It's been four years since Kobe Bryant (right) has played a second-round playoff game. But before the game, as he watched a montage of his highlights an ever-so-slight smile came over his face, almost as if to say, "I'm back." In his first game since reports surfaced that he would be named the league's MVP, Bryant played up to the title as he finished with a game-high 38 points and a team-high seven assists. The Jazz tried to be physical with Bryant early, preventing him from making the easy shots he had become accustomed to against Denver in the first round, but he matched their aggressiveness and a franchise playoff record 21 of 23 free-throw attempts. "He was real aggressive, he didn't settle for a lot of jumpers and made extra passes," said Deron Williams. "That's why he's the MVP. He took over the game."
Williams and Carlos Boozer are the Jazz's version of John Stockton and Karl Malone in Jerry Sloan's latest incarnation of the famed pick-and-roll offense. But if the Jazz are to beat the Lakers the young duo will have to play like their Hall of Fame predecessors. In Game 1, the tandem was unimpressive early on before finally finding their groove late to combine for 29 points, 23 rebounds and 13 assists. While the Jazz made a run early in the fourth quarter, cutting the Lakers' lead to five, they could never overcome a 19-point second-half deficit. Boozer, who fouled out in the fourth quarter, and Williams combined for 11 points and seven turnovers, six of them by Boozer, in the first half and were a combined 1-for-10 in the second quarter. "I think the team feeds off my energy and I know the coach doesn't like me putting the blame on anyone, but it's my fault," Williams said. "I could have played a lot better offensively and defensively, especially early on."
Lost behind the Jazz's dynamic duo is Mehmet Okur, the unsung hero of the team and primary reason Game 1 didn't get out of hand when it appeared the Lakers were ready to blow the game open. Okur, who finished with a team-high 21 points and game-high 19 rebounds, was a stabilizing force for the Jazz down low as Utah's frontcourt held its own, out-rebounding the Lakers 58 to 41 and outscoring them in the paint 56 to 51. "That's what they're supposed to do," said a dejected Sloan after the game. "Isn't that sad?"
This is going to be the most physical series the Lakers will play in these playoffs, even if they advance, and is certainly a wake-up call from the nearly non-existent defense that the Nuggets exhibited in the first round. It was the emphasis of Phil Jackson's pre-game speech to his team and something he stressed to them throughout the game, which featured several harsh fouls early on. "This team is challenged to play and they play hard as result," Jackson said. "They lead the league in fouls and foul shots given and that's an indicator of how they play their games. It's going to be physical and they're going to challenge you at the basket."
Derek Fisher's best days as a defender are in his rear-view mirror and, to be fair, there isn't anyone in the league that can effectively defend Williams on a consistent basis. But the matchup of Fisher on Williams worked well for the Lakers in Game 1 partly because Fisher served as Williams' mentor last season in Utah. He seemed to know exactly what Williams was going to do before he did it, often shouting for strong-side or weak-side help as Williams, who calls Utah's offensive plays himself (unlike Stockton who would defer to Jerry Sloan), dribbled the ball up the court. "He played with that team and he's very intelligent," Bryant said of Fisher. "He retained a lot of information so he remembers everything they were executing over there."
Speaking of defense, there was an unusually large number of blocks in the game as the Lakers blocked eight shots and the Jazz swatted away nine. After one emphatic block by Lamar Odom on a Williams driving layup attempt, he looked at the point guard and said, "Get that [stuff] out of here. Not now. Not today."
While a decade has gone by since Sloan and Jackson's last playoff meeting -- a memorable NBA Finals series culminated by Michael Jordan's game-winning shot with the Bulls -- the two coaches didn't have to spend extra time preparing for each others' predictable, yet effective, strategies.
"I think there are three different sets out of 35-40, that we've seen in the latest advent of this team from the team in 1998," said Jackson. "He would probably say about the same thing about our team too. For the last 15 years we pretty much know what's going to be run and what's going to happen."
It may be the playoffs, but that doesn't keep Lakers fans from focusing on what really matters -- free tacos. The sellout crowd chanted "We want tacos!" toward the end of the Lakers' 109-98 win. If the Lakers score over 100 points and keep their opponent to under 100, everyone in attendance gets two free tacos from Jack in the Box.
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