After looking vulnerable in their first-round series against the Thunder, the Lakers left little doubt about their elite level of play after dominating the Jazz in their Western Conference semifinal series. With Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol looking virtually unstoppable, the Lakers swept the undersized Jazz out of the playoffs with a 111-96 victory Monday in Salt Lake City, setting up a conference final with the Suns.
1. The Lakers were just better. Here is the thing that stood out more than anything in this mismatched series: While the Jazz have to run a series of cuts and screens to get their players open shots, the Lakers can rely on the one-on-one skills of Bryant and Gasol to get easy baskets -- which ultimately opens up opportunities for other players. Eventually, the mental strain from that wears a team out, and the Jazz simply could not overcome that obvious shortcoming. Bryant scored at will en route to 32 points Monday, the fourth game in which he went for at least 30, and Gasol overpowered Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap around the basket, flipping in myriad different shots with either hand to finish with 33 points and 14 rebounds. After the game, Bryant credited his production to being healthy, which can only improve with a week off before the Lakers play host to the Suns in Game 1.
2. Jazz have to answer some questions. The Lakers are the worst matchup for Utah because of the size differential. The four-game loss exposed the weaknesses of the team, especially Boozer, one of the more physical players in the league, but someone who continually has trouble in the paint against bigger opposition. A free agent this summer, the Jazz must determine if they want to potentially invest a maximum contract in a player who obviously is skilled but offensively diminutive for his position come the postseason. Utah has a history of losing in the playoffs to the Lakers, and that's not likely to change as long as Gasol and Andrew Bynum are patrolling L.A.'s frontcourt, or Bryant remains on the roster. Still, there is some question whether Millsap is ready to be an everyday power forward for Utah, which gets a little relief because it has New York's first-round pick, likely among the top 10.
3. Deron Williams is blossoming. As this series wore on, you could see Williams, arguably the best all-around point guard in the game today, understand that he has to be more aggressive to carry his team. That recognition is a positive for Utah fans. The issue in this series: Williams is not yet able to carry his team in the same fashion that Bryant can and did -- and what made Bryant's dominance so refreshing was his no-nonsense, calm and efficient evisceration of Utah's defense. As he grows, Williams will grasp what it means to carry his team in a controlled manner. But the first step is recognizing the need, which he did.
4. Derek Fisher comes up big again. To Utah's credit, it did not lay down in the same fashion as the Hawks (against Orlando in Round 2) when trailing by 22 in the first half. The Jazz came out even more determined in the second half and actually cut the Lakers' lead to 69-65, at which point Fisher made a few heady plays. First, Fisher drew two defenders to him and made a no-look pass to Gasol for an easy basket that pushed the lead to six. And then Fisher drew an offensive foul on Williams --- just one of the wily plays that Fisher used to frustrate Williams throughout the series and Game 4, in particular. The Utah fans' passion for their team is admirable, to be sure. But for them to boo Fisher for departing Utah to get better care for his sick daughter, and to suggest Fisher used his daughter's illness as a vehicle for that departure, is pretty unconscionable. Give credit where credit is due: Fisher is one of the best postseason performers in the history of the game.
5. Lakers look ahead to Suns. On paper, the Lakers have big advantages over the Suns as they did the Jazz. Phoenix does not really have anybody to guard Bryant and the Suns don't have the size to match up with Los Angeles. But this is not the same Suns team from the regular season, evidenced by their four-game dismantling of the Spurs. Something has clicked with Phoenix that makes it dangerous -- and makes this a compelling matchup for the conference finals.
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