With the Lakers holding a one-point lead against the Utah Jazz with only 6.1 seconds remaining, the to-do list appeared rather simple. Successfully inbound the ball, don't commit a turnover and knock down a pair of free throws.
The Lakers never achieved the latter two items because they couldn't successfully master the first. Lakers forward Ron Artest threw the inbounds pass wide left of Derek Fisher, who drew contact from guard Wesley Matthews but without the whistle. Lakers forward Pau Gasol reached for the ball, but Jazz forward Kyle Korver swiped it away and secured possession with 4.4 seconds remaining.
The Lakers bore frustrated looks. Fisher questioned officials about the non-call. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant wore a solemn expression. And Gasol stood with a blank stare while the team huddled. Sure, the Lakers, at least temporarily, appeared angry with the execution, but this game featured many instances where the team responded well to adversity. This final play would be one of them.
On this play, Artest guarded Utah's Deron Williams up top after he received an inbounds pass. Though Williams' quick feet created separation for a 22-foot- jump shot, Artest's firm positioning denied Williams a chance to drive the lane. Artest contested the shot, which rimmed out. Gasol aimed to grab the rebound, but Matthews snuck around him. He tipped the ball, but the shot hit off the back rim just as time expired.
The Lakers walked away with a 111-110 Game 3 victory Saturday over the Utah Jazz in a contest that featured an equally strong effort from both teams, eight lead changes and plenty of adjustments. With the Lakers managing to be on the winning end, they have a commanding 3-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinals, and can officially secure the series with a Game 4 victory on Monday.
History suggests the Lakers should be in good shape. No NBA team has ever managed to come back from a 3-0 deficit, and with how the Lakers prevailed in the final moments, Utah likely feels more deflated than inspired. They have to win four consecutive games to stay alive, but, instead, the Lakers will likely eliminate Utah for the third consecutive postseason. Meanwhile, the Lakers will likely grow from this experience, knowing they prevailed in a game that featured many challenges.
Tweet of the Day: "I think I have the best coach. But that doesn't mean I want to find out in media that I need to be more aggressive or should not take ... Corner threes. rather he tell me personally and direct. I found out about his comments from my friends. But that's yesterday. Game 3!" -- RONARTESTCOM (Lakers forward Ron Artest).
Reader Comment of the Day: "Ron Ron plays hard every time and brings a lot to this team's defense with his toughness but he needs to voice his problems without asking the coach to "close his yapper" -- LakersRule(Amit)
It took only three Twitter posts from Lakers forward Ron Artest about Coach Phil Jackson to set everyone ablaze, ranging from Artest confirming but downplaying the comments, his brother suggesting his Twitter account was hacked, Jackson expressing amusement over it all and the media facilitating the conversation to the nth degree.
Before I showcase the reactions from Artest and Jackson, let's catch everyone up to speed on the background first. As Lakers fans are painfully well aware, Artest and the basket haven't gotten along, with the forward shooting only 10% from three-point range in the Western Conference semifinals against Utah after making only 18% of his three-point attempts in the first-round series against Oklahoma City. But with Artest rarely seeing a shot he never liked, Jackson on several occasions has shed light on Thriller's shooting struggles. Jackson wondered if Artest would ever get out of a shooting funk after he went 28% in the first two games against the Thunder. With Artest's clip worsening to three of 23 through the first four games against OKC, The Times' T.J. Simers asked Jackson last week whether Artest should limit his shooting, and Jackson replied that Artest should stop taking so many corner three-pointers.
Fast forward to Thursday evening, and you have Artest sharing on his Twitter page his frustrations about Jackson's criticisms. Below is a chronological rundown:
Thursday 9:25 p.m.: "“Finally Phil Jackson didn’t mention me in media before talking me Now I can build on game 2. Hopefully he talks to me before the media.”
Thursday 9:41 p.m.: “Ever since phil mention things about me in media before coming to me first I was weird. So every pray he can somehow close his yapper and now say AMEN.”
Thursday 10:47 p.m.: “Its just something that I have to get use to. He is a different stlye [sic] coach. Just bad timing during playoffs and midseason for me!! ... "I think right now the team is improving so we just need to keep building or moving ahead or forward. Locking down etc....”
Artest's brother Daniel then wrote on his own Twitter account that, “Whoever hacked [Artest’s] twit page is foul," an accusation The Times' Mike Bresnahanreported today also came in a statement from Artest's representatives. Though Artest confirmed that he made those comments to Bresnahan, he shed very little light about it after Friday's practice to reporters.
