The Lakers finally got a road win, and Kobe Bryant finally got some help to make it happen.
Pau Gasol made a clutch three-pointer -- his first three-pointer of the season -- and Andrew Bynum blocked an Al Jefferson shot in the final seconds of overtime to help the Lakers emerge with a 90-87 victory over the Jazz.
Utah had taken an 85-81 lead on Josh Howard's three-pointer before Gasol made a pair of free throws and followed with his rare three-pointer. Bynum later made a tip-in to increase the Lakers' lead to 88-85, and after a Paul Millsap jumper, Bynum stepped in to block Jefferson's shot in the final seconds.
The ball went to Bryant, who was fouled and made two free throws with seven-tenths of a second left to finish with 40 points on 14-for-31 shooting. As if that wasn't enough, Bryant blocked Devin Harris' desperation three-point shot off an inbounds pass at the buzzer.
Utah had been 5-0 at EnergySolutions Arena before Wednesday and had won five consecutive games overall.
It might have seemed a distinct possibility to jittery Lakers fans after their team's 0-2 start, but there remain more than a handful of NBA teams the quality of the visitors who took the Staples Center court Tuesday night.
A retooled Utah lineup could not hang with the Lakers, even though the home team was completing its first and only back-to-back-to-back situation of the season and the younger, speedier Jazz was presumably fresh while making their season debut.
Kobe Bryant had 26 points on eight-for-17 shooting for the Lakers and Pau Gasol had 22 points, making six of 11 shots and 10 of 12 free throws.
The Lakers' defense tightened considerably after some haphazard moments in opening losses to Chicago and Sacramento, holding Utah to 32.2% shooting. The Jazz was particularly atrocious from behind the three-point line, making one of 13 shots.
Paul Millsap had 18 points for Utah, which trailed by as many as 29 points in the third quarter.
Metta World Peace had his second consecutive strong game off the bench with 14 points on five-for-nine shooting. Troy Murphy did not score but had 11 rebounds and four assists for the Lakers before fouling out with 5:23 left in the game.
The Lakers aren't making much of this, no matter how impressive it sounds.
But facts are facts and they say this: The Lakers have beaten the Utah Jazz 16 consecutive times at Staples Center, and No. 17 could come Tuesday night. Even though the Lakers have eliminated the Jazz in the last three postseasons, they still have plenty of respect for Utah. The Lakers have lost to them on the road, including a 102-98 loss in late November. And the Lakers are very cognizant of Utah's chances to end its four-game losing streak, much like when the Dallas Mavericks halted their six-game losing streak with an impressive victory last week against the Lakers.
The Jazz have had their fair share of success at EnergySolutions Arena against the Lakers, considering their 6-4 mark in the last 10 regular-season games. But it's not as deeply rooted as the Lakers home-winning streak, especially since the Lakers won two road games against Utah in the 2010 Western Conference semifinals.
"Being that they have this losing streak and how many times they lost at Staples Center," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said, I'm sure tomorrow they'll be ready."
But there's plenty of reasons why the Lakers have remained undefeated against Utah since a 98-94 loss Jan. 1, 2006, including Bryant's dominance, an impressive inside game and the Lakers' ability to hold off Utah's late-game comebacks. So even if the Lakers think very little of this streak, below the jump are a few details that explain what they can apply to avoid Utah snapping it tonight.
"Home court advantage might be a part of it," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.
The Utah Jazz's four-game losing streak didn't prompt the Lakers to express plenty of concern. In fact, that convinced many of them that could help spark Utah in ending its 16-game losing streak at Staples Center when the two teams square off Tuesday night. After all, the Lakers had lost to the Jazz on the road, 102-96, earlier in the season and they learned last week that a matchup with the Dallas Mavericks was all they needed to end their six-game losing streak.
Salt Lake Tribune's Jazz beat writer Brian T. Smith, however, believes otherwise.
"This right now is the toughest stretch for the Jazz," Smith argued, "and they're probably playing the Lakers at exactly the worst time."
There are plenty of reasons for that, including Utah's recent struggles, the team's admission that chemistry's been lacking and because the Jazz follows its matchup against the defending champs with a back-to-back against Western Conference leader San Antonio.
"It'll be a very interesting matchup," Smith summed up.
Among the topics of interest regarding the Lakers-Jazz matchup
Lakers guard Derek Fisher remained upstairs at the Lakers practice facility for quite some time. But he wasn't saying sentimental goodbyes in the possibility he'll be gone after July once he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He just had plenty of business to discuss.
That, of course, partly involved his future with the Lakers, but it also included distributing the playoff revenue to his teammates as well general topics, such as the events surrounding President Obama and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. It surely reveals Fisher's comfort level in familiar settings.
