Lakers grind it out in 96-85 victory over Utah Jazz
Wincing in pain over his right knee, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant limped to the sideline for a brief moment, returned to the court as if nothing ever happened and then dialed up his aggressiveness.
Bothered with a stomach flu that just wouldn't go away, Lakers forward Lamar Odom headed to the locker room multiple times, returned to the bench soon after each trip and made late-game contributions.
And featuring all the effects of a back-to-back game, including lack of energy, focus and execution, the Lakers overcame those first-half lapses by simply willing themselves to grind out a 96-85 victory Friday over the Utah Jazz.
The magnitude of a win over Utah doesn't mean much. The loss actually officially eliminated the Jazz from playoff contention for the first time since the 2005-06 season, closing a frustrating season that involved Coach Jerry Sloan's resignation and the trade of point guard Deron Williams. The significance of this win presents to the Lakers both literal and symbolic value. The literal: the Lakers extended their winning streak to nine games, the longest stretch at any point this season, improved their record to 17-1 since the All-Star break and closed the gap for first place in the Western Conference to 1 1/2 games behind San Antonio, whose overtime loss to Houston marked its sixth consecutive defeat. The symbolic: the Lakers fought back in this game much like the way they did after a inconsistent stretch leading into the All-Star break. It featured the Lakers finding the proper energy and making tactical adjustments.
That's not how Lakers Coach Phil Jackson initially characterized the game to ESPN's Heather Cox, describing the Lakers trailing Utah, 28-22, and being outrebounded, 17-8, after the first quarter as being "stuck in mud." He envisioned the Lakers would go through such problems, knowing a late-night flight and check-in time following a competitive and emotional double-digit win Thursday over Dallas would make it hard to replicate against Utah. A one-game suspension to Lakers forward Matt Barnes for his ejection against the Mavericks didn't help, either. But the Lakers overcame those obstacles in erasing a 17-point first-half deficit.
It actually started in that first quarter where the Lakers closed out that stretch on a 9-2 run, but the Jazz's 11-0 run in the second quarter to make it 41-24 nullified that. The Lakers' 10-0 run to end the first half closed the gap to 48-42, but it didn't erase the fact the Lakers were outrebounded (28-18), outperformed in the paint (30-10) and neutralized from the field (39.4% shooting). That all changed in the second half. Ron Artest and Derek Fisher (15 points on four-of-six shooting) each hit three-pointers after Bryant threw an extra swing pass. In frustration over Kyrylo Fesenko outperforming him in the paint, Andrew Bynum (11 points on four-of-seven shooting, five rebounds, three blocks) threw down his first field goal in anger, cutting the Lakers' deficit to 56-53 with 8:10 remaining in the third quarter. And Bryant's anger at Fesenko for throwing the ball at his shoe after committing a hard foul was contained by Pau Gasol (16 points on six-of-10 shooting, nine rebounds) holding him back from retaliating, but he did so in his own way, scoring his 21 points by drawing trips to the free-throw line (seven of 10) more than hitting shots from the field (six of 14).
The Lakers closed out the third quarter with a 71-64 lead following a 9-2 run with Fisher tying the score, Shannon Brown drawing a goaltend, Steve Blake converting on a fast-break layup and Odom draining a three-pointer before time expired to finish it. The Lakers never lost the lead after that point, showing their willingness to overcome sluggishness to fight for a victory.
That concept became foreign for the Lakers after starting the season 8-0, coasting through a home-heavy schedule with few challenges and feeding a belief that they were unstoppable. Even during the Lakers' latest stretch run, their effort against Utah revealed they are. But that's the beauty of what makes the Lakers' mark since the All-Star break even more special. They finally learned that they are supposed to go through adversities that seem hard to overcome. The Lakers managed to do that by relying on everything that has gotten them to this point and overcoming all of the challenges surrounding them from deciding their fate.
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Top photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts after hitting a three-pointer during a second-half rally that helped defeat the Jazz, 96-85, on Friday night in Utah. Credit: Steve C Wilson / Associated Press
Bottom photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom drives down the lane against Utah power forward Paul Millsap in the first half Friday night. Credit: Russ Isabella / US Presswire