The Lakers made it well aware they remember vividly what's happened the past two seasons when they visited Utah for Game 3 in the 2008 Western Conference semifinals and in the first round of the 2009 NBA playoffs. After the Lakers opened both series with a 2-0 lead, the Jazz responded in quick fashion at Energy Solutions Arena, including a Lakers 104-99 loss on May 9, 2008 and a 88-86 loss on April 23, 2009. In the end, the outcome didn't really matter. The Lakers won both series and I predicted the Lakers would win in five this season.
But the Lakers obviously don't want to assume that, and they remember very well how their Game 3 loss to Oklahoma City quickly led to another loss and tied the series up at 2-2. Surely, the Lakers prevailed with taking the next two games, but it didn't come without a fight. And as the Lakers prepare for Game 3 Saturday against the Jazz, they specifically recalled what led to their previous Game 3 losses to Utah.
After the video, I detail on the next thread what stood out in the Lakers' two Game 3 losses, a pattern the Lakers pledge won't happen again.
With a three-day lapse between Games 2 and 3 in the Lakers' Western Conference semifinals matchup with Utah, the scenario provided a perfect time for the Lakers to take a day off on Wednesday. After all, in this season of injuries, Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest could sure use the rest to heal up even if they have pledged to play through the pain.
Yet, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has maintained a long-held fear that a day off from practice can lead to sluggishness the following day. Hence, Thursday's long practice, which mostly entailed work on transition defense and defensive rotations. And even with the Lakers being cautious with Bynum's lateral meniscus in his right knee, Bryant's sore right knee and Odom's sprained right knee and sore left shoulder, they all participated in practice.
"The day off is sometimes a disconnect," Jackson said, "and we just can't be disconnected during the playoffs."
The Lakers have a 2-0 lead against Utah heading into Game 3 Saturday, and they appear well on their way advancing past the Jazz rather easily for the third consecutive postseason. But there's plenty of reasons why Jackson and his team don't want to feel completely comfortable:
The Lakers had a 2-0 lead against Oklahoma City before allowing the Thunder to take two wins on their home court. The Lakers are 4-6 in their last 10 regular-season games at Salt Lake City's Energy Solutions Arena. In the last two playoff matchups, the Jazz took Game 3 in front of an electric and intense home crowd that's also partly responsible for a 32-9 regular-season home record. And Utah forward Andrei Kirilenko plans to play Saturday after missing 23 of the last 25 games because of a strained left calf muscle. Jackson described the versatile 6-foot-9 forward as "one of the most unique defenders in the league for his ability to block from behind and chasing guys on breaks." Kirilenko is expected to guard Kobe Bryant, and he says he's looking forward to the matchup.
But there are also plenty of reasons for the Lakers to like their chances. Though the Jazz didn't give up in Game 1 or Game 2, they have had no answer for the Lakers' size advantage in Bynum, Odom and Pau Gasol. Those three grabbed at least 10 rebounds apiece in Games 1 and 2, a feat that hasn't happened since the 1985 Portland team accomplished it in a playoff matchup against Dallas. Even before the day off, Bryant said his health has progressed tremendously, while Bynum hasn't appeared tentative while playing through an injury. And in their last meeting at Utah on Feb. 10, the Lakers coasted to a 96-81 victory without Bryant and Bynum in the lineup.
For a player who maintains taking more pride in defense than making clutch shots, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant no doubt expressed gratitude for recently appearing on the NBA's All-Defensive team, being selected for the 10th time in his 14-year career. But there was a reason he remained salty after Wednesday's practice at the Lakers' facility in El Segundo, and it went beyond his usual stoic nature.
That's because Lakers forward Ron Artest, whom the organization acquired this off-season in hopes he'd bring defensive toughness, was nowhere to be found on the list. Joining Bryant on the first team were Orlando center Dwight Howard, Cleveland forward LeBron James, Charlotte forward Gerald Wallace and Boston guard Rajon Rondo. In fact, Artest received only three first-team votes from coaches and didn't even make the second team, which consisted of San Antonio center-forward Tim Duncan, Atlanta forward Josh Smith, Cleveland forward Anderson Varejao, Miami guard Dwyane Wade and Oklahoma City guard Thabo Sefolosha.
Although Artest has said all season he remains more consumed with locking down scorers than fretting about his poor shooting numbers, he acted unaware of the snub and expressed indifference when I told him about it.
"People give out awards," Artest said. "Some people deserve them. Whoever got them deserve it."
The Lakers unanimously pinned Artest as one of those people, with Bryant in stature and in words leading the charge by calling the exclusion "total bull ... plain and simple."
Lakers forward Lamar Odom argued that Artest "should be put on it every year," with Artest appearing twice on the first-team all defensive team and once on the second team in his 11-year career. It was a snub that annoyed Odom so much that he argued players should vote instead of the coaches.
And as for Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, he didn't express as much criticism of the coaches, but thought Artest "should've been mentioned."