Sure, there are plenty of details the team will have to iron out. The Times' Mike Bresahan and Broderick Turner reported that Fisher, 35, will likely have to take a pay cut from the $5 million he made last season, though Fisher wants more than the veteran's minimum of $1.4 million for a player of his experience level (14 seasons). Fisher also labeled remaining a starter a "priority," but not a "deal breaker."
And he acknowledged he'll field offers from other teams so he's fully aware of his market value. Nonetheless, Fisher's stance remains clear: "I won't make a decision before I know exactly where I stand here."
"I've never mixed any statements or positions about winning," Fisher said, "and wanting to be associated with winning championships and being on the best team in the NBA."
The Lakers apparently agree. General Manager Mitch Kupchak said he "absolutely" wants to keep Fisher. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant called it "crucial" that Fisher remain on the team. And Lakers forward Pau Gasol argued that the team should rank Fisher's re-signing as "high" on their list of needs.
I've often emphasized Fisher's presence greatly enhances locker room dynamics. He's built enough credibility to where Bryant allows him to directly confront him if necessary. The coaching staff finds him helpful in delivering the team's message. And everyone on the team unanimously values his input and work ethic. Former Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy perfectly detailed why Fisher is a perfect for a championship-caliber team. The video below shows the team's genuine and heartfelt respect for Fisher. And the overall sentiment suggests the organization understands why he needs to stay. For the Lakers' sake, they better hope Fisher's long exit interview didn't mark the end of a storied career with the team, but the mark of another beginning.
--The Times' T.J. Simers argues that Lakers fans have a short attention span regarding Bryant's performance in the 2006 playoffs, given their negative reaction to LeBron James' play against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
--The Times' Ching-Ching Ni explains how Bryant's $25,000 donation has helped students at Richard Merkin Middle School in South Los Angeles learn martial arts.
--The Times' Fabulous Forum blog lists Jerry Buss and Shaquille O'Neal as 10th and ninth, respectively on the Lakers' all-time greatest list.
--ProBasketballTalk's Matt Moore argues the NBA needs to stop allowing Jackson to criticize officials. Nonetheless, he acknowledged he's entertained with Jackson and Phoenix guard Steve Nash needling each other.
--The Arizona Republic's Bob Young illustrates how Nash has taken Jackson's comments about him carrying the ball in stride. Or you can see for yourself in this video. It's fair to say Nash isn't all that concerned about it.
Tweet of the Day: "I think @Lakers wins in 6 or 7, but frontcourt edge minimized with Bynum's knee" -- samickFanHouse (AOL Fanhouse NBA writer Sam Amick).
Reader Comment of the Day: Don't they realize if they respond to PJ, they have already lost...PJ's stuff is not usually for the Refs, but for the players. I don't know how it works, but it does. This is some powerful stuff he has. Look at what it did to Stern. He blew a gasket and wishes he never would have responded so foolishly. And Phil wasn't even going after him. Just watch. Nash will be thinking of PJ the next time he tries a cross over dribble, instead of focusing on his next move like he should. Just that little hesitation will lead to a mistake. Nash will kick himself for even letting PJ into his mind. Nash will then get mad. Nash will lose focus. Phil will see the whole thing. Phil will get that quirky little smile. Phil will turn to a coach and boast. "Ha, I told you so" Phil will have won. -- Fatty
Top photo: Lakers guard Derek Fisher, left, goes head-to-head with teammate Jordan Farmar during a team practice session at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo on Wednesday. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Veteran shooting guard Jason Richardson has provided a spark during the playoffs by averaging six points more a game than his regular-season average. He'll play a critical role against the Lakers as he goes against Kobe Bryant on both ends of the floor. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire
Tweet of the Day: "Our bus just hit Boozer's Escalade. Swept, fouled out, and gets his ride trashed all in 1 night. At least he's a free agent" -- LAIreland (710 ESPN's/K-CAL9's Lakers sideline reporter John Ireland).
Reader Comment of the Day: "thank God for the win, it's great to see them move on to the western conference chanmpionship. the only thing better would be to see them move on to the finals. the only thing better than that would be to see them win the finals....eight more victories to go!" -- mud
Photo: Lakers power forward Pau Gasol is congratulated by fans as he exits the court following a 111-96 victory over the Utah Jazz that sends L.A. on to the Western Conference finals. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.
How do the current Lakers and last year's squad compare? If there were a way to pit the two, perhaps we could answer that question. Sadly, the technology does not exist, so it's tough to say definitively whether the Lakers are on pace to match or better the 2009 championship run. Anyway, such a scenario also would likely lead to numerous physical confrontations between 2009 Kobe Bryant and 2010 Ron Artest, as well as some possible trash-talking tweets from Ron Ron.
But for now, we have to rely on data and performances. But that's the complicated thing. Consider that this year's Lakers appear to be a better team based on the numbers.
Last season’s squad — even with Andrew Bynum missing 32 games — led the NBA in rebounding (43.9 boards per game) and ranked second in assists (23.3 per game), second in steals (8.8 per game) and third in total offense (106.9 points per game). This season, the Lakers are currently second in rebounding (44.32 boards per game), 16th in assists (21.09 per game), 11th in steals (7.46 per game) and 12th in total offense (101.69 points per game).
