LOS ANGELES -- It was another Jazz-Lakers game, following the same script: The Lakers build a big lead, the lead goes away for a while, and Kobe Bryant has the ball in his hands and his toes on the free-throw line in crunch time.
"Kinda repetitive," Utah's battered point guard, Deron Williams, said with more than a hint of resignation after the Lakers did what they do to the Jazz, beating them 104-99 on Sunday in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
But something was different about this one, and it wasn't just the fact that the Jazz actually took the lead briefly in the final five minutes in what Williams called the best game they've played at Staples Center in his five-year career. This had everything to do with the Lakers, and much more to do with how worried their next two opponents should be.
After the Jazz took a 93-89 lead on Wesley Mathews' driving layup with 4:10 left, Bryant scored 11 of the Lakers' final 15 points down the stretch -- seven of them at the free-throw line. This was nothing new, especially against the Jazz, the team Kobe has tormented in the postseason more than any other.
But for the second straight game in this postseason, the biggest basket was one that Bryant didn't make. And just as in the closeout game in Oklahoma City on Friday night, it came on an offensive play that Kobe initiated.
In Game 6 against the Thunder, Pau Gasol sent the Lakers into the second round with a put-back with 0.5 seconds left. In Game 1 against the Jazz, Lamar Odom corralled a shot (or pass?) from Bryant that caromed off the glass, scoring in traffic and giving the defending champs a 98-95 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Yes, the Lakers' second unit was brutal, giving up an eight-point lead at the start of the fourth. The bench was so bad, in fact, that Bryant openly chided the reserves in the postgame news conference, while Lamar Odom said of the bench, "Our collective energy as a unit is really suspect."
And yes, the Jazz scored 50 points in the paint, something the Lakers will have to shore up against more dangerous opponents. But those are stories for another day. The story now is this: The Lakers have suddenly realized that they have two 7-footers and a 6-10 sixth man. Their ability -- and willingness -- to use their size advantage as a weapon late in playoff games is bad news for the Jazz. It's even worse news for the Suns, Spurs, Cavs or Magic in the next two series.
"We use it every once in a while," said Gasol, who had a career playoff-high five blocks, including two in the final minute. "But obviously it's important to us. It's an advantage that we have and we continue to do a pretty good job of communicating better and recognizing what we have."
|Pau Gasol's size advantage will be tough for Carlos Boozer to combat. (Getty Images)|
"It's time to step up and really prove what kind of player you are out there," Gasol said. "That's what I try to do. I try to do whatever it takes to help my team win, play super hard, and play physical. More contact is allowed and you've got to play through that."
The Lakers did that. As far as Jerry Sloan was concerned, his team didn't. When Sloan, one of the hardest-nosed players and coaches in NBA history, described how the Lakers had basically bullied his team on Sunday, it said all you need to know about how far the Lakers have come in the toughness department.
"They will take your nose and stick it in the ground and turn around on their heels on top of you," Sloan said. "That's how good they are."
The Lakers will do that? The same team that was so soft against the Celtics in the Finals only two years ago? The same team that, for two games, was scared of the Thunder? If Sloan is right, and the Lakers' opponents the rest of the way are going to have to contend with "getting your nose rubbed in the dirt," then this is a very scary set of circumstances for them indeed.
So are two very important and sorely needed wakeup calls, the second of which may have happened Sunday. With the Lakers' other two towers, Andrew Bynum and Odom, you never know what you're going to get from night to night. That has changed with Bynum, who fought through another balky knee episode to contribute eight points and 10 rebounds -- the sixth time in seven postseason games that he has been a significant factor.
"He's doing a great job playing through injuries, and sometimes you got to do that," said Bryant, who attributed his second straight 30-point playoff game to a dramatic improvement in his own sore knee. "I think that's maturity for a young player to figure out how to work around that and find different ways to be effective."
Then there is Odom, maddeningly gifted yet adept at leaving his impact in the locker room with his pregame bag of candy and sweets. Odom's disappearing act in the Thunder series prompted former Laker Ron Harper to say that his photo should be put on a milk carton with the slogan, "Where's Lamar?" Jackson openly wondered when Odom would stop being "M.I.A." Odom awakened with a strong first half in Game 6 against the Thunder. After a second straight productive game on Sunday, as he moseyed down the hallway to see his wife, Khloe Kardashian, I asked Odom if he's off the milk carton now.
"It's only one game," said Odom, who had 12 rebounds (five offensive) to go with his nine points -- none bigger than the basket with 49.9 seconds left. "It's still a long series. Ron's a good guy and a good player, but I don't take his opinion too serious. He can come down here and work with us on the triangle whenever he wants. We'd appreciate it."
The Lakers have time to get their bench problems fixed. No matter what they do, Utah will score in the paint in this series because that's the only place where they're a threat to score. Those issues were fuel for the pessimist on Sunday, and they're areas that Bryant, for one, knows will have to be addressed for the defending champs to become back-to-back champs.
But the other part -- closing playoff games with size and defense and toughness, instead of Kobe, Kobe and more Kobe -- that's a problem for anyone the Lakers play from here on out. A sizeable one at that.