Kobe Bryant pretty much summed it up with his instant analysis of the Western Conference semifinal series between the Lakers and Jazz.
|Lamar Odom will need to step up his game vs. Paul Millsap and the Jazz. (Getty Images)|
Easy for him to say. The Lakers have dominated the Jazz in the postseason, with Bryant habitually turning them into his own personal box-score stuffer.
Bryant has averaged 33.6 points and shot 48 percent in 10 postseason games against Utah the past two seasons, leading to a 4-1 first-round victory last season and a 4-2 triumph in the 2008 conference semis. Factoring in regular-season games, Bryant has averaged 29.2 points on 45 percent shooting in 17 games against the Jazz, with the Lakers winning 13 of them.
The Lakers took the season series from Utah 3-1 this year, with Bryant again carrying the scoring load in the three games he played. But given the Lakers' slow-but-steady creep in the direction of more balance this postseason, all of these numbers give this year's Jazz-Lakers matchup a little extra dose of intrigue.
The Lakers unquestionably played better in the first round against Oklahoma City when they achieved offensive balance. The evolution prompted Bryant to scoff at naysayers who hypothesized that age and injuries were forcing him to let up on the throttle at a time when the Lakers still needed him to be a dominant scoring threat. No, it wasn't his achy knee or mangled finger or all the mileage, Bryant said. It was his "crew," as he called them.
"I can pick my poison," Bryant said after scoring on 13 points on only nine field-goal attempts in Game 5 against the Thunder -- on the heels of hoisting only 10 shots in Game 4. "So that when I get in the paint, teams have to make choices. If they play me, I'll kick it to my guys and they'll score if they have the advantage. If they don't, I'll have the advantage. Simple as that."
In the closeout game Friday night, Bryant reverted to the form many of us are more accustomed to seeing, scoring 32 points on 25 shots, including the miss in the final seconds that led to Pau Gasol's game-winning put-back with 0.5 seconds left. The Lakers got sizeable contributions in the first round from Gasol (18.0 points and 12.2 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum (12.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks). The offensive diversity prompted Gasol to say after Game 5, "We played the way that won us the championship last year."
If Bryant drifts into a passive role in this series, it will be the clearest sign yet that something is up -- either recognition on his part that he needs his "crew" to capture his fourth championship, or some combination of the aforementioned maladies. Bryant has averaged 22 field-goal attempts in his last 10 postseason appearances against the Jazz, who may not know what to do if their nemesis starts passing up shots. Based on recent history, the strategy for that certainly wouldn't be in the scouting report.
1. Lakers (57-25) vs. 5. Jazz (53-29)
Regular season: Lakers won, 3-1.
First round: Lakers beat Thunder 4-2. Jazz beat Nuggets 4-2.
Lakers: The rebounding battle was dead even (43.3 each) in six games against Oklahoma City, something the Lakers will need to address against Utah's more formidable front line.
Jazz: Deron Williams carried the Jazz past Denver, averaging 25.8 points and 11.3 assists. Just as clutch was Carlos Boozer, who came through with 22 points, 20 rebounds and five assists in the closeout game.
Lakers: Gasol feasted on the Jazz in the regular season, averaging 17.8 points and 16.8 rebounds -- including a monstrous 22-point, 19-rebound performance in the game Bryant missed. And he is the reason the Lakers are opening the conference semis on Sunday instead of facing elimination against the Thunder.
Jazz: Williams made a convincing case that he's the best point guard in the league by badly outplaying perennial postseason hero Chauncey Billups in the first round. The next step would be to slay Utah's playoff nemeses, Bryant and the Lakers.
Key matchup: Lamar Odom vs. Paul Millsap. As good as Boozer was against the Nuggets, Millsap's per-minute production was off the charts -- 17.3 points on 61 percent shooting from the field, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 32 minutes per game. The Lakers' second unit, which outplayed the Thunder's bench even without much of a contribution from Odom, will have to find a way to keep Millsap from wreaking havoc. That's where Odom comes in. The Lakers' sixth man wasn't dialed in at all in the first round, meandering to 7.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in 26 minutes a game. Other than Bryant, no other player is as important to the Lakers' success as Odom. He won't be able to skate by in this series.
Subplots: Andrei Kirilenko, who has missed 21 of Utah's last 23 games with a strained calf, is hoping to return in Game 2 or 3, when his length and defensive acumen will be helpful in Utah's attempt to finally corral Bryant in a playoff series. While the Cavs, Magic and Celtics made quick work of their first-round opponents, the Lakers expended more energy than they thought they'd have to against Oklahoma City. If the Jazz play as well as they did against Denver, the defending champs could be locked in another physically and mentally demanding series.
Berger's take: After being temporarily staggered by the lightning-quick Russell Westbrook, the Lakers now run into a bigger, stronger and more experienced threat at point guard. Williams is proving that he deserved serious MVP consideration. And while there is no Twitter handle (that I know of) impersonating Deron's elbow, it is worth noting that D-Will took a hard hit on that very important body part when Chris Andersen leveled him with a screen in the closing seconds of Game 6 Friday night. Like LeBron's elbow, Williams' appendage is expected to be fine.
Oklahoma City's strategy was to attack the Lakers' defense off the dribble in an effort to force the officials to give them calls. The Thunder had that, and perimeter shooting, but possessed nothing close to the threat that Utah's pick-and-roll game will present to the Lakers. The Jazz will look to exploit Derek Fisher until Fisher proves he can defend the play or the Lakers are forced to make adjustments. From a stamina standpoint, it would be ideal for the Lakers if they didn't have to run Bryant's tank by putting him on Williams for long stretches in this series.
In Games 5 and 6 against Oklahoma City, the Lakers' interior defense was stellar. But it's one thing to defend the basket against penetrating point guard and wings and quite another to do it against Boozer and Millsap. The Lakers can't afford lapses in that area, particularly late in the shot clock, when they have a tendency to let up.
Perhaps the most intriguing tactical decision to Phil Jackson will be how to deploy Ron Artest defensively. Putting him on Wesley Matthews would seem to be a waste, as Bryant could handle him without tapping too much into his fuel reserves. Putting him on Williams would be a stretch. Although in-season weight loss has improved Artest's quickness, he still doesn't have enough of it to keep Williams in front of him. Also, defending Williams in the pick-and-roll requires a more nuanced approach than Artest is accustomed to. His strength is guarding primary scorers who run off screens to get the ball in isolation as opposed to orchestrating the offense with the ball in their hands, like Williams.
In the end, the Lakers will be too much for the undermanned Jazz again, but don't be surprised if L.A. achieves the same outcome with a more balanced approach than they have in the past against Utah.
Prediction: Lakers in 6.