry O'Brien, it should not take away from what will continue to be a fantastic coaching career. It's just that this wasn't their year. They probably weren't moving on past this round even with a full squad, but the limitations of Andrei Kirilenko and the absence of Mehmet Okur killed their chances before the 1st game tipped off. Better luck next year. You probably won't miss the playoffs as long as D Will remains healthy.
That the Lakers were capable of beating the Jazz four straight times was never in question. What was in question was the Lakers ability to see their advantages over an opponent, and exploit those advantages ruthlessly and consistently. What was in question was the Lakers ability to hold their focus long enough to avoid dropping game(s) they didn't have to. We didn't get 16 out of 16 quarters of focus, but we did get 12-13, which is a notable improvement over what the Lakers usually deliver against teams they know are over-matched.
Whereas the story of the last playoff series was defense, the story of this sweep came from the offense, so much so that the defense will be all but ignored in this recap. You can talk about about the dominance inside, you can talk about Kobe Bryant, and you can talk about the Lakers continued climb out of outside shooting hell, and we'll discuss all those things in depth. But the overall view paints the prettiest picture of all; the Lakers averaged 1.2 points per possession over the course of this series. To pull a Kelly Dwyer and "put things in perspective", that's better than any team averaged in the regular season, by a fair margin. Put simply, the Lakers offense hasn't looked that good for more than a game at a time all season long.
They've had the tools to create this sort of offensive dominance from the get-go. The talent has been there all season long. What has been lacking is a willingness to play the offense as it should be played on every possession. Too many possessions were burned this season without giving the offense it's due process. The perimeter players get most of the blame here, and they all deserve a share: Kobe, Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and Ron Artest all took turns launching stomach churning shots at one time or another. And even when due diligence was observed, our post players took turns struggling with their efficiency in putting the ball in the basket. There was a general unwillingness to make the extra pass, to say nothing of the pass after the extra pass which so often feeds the triangle's offensive success.
One can never know which trends will continue and which ones will fade away, but if you want an accurate description of the Lakers offense in this playoff series, re-read every negative thing in that last paragraph and turn them all on their ear. Poor outside shots being taken instead of feeding the ball inside? The exception instead of the norm. Lack of ball movement? Try again. Post players not knowing what to do with the ball? Pau Gasol laughs at the thought.
Pau ... he deserves his own paragraph. Nothing short of spectacular in this series. 23.5 points on 14 shots, 14.5 rebounds and nearly 3!!! blocks a game. Despite the wonderful nature of that line, even it fails to properly describe how amazing the Spaniard was. This was the Pau that was garnering some first team All-NBA consideration last year. This was the Pau that might be the best all around big man in the game, who can at least be compared to Dwight Howard because Howard's offensive game remains limited. This was the Pau who properly plays the "2" role in the 1-2 punch that is head and shoulders above what anybody else in the league can throw out there.
And the "1"? He's pretty good too. The season hasn't been all roses for Kobe Bryant. He's struggled with injury. He's struggled with shooting. He's struggled with properly assessing his struggles, with trying to do too much while faced with too much. Those struggles sure seem to be a thing of the past. Whether by choice, force of will, or a list of injuries that seems to be quickly diminishing in severity and effect, the Mamba has returned to the form of the guy who will take his place amongst the game's greatest when his career is done. Kobe scored 32 points per in this series, and he did it on 22 shots. Bryant, who couldn't even muster an eFG over 50% on the year, just busted 4 games at 52% shooting, no adjustment required. He wasn't exactly gangbusters from distance, hitting only 25% of his 3's, but it didn't matter because he only attempted 3 treys per game. All the rest of his work was done with elbow post ups (a zone I will now refer to as "The Mamba Zone") and drives to the rim. Maybe he had more in reserve then he was letting on, maybe he can see the light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe the time in between playoff games suits his injury list. Whatever it is, as is often the case, Kobe is finishing strong.
But, without a doubt, the crest of the wave of offensive momentum the Lakers are surfing is their suddenly not-so-anemic outside shooting. Only 33% on the series as a whole, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The whole story is that the Jazz responded to the Lakers utter inside domination in games 1 and 2 by daring the Lakers to beat them from the outside in game 3. On the road, surrounded by 18K hostile fans, the Lakers were begged to launch three pointer after three pointer. It's the defense that we've been fearing since the All-Star break, the one that seemingly has the best chance to neutralize all our competitive advantages. The Lakers fell right into the trap ... and snapped that shit in half. 44% shooting, hitting 13 of 29 three pointers. Game 3 victory, series over. Combined with a decent 35% shooting in Game 4, and the 12-24 mark to close out Game 6 vs. OKC, the Lakers have shot 44% from 3 on the road (in probably the two most intimidating environments that exist in the NBA) in their last three games.
Derek Fisher continues to play his part. In a sample size that no longer fits in the "too small to derive meaning " category, Fisher's shooting has been consistently decent this postseason. I said in the OKC recap that Fisher is justifying his place on the court, because while his defense will always be bad, a Fisher that makes outside shots and doesn't take too many stupid shots is a great asset to have out there. Well, Fish's eFG for the series is right there with Kobe's at a robust 54%. He was joined in the act by both his backups, as Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar both hit a good percentage (37% and 44% respectively) Oh, and Ron Artest? The guy shooting 23% from 3 in the playoffs? The one almost single handed-ly responsible for the relatively low overall team 3 pt shooting for the series (thanks to a combined 1-10 from 3 in the first two games)? He went 50% on 10 attempts in the last two games. That sound you just heard was the rest of the league swearing under their breath. If you can't beat the Lakers by packing it in and watching them brick shot after shot, you probably can't beat them.
On the other side of the ball, the Lakers gave up 1.11 points per possession in the series, right at the Jazz season average, and that's not great. But three of the four games saw the Jazz in the 1.07-1.09 range, only Game 3's 1.24 PPP drove the number up (in a loss, no less). Not the best defensive series, but considering the Jazz's considerable offensive talent, I can be satisfied with those results. The Lakers did a pretty decent job of containing D Williams (yaaaaaay Fisher), and outside of Paul Millsapp, the rest of the Jazz just don't do very well against this team. There's not much to talk about.
So the Jazz are done, and the Lakers aren't. Next up are the Phoenix Suns, who sport every bit as much optimism regarding their form as the Lakers do. Anything resembling a sweep in either direction seems unlikely, but at least now we know that if the Lakers are capable of it, we might actually see it.