Overall, the Lakers outscored opponents last season by 7.6 points per game and allowed 99.3 points per contest, 13th best in the league. This season, the Lakers are outscoring teams by a sixth-best 4.71 points per game and allowing a ninth-best 96.97 points per contest.
Then consider the individual performances in the regular season between last season and this season, including Kobe Bryant (26.8 points on 46.7% shooting, versus 27 points on 45.6%), Pau Gasol (18.9 points on 56.7% shooting and 9.6 rebounds, 18.3 points on 53.6% shooting and 11.3 rebounds), Bynum (14.3 points and 8 rebounds, 15.0 points and 8.3 rebounds), Lamar Odom (11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds, 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds), Derek Fisher (9.9 points on 42.4%, 7.5 points on 38%), Shannon Brown (3.2 points, 8.1 points) and Jordan Farmar (6.4 points, 7.2 points). For good measure, there are always the comparisons between Ron Artest (11 points on 41.4% shooting) and Trevor Ariza (8.9 points on 46% shooting).
But then you have to consider the individual performances in the postseason, including Bryant (26.3 points on 45.4% shooting), Gasol (18.8 points on 54.8% shooting and 13 rebounds), Bynum (10.8 points on 58.3% shooting and 9.1 rebounds), Fisher (10.7 points on 45.3% shooting), Artest (10.3 points-per-game average on 39% shooting), Odom (8.3 points and 8.4 rebounds), Brown (6 points) and Farmar (5.1 points). Beyond the statistical comparisons, though, it's hard to equate whether the Lakers are better during this postseason compared with last year's postseason.
No doubt, the Lakers are in a better position in the playoffs themselves. Though they tested everyone's sanity last year with a seven-game semifinal series with Houston, the Lakers are on the verge of sweeping Utah, assuming they collect a Game 4 victory Monday night. But does this point more to the fact that Houston's scrappiness and quickness proved advantageous against a disinterested Lakers team? Does the Lakers' success against Utah have more to do with Utah not having the length to compete with the Lakers' inside game as well as the Lakers' overall health improving? Then you look at the first-round matchup, when the Lakers went nip-and-tuck against Oklahoma City this season, although they breezed past Utah last season.
I maintained all season that the Lakers couldn't simply rely on turning on the playoff switch. Yet, there is an unpredictability, for better or worse, where the matchups and injuries make all the difference. No doubt, the Lakers are in pretty good shape and should have no problem playing Phoenix in the West Finals. But as far as who's the better team? I'm going to go with the players on this one, who mentioned recently that the only litmus test entailed whether the Lakers repeated.
Photo: Kobe Bryant signals how many NBA titles he has won while cradling the championship and MVP trophies after the Lakers beat Orlando in Game 5 on June 14, 2009. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Even when Derek Fisher's shooting stroke was off the mark, both he and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson remained steadfast. The reasons include Fisher's mastery of the triangle offense, his positive influence in locker room dynamics and, of course, his ability to make clutch shots. And it's at this time of year when Fisher usually fulfills the latter responsibility.
It happened again Saturday in the Lakers' 111-110 Game 3 victory over the Utah Jazz. In that game, Fisher scored 20 points on seven of 13 shooting and made a key three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 109-108 lead with 28 seconds remaining. I had argued just before the postseason that Fisher remained a valuable presence to the Lakers even as he struggled on defense and continued to shoot poorly, finishing his 14th regular season with his lowest points-per-game average (7.5) and shooting percentage (38%) since his 2003-04 season with the Lakers, although he improved his numbers in April, averaging 8.3 points per game on 41.7% shooting.
Well, Fisher's shooting has no longer been an issue. Although he shot six of 22 (27%) in the first two games of the postseason, he has since gone 28 of 53 (52.8%) in the last six playoff games, showing he has found his shooting stroke just when the Lakers needed it.
Of course, this is hardly a revelation. After missing 62 games because of a foot injury in the 2000-2001 season, he set an NBA record with 15 three-pointers in the Lakers' four-game semifinals sweep over San Antonio. Fisher made a game-winning shot with .04 of a second left in the 2004 conference semifinals against the Spurs. He hit two clutch three-pointers in Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic. And in an interesting twist, Fisher's performance Saturday coincided with the third anniversary of his spending the day with his daughter, Tatum, during her cancer treatment, only to return to the Jazz in the third quarter of a playoff game against the Golden State Warriors and lead the team to victory. (If only Utah fans properly gave Fisher his due now as they did then).
Yet his resurgence still serves as a perfect reminder that Fisher, who will be a free agent this summer at age 35, can be counted upon to produce playoff theatrics. Below the jump is a rundown of the clutch shots Fisher has made during the playoffs.