Of course, if that had happened, that would've knocked somebody off the list. Should Artest's inclusion come at the expense of someone else? To be honest, I don't know, nor do I think it's fair for me to judge because I haven't seen them play as much as Artest.
But no one can deny the influence Artest has provided defensively for the Lakers, and that alone should be enough to earn first-team honors. He held plenty of top scorers, such as Pacers forward Danny Granger, Denver's Carmelo Anthony, Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, Dallas' Shawn Marion, Memphis' Rudy Gay, Boston's Paul Pierce and Golden State's Corey Maggette below their season scoring average.
Though Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant still had an effective series in the first round of the playoffs, Artest made him less of a scoring threat by limiting him to 25 points per game on 35% shooting, which marked significantly lower than his league-leading 30.1 points per game regular-season scoring average on a 47.6% clip.
And though he hasn't had a specific player to guard in the Utah series, Artest still carried the same effectiveness with denying entry passes and averaging 1.5 steals in the first two games. Add all those elements together, and Bryant sums up an improved defensive team, which allows a ninth-ranked 96.97 points per game this season after allowing 99.3 points per game in the 2008-09 campaign.
"We had always been a good defensive team last year," Bryant said. "But his presence has brought more of a physical nature to it and we're more of a solid defensive team. Last year, we were more into getting in the passing lanes, stealing the ball and things like that. But he'll just lock in on his guy and the guy literally can't move."
Photo: Lakers forward Ron Artest grabs a loose ball from Utah forward Carlos Boozer during the first half in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals on Tuesday. Credit: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times.
Let's face it. There's little intrigue in the Lakers-Jazz series, with the Lakers' 104-99 Game 1 victory confirming the team's recent dominance over Utah will likely continue.
Sure, there have been compelling developments, such as Kobe Bryant's improved health, Andrew Bynum'sknee and the bench's inconsistency. Let's not forget the attention on Bryant's recent photo shoot with Los Angeles Times Magazine. But there's very little regarding the Lakers-Jazz series itself that sparks excitement beyond the team's familiarity with one another.
After Utah guard Deron Williams scored 24 points on seven-of-15 shooting in Game 1, he suggested he could exploit his quickness over Artest, who had shared duties with Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown in covering the Jazz's guard. Artest since has remained coy about it, but his body language suggests this should be an interesting match-up to watch.
When I asked Artest how he could compensate for Williams' quickness, he remained coy. "I don't know. It's something he's going to try to exploit. So it's something ya'll should look forward to seeing."
Artest provided equally quirky answers to questions involving his standing with the Lakers, a topic that will become more talked about as the team advances further in the playoffs. When I asked Artest if Coach Phil Jackson ever shared with him an assessment of Artest's performance this season, he said, with a smile: "He probably did, but I probably wasn't listening.
"I don't know. I think about playing hard every day. I go to sleep, and I just want to play hard. I even sleep rough. I'll be sleeping and knocking the wife over the head. I eat my breakfast rough."
As for Jackson, he had expressed concern entering the Jazz series that Artest wouldn't be as focused against Utah because there was no high-profile scorer for him to defend, such as Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. Jackson plans to keep the same system in place for Game 2; we'll have to see about Artest's focus while dealing with Williams.
There was no beating around the bush from Lakers center Andrew Bynum.
"I am kind of injury prone," he said.
Of course, Bynum's injury history is something Lakers fans know all to well, the latest being a cartilage tear in his right knee. He had missed 47 games in the 2007-08 season because of a left knee injury, 32 last season because of a right knee injury and 17 games this season, including the final 13 of the regular season because of a strained left Achilles' tendon.
But this time, Bynum doesn't plan to sit out for several reasons. Doctors told him that even though they remain cautious, they don't foresee him risking himself to more structural damage. A game off here or there won't do much in the healing process because Bynum said there's no swelling around the knee. And having minor surgery -- an option he's considering this off-season -- would only keep him out of the lineup until possibly the NBA Finals, assuming the Lakers get to that point. But there's one clear reason why he's strongly opposed to the latter option.
"I don't want to go through the process of getting back in shape," Bynum said. "It's going to be painful. I'm ready to run through that and fix it later."
In a weird twist, Bynum's health seems to worsen just as Lakers guard Kobe Bryant seems to be returning to full form. He had scored at least 30 points in the last two games and indicated after the Lakers' 104-99 Game 1 victory Sunday over the Utah Jazz that his knee feels much better. Of course, Bryant has assorted injuries, including arthritis in the knuckle of his right index finger, a sore right knee, a sprained left ankle and periodic back spasms. So when Bryant says those injuries are feeling better, it's all relative. Still, it's much better than what he faced during the Lakers' first-round match-up with Oklahoma City. Said Bryant: "In two of the games, I played on one leg, basically."