As they were being heckled by Jazz fans through a small opening looking into the tunnel leading to their locker room before Game 6, Kobe Bryant looked at Derek Fisher and smiled, slapped his hand twice and said, "Let's do it. Let's finish it tonight." While Bryant and Fisher had been in close-out games such as this while on three championship teams with the Lakers, this was not only uncharted territory for most of their teammates but coming into the game, home teams in the second round had won 21 of 22 games. You can now make that 21 of 23. Relying on Bryant and Fisher, who combined for 29 first-half points, the Lakers raced out to a 19-point first half lead and never looked back as they eliminated the Jazz, owners of the best home record this season. Bryant looked like his old self, exploding to the basket for the first time since injuring his back on Sunday, finishing with a game-high 34 points, taking advantage of Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Harpring and the other quartet of overmatched defenders the Jazz sent his way. Even when the Jazz made a comeback, cutting the Lakers' lead to three late in the game, Bryant and Fisher kept things steady, scoring 15 of the team's last 17 points.
Chris Paul has deservedly received a lot of attention for emerging as the league's best point guard this season, but his 2005 draft classmate, Deron Williams, has proven himself to be just as valuable to his team this season and during the playoffs. He, often single handedly, kept the Jazz in the game Friday night with his sharp shooting, ability to penetrate to the basket and find an open teammate. In fact, had he not been going against Fisher, his mentor -- who knows most of Williams' tendencies and has been able to take advantage of that defensively -- Williams would have probably had a better series early on, as many figured he gave Fisher too much respect in the first games. On Friday, Williams had a team-high 21 points and 14 assists, although he missed a game-tying shot at the end of regulation. Although Williams has proven himself to be a big-game player, the same cannot be said for his pick-and-roll teammate Carlos Boozer, who once again had a decent stat line (12 points and 14 rebounds) but a terrible shooting percentage, hitting 5-of-16 shots and committing a team-high three turnovers.
The Lakers' torrid start began with Vladimir Radmanovic, who took the opening tip and nailed a 3-pointer as the Lakers scored the first seven points and led by 19 going into the half. Radmanovic has been inconsistent at best in this series and really during his two years with the Lakers; and the only reason he's starting is because Andrew Bynum is injured and Luke Walton is more comfortable coming off the bench. When coach Phil Jackson was asked before the game if he knows what to expect from Radmanovic, who has started every playoff game for the Lakers but has rarely played in the fourth quarter, he smiled and said, "absolutely not." Jackson has often called Radmanovic, who finished the game with 12 points, a "space cadet," but won't move Radmanovic from the starting lineup regardless of his inconsistent play. "I think that Vlade has done some good things with the first team, and he doesn't have to be a scorer and ultimately Luke is just not a 40-minute guy."
Even though the Lakers' "Bench Mob" didn't produce up to expectations this series -- getting outscored by the Jazz in every game, including Friday -- they can't be criticized for not performing when they aren't playing, as they served as the Lakers' lone cheering section at Energy Solutions Arena. The bench players stood up and jumped up and down after every big play, and the Mob's ringleader Ronny Turiaf held teammates back and picked up Jordan Farmar after a driving Bryant dunk in the first half -- as if he was at a slam dunk contest. Even before the game, Turiaf was cheering on Bryant. When a reporter asked Radmanovic if Bryant could still take over a game despite his injured back, Turiaf interrupted the interview and said, "Are you questioning Kobe Bryant, the reigning MVP?"
After getting the attention of some of his surrounding teammates, Turiaf preached on, "She asked, and I quote, 'Can Kobe Bryant still take over a game?' Of course he can. Who else would you rather have? Is he hurt? Yes. Can he still take over a game? Hell yes!"
The attention on Bryant and his back has reached such a level that Jackson jokingly refers to it as "Kobe Watch" and purposely gives vague answers when asked how Bryant is doing. He was no different when asked how Bryant looked in the team's pre-game shoot around. "Well, he had a white warm-up on and his shoes were well-polished and he looked really spiffy," said Jackson. "His shoes were shiny. He looked good." He almost looked as good as High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale, who sat behind the Lakers bench wearing neutral colors before slipping into a Bryant jersey and running behind the team into the tunnel after the game, cheering and high-fiving players despite staying quite for most of the game. Get used to it, because the Lakers' Hollywood bandwagon is only going to get bigger.
Normally, the Lakers are nowhere to be found during pre-game preparations, when the locker room is open to the media, as there are several closed off rooms for the team to relax, train, get taped up, etc. In Utah, they have no such luxuries as everything, including the training tables are open and visible to the media. "There are some bad set-ups," said Lakers massage therapist Marko Yrojovuori, who estimated Utah and Milwaukee were the only two arenas without closed-off training tables. "But this is the worst." And while Utah gets praised for having the loudest arena in the NBA, which is true from the almost deafening levels that caused Trevor Ariza and several Lakers staffers to wear earplugs on the bench, one of the other advantages is the close proximity of the fans to the players. Prior to player introductions, a couple of Jazz fans holding beers got close enough to Bryant, who was sitting on the bench, to shake his hand and pat him on the head -- causing Bryant to go back into the locker room before the start of the game.
Player introductions, such as the ones in Utah, which feature a mini-fireworks show and a motorcycle driven by the team's mascot, is one of the reasons NBA commissioner David Stern is looking to curb such extravagant pre-game shows in the future. It's a rule Jackson has been waiting years for, despite his Bulls teams being one of the first to have elaborate player introductions. "I'm always concerned about the structural soundness from all that fire going up in the beams in the roof," said Jackson. "How hot does it get up there? We know how steel reacts to heat, pretty much like spaghetti. I was just watching the Cleveland introductions and thinking how ridiculous it is that we spend five minutes of national television time watching introductions."
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