The Los Angeles Lakers continue to delicately walk a tightrope. They also continue to remain upright. Despite getting a scare from the Utah Jazz in Game 1 of their best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series, the Lakers walked out of Staples Center with a hard-fought 104-99 victory Sunday afternoon for a number of different reasons.
1. Kobe Bryant's look is back. Bryant's maniacally intense stare -- flashed when he scores in a fashion he likes, apparently to demonstrate an even greater focus as Los Angeles attempts to defend its title -- returned full force. On a day when he finished not second, but third to LeBron James -- and didn't garner a single first-place vote -- in the MVP race, Bryant was able to put the stare on display rather often in the second half. Finishing with 31 points on 12-for-19 shooting, Bryant scored 12 points in the game's final 5½ minutes, which allowed the Lakers to get past a persistent Jazz team.
2. Lakers let Jazz back into the game. The question is whether the Lakers lacked the killer instinct to put away Utah when they should have, or whether the Jerry Sloan-coached Jazz should be given excessive credit for mounting a comeback after being dominated so thoroughly in the first half. We have seen it time and again throughout these 2010 playoffs, where a team has an incredible start, gets complacent and allows their opponent to mount a comeback. The Lakers made 13 of their first 15 shots and set an NBA record by shooting 79 percent in the first quarter. Utah kept hammering away until it finally took an 85-82 lead with 6:24 remaining. That's when Bryant decided enough was enough and hit a series of difficult shots, many with a hand squarely in his face.
3. Whither Carlos Boozer? Boozer does so much for the Jazz that it seems a little hard-hearted to criticize the guy. But, like Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka on Friday night, Boozer was missing at a key moment in the game. In fact, he was missing in three consecutive key moments, and it cost his team the game. On the first, Utah trailed 96-95 when Bryant missed a shot. Even though he seemed to have better position, Boozer let Lamar Odom grab the offensive rebound and dunk it. At the other end, Boozer was stripped by Derek Fisher,never getting off a shot in a crucial time. And then, with Utah on defense, Bryant drove right down the middle of the lane. Boozer was closest to him when Bryant got near the basket, but instead of going after either Bryant or his shot, Boozer watched as Bryant laid it in unscathed. It gave L.A. a five-point lead and sealed the outcome.
4. Lakers' size is too great. The one thing that stood out more than any other in this game was Los Angeles' overwhelming size advantage. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are simply too much for Boozer, Paul Millsap and any Utah guard trying to get to the rim -- not that they didn't try. Whether by design or happenstance, the Jazz continued to try to get to the front of the rim, and more often than not they were rebuffed by the Lakers' front-court players, who had seven blocks and even more altered shots. The Jazz may be more wise to try to shoot over the top of Los Angeles, though Utah's best perimeter shooter, Kyle Korver, is limited in other aspects of his game, and Mehmet Okur is out for the rest of the year with an Achilles injury.
5. Bynum effective despite knee injury. The injury-prone center started and played 24 minutes despite having a slight tear of his meniscus. Bynum had a few nice left-handed flip-ins and also grabbed 10 rebounds in 25 minutes. But it was not just what Bynum does; it is what he represents. When he is in the game, teams can't double-team Gasol because the 7-foot youngster is always a threat to either take a pass from Gasol on the weak side or crash the offensive boards when Gasol shoots.