The Lakers can thank Oklahoma City, and the rugged Western Conference, for a bracingly beneficial first round in their championship defense. Rather than sleepwalk through a thoroughly outclassed opponent, Kobe Bryant and company were a tip-in away from a seventh game against a 50-win eighth seed, whose rabid crowd furnished a frenzied atmosphere worthy of the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Jazz were disposing of Denver with their classic formula of back-screens and ball movement superbly executed by glue guys buttressing tandem stars at point guard (Deron Williams) and power forward (Carlos Boozer). They did not miss unconventional center Mehmet Okur (out after surgery for a ruptured Achilles) against the Nuggets, but his ability to pull an opposing big out of the paint with his three-point shooting would have come in handy against the Lakers. They will also yearn for a healthy Andrei Kirilenko, who reportedly will return midway through the series after recovering from a calf injury.
In fact, the Lakers are a bad matchup for the Jazz under any circumstances. Utah lost three of four to L.A. this season while scoring just 88 points per game -- way below their average of 104.2. They were a mere 21-20 on the road in the regular season and the Lakers have home-court advantage. On the other hand, Jerry Sloan's crew was mostly written off against the Nuggets, who also had home-court advantage, and triumphed in six games.
Deron Williams vs. Lakers' Defense. It's common sense to expect a huge series out of Williams, who made fricasseed poultry out of Chauncey Billups and Denver and is matched up with the weak link in L.A.'s lineup: Derek Fisher's inability to contain opposing point guards. But D-Will's numbers against the Lakers were rather ordinary (by his standards, anyway) this regular season, with lower averages in field-goal percentage (44.2), points (17.3), assists (9.8) and three-point percentage (25.0), despite more minutes per game (38.3). Part of that is because Williams likes to score at the rim via shot or assist and the Lakers? length in the paint makes that problematical. (His favorite target, Carlos Boozer, scored only 13.5 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting versus L.A.) Part of that is because Williams recognized that the Lakers led the NBA is lowest three-point field-goal percentage by opponents, and attempted only two treys per game.
But if Williams plays at the superstar level he did in the Nuggets series, tallying 26 points and 11 assists per game while shooting better than 48 percent from beyond the arc, he can single-handedly make this the sort of grueling slog of a series that befits Utah much better than it does L.A. He will also diminish the Lakers' best go-to option on offense because Kobe will have to defend him by default, as happened when Russell Westbrook needed a shadow in the Thunder series.
Lakers: Officiating and Attitude. Lassitude has become the Lakers' bugaboo. They allowed a feisty Rockets team to go seven games in last year's conference semifinals. They were too dispassionate and unmotivated down the stretch of the regular season this year, costing them home-court advantage against both the Cavs and the Magic, should either of those Finals matchups come to pass. Even without Okur and with a dinged up Kirilenko, the Jazz are as diligent and opportunistic as last year's Rockets, and probably more talented. Utah also plays a raw, physical style, and perennially ranks among the league leaders in fouls. The Jazz also got inside the heads of the Nuggets in the first round. If the refs pocket their whistles, Utah will bang and bump L.A. off stride. If the refs are calling it close, Utah will turn it into a foul-fest at both ends (a la the Denver series) and won't get ruffled. The Lakers' ability to maintain their composure is less certain.
Jazz: Kyle Korver. Korver was a relatively unsung hero for the Jazz this season. Under the radar because he was hurt early in the season and only a role player when he came back, he set an NBA record for three-point accuracy at 53.2 percent. Utah was 36-16 when he was in uniform, 32-13 when he played more than 10 minutes and 12-6 when he scored in double figures. According to 82games.com, Korver not only improved the Jazz's offense by 2.8 points per 100 possessions, but he stiffened their defense by 3.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court compared to when he sat. With Okur sidelined, he becomes the best chance to space out the Laker defense so Williams can penetrate and Boozer and his fellow power forward Paul Millsap can score in the paint and crash the weakside for put-backs.
If the Lakers treat every tilt like it's Game 7 and prioritize dominating the paint, this will be a very short series. Utah simply can't match up with the Bynum-Gasol-Artest/Odom frontcourt. Kyrylo Fesenko gets in foul trouble against less talented big men, and Millsap and Boozer can't guard Pau Gasol without double-down help from the perimeter. At the other end, the Lakers' defense is so much better than Denver's that it will take some time for the Jazz to absorb the upgrade.But the Jazz have been successful at defending Kobe, whose 33 percent field-goal shooting versus Utah (diminished by a wretched 2-16 performance from three-point territory) was his lowest against any opponent other than Orlando. If Williams continues to be the breakout superstar of the 2010 postseason, the Lakers play cat-and-mouse with their intensity, the refs get in the heads of Gasol and Lamar Odom, and Korver and perhaps C.J. Miles join Williams in hitting shots from the perimeter, Utah can spring the upset. I see something in between, like a repeat of the Oklahoma City series, where the Lakers' looked haggard and eminently beatable at times, but prevailed when it mattered. Lakers in six.