OVERVIEW: These teams met last spring, too, when the talent and achievement gaps between them were narrower, and the Lakers won the second-round series in six games. Phil Jackson and his players have been doing their duty in touting the opponents' strengths, but few are probably picking up what they're putting down. "There are all kinds of matchup situations that are a strong advantage [for Utah] in most sequences that we all recognize,'' the Lakers' coach said. The Lakers were runaway winners in the West, while the Jazz slid into this matchup mess by losing seven of their final nine. And they have the worst road record (15-26) of the eight West playoff teams
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Utah's show of strength.Deron Williams, at point guard, gives his team its biggest (and perhaps only) individual matchup edge among starters. Said Jackson: "They're going to drive the ball down into your throat with Williams and then get to the foul line.'' Williams averaged 22 points and 12 assists in three games against L.A. this season, and he has center Mehmet Okur as a pick-and-pop option to draw the big defenders away from the basket. But having Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown to pester Williams en masse means the Lakers aren't unarmed here.
2. The motivated reigning MVP. If dealing with Williams is a headache, then containing Kobe Bryant is a nightmare. The Lakers' deadly scorer averaged 33 points against Utah in last year's series and was, oh, about half as driven back then, not smarting from a recent Finals setback. Andrei Kirilenko can force Bryant to adjust because of his length, but forcing an adjustment ain't the same thing as stopping the guy.
3. Disrupting the Jazz flow. Getting Andrew Bynum for this playoff run makes the Lakers taller at every position across their front line, a considerable advantage in thwarting the likes of Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and Okur. L.A. scored 58 points in the paint in the season finale between the teams Tuesday and, even though the Jazz get lots of layups when their offense is clicking, those won't be gimmes now.
UNDER THE RADAR: Utah is proud of its physical reputation. Jackson made Sloan seem like Woody Hayes, referring to the Jazz's style as "three yards and a cloud of dust.'' Unfortunately for Utah, though, the Lakers are welcoming the style as a way of toughening up for subsequent rounds. Lamar Odom told the Los Angeles Times, "Their style of play, you could call it 'confrontational.' ... I guess that's what we're looking forward to.''
PREDICTION:Lakers in 5. Utah must win one of the first two at Staples Center to make this interesting at all. Otherwise, Sloan's best bet for a mind game might be in playing the "us against the world'' card since, among those of us predicting the outcome of this series, that pretty much sums it up.
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