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Lakers 96, Jazz 85: Impressively mundane

Midway through the 2nd quarter of tonight's game, the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves down 17 points to the Utah Jazz.  There was literally nothing going right.  The Lakers were shooting in the low 30s, being killed on both the offensive and defensive glass, knocking the ball off each other in pursuing rebounds, and generally looking like a team that didn't get into town until 3:30 that morning (because that's exactly what happened).  It was the type of poor effort I described as being the only possible way the Lakers might lose tonight's contest, but it wasn't the type of poor effort that would be all that upsetting.  Having won 16 of their past 17 games, the Lakers deserved to be forgiven for a mixture of poor shooting and tired legs.

Instead, the Lakers once again used a huge 2nd half defensive effort to turn a large deficit into a blowout win.  Although the history is revisionist, it's difficult to look at this contest and come to any other conclusion than that the Lakers were in complete control of the game, even when facing a large mountain to climb in the first half.  Judging by their 2nd half play, it seems clear the team knew they only had one half's effort in them tonight, and decided to save that effort for when it counted.  Once they kicked into gear, all the Jazz could do was freeze up in fear as the Lakers steamroller came rolling through.  In the end, the Lakers picked up a fairly routine and mundane win.  That a mundane win could be possible on a night in which the team performed so poorly in the 1st half shows exactly how far this team has come over the past six weeks.


By far the most impressive aspect of the Lakers comeback was how at ease they looked in bringing it about.  At the moment in time in which the Lakers were down big, the game could have gone a few different ways.  They could pick up their play, stage a comeback, and overwhelm the Jazz down the stretch (which they did), they could fail to pick up their energy, get beat on the glass and to the hustle plays all night long en route to a big loss (as we've seen many times this season), or we could have been treated to option C, with variable potential outcomes.  What's option C, you ask?  Well, let me describe the variables one more time.  See if you can't figure it out.  On the road, on the second night of a back to back, playing with a lack of energy and aggression.  What normally happens when the Lakers find themselves in these circumstances?  Option C, of course, is when Kobe Bryant attempts to put the team on his shoulders and lead them to the promised land.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.  Sometimes, it's the right decision, and sometimes it blows up in Kobe's face (and in ours).  Based on the circumstances of the game, I can guarantee that an earlier season version of the Lakers would have seen some of option C tonight.  I half expected it myself.

But it never came to pass.  Kobe never went into uber-aggressive mode, and the team never looked to him to dig them out of a hole.  Instead, the entire team just gradually went from doing what they had been doing mid-season to doing what they've been doing the past few weeks.  Shots started falling, defensive intensity started picking up, rebounds started getting collected, and the team thrived on balance, both offensively and defensively.  If I told you the Lakers were down 17 to the Jazz in the 2nd quarter and asked you to estimate how many shot attempts Kobe would have by game's end, what would you guess?  20?  25?  30?  He ended the night with 14.  That is a far greater indication of how well this team is playing than 17 wins in 18 games.

As for the Jazz, they were pretty much as expected.  They played with great energy, but once the Lakers started even coming close to matching the energy output, this team's weaknesses started shining through like a lighthouse cutting through coastal fog.  The Jazz helped the Lakers out by turning the ball over 14 times, good for a 21% turnover ratio in the pivotal 3rd quarter.  Seven of those 14 turnovers came from the Jazz bench, which just so happened to be comprised of four guys who go by the title of rookie.  The Jazz roster is sadly decimated by injuries (real ones, not the figurative heart being ripped out of chest kind), and when you are forced to give that much time to players with that little experience, this kind of game is exactly what happens.

Of course, the Jazz also helped L.A. in a way that is so quintessentially Utah ... by hacking the shit out of them.  Through three quarters, the Lakers took 29 free throw attempts to the Jazz' nine, and I've never, in all my years of watching basketball, remembered a game in which I've seen a huge free throw discrepancy be so richly deserved.  It's been a tenant of Jazz basketball for years: Foul first, foul second, and ask questions after you've fouled again, in the hopes that the refs might get tired of blowing their whistles after the first or second time.  I have no idea how well that strategy has worked for Utah over the years, but tonight it was truly a foolish enterprise.  In the first half, the Lakers only managed 42 points, and 15 of them came from the free throw line.  Considering how much of a struggle the Lakers were making of shots both inside and out, those freebies were crucial in keeping the game within reach.  There's a damn good reason the Jazz rank dead last in the league in free throws given up.  Actually, I take it back, there's a damn obvious reason the Jazz rank last in that category.  I've yet to be convinced that reason is good.

Individual merit badges go to quite a few Lakers in this balanced win.  We've already mentioned Kobe, who deserves far more credit for allowing his team to pick themselves up than he would if he had tried to force them up on his own.  Pau Gasol continues to be automatic in one v one situations, scoring 16 points on 12 shots (FTs included), and we were given the additional treat of seeing the lowest flying alley-oop dunk in basketball history (I'm not entirely sure Pau even jumped to dunk Steve Blake's lob pass in the 3rd quarter).  Derek Fisher seems to have a special place in his heart reserved for taking revenge on the Jazz fans who booed him for leaving town on account of his daughter's health, and he was spectacular in dropping 15 points on 8 shots.  And the bench, who were absolutely woeful in the first half, changed the game in the 2nd half with their energy.  Steve Blake in particular looks like a new man.  His numbers are hardly what you would call special, with only 4 points, 4 boards, and 4 assists, but one play was the perfect illustration of his recent confidence with the team: A loose ball was batted out towards Blake and two Utah Jazz players on the Lakers' defensive end.  The three players converged on the spot, but Blake was just half a step quicker to the ball.  He grabbed it and, in mid-air, threw it around his back to start the break as the two Jazz players were left gripping nothing but air.  Blake continued down the court in a fast break opportunity and, with no passing lanes available, calmly pulled up for a not-so-dreaded pull up jumper in transition.  And Lamar Odom deserves major props for putting together another strong performance even as he wasn't feeling so well, apparently sick with stomach flu.  Forget 6th man of the year, LO would be a lock for 4th man of the year if such a thing existed.

In the end, the Lakers keep on trucking, and with San Antonio losing their sixth straight game against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers are now in control of their own destiny.  Win out the rest of the season, and they will be guaranteed home court advantage at least until the NBA Finals (if the Bulls also win out, they would have the league's best record by virtue of having a better record against the Western Conference than the Lakers do against the East).  If we're honest, as the Spurs are mired in a terrible slump, winning out may not even be necessary to seal the deal.  All of this was unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

Then again, if you were to tell me the Lakers won a game comfortably on the road, with no starter playing more than 36 minutes, no player scoring more than 21 points or taking more than 14 shots, and that game started with a terrible effort and huge 1st half deficit, I would have thought that to be pretty unimaginable, too.  The Lakers have been locked in and focused for well over a month now, but their confidence and belief in themselves and in each other continues to grow.











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