This is unfamiliar territory for Los Angeles Lakers fans.
It's not exactly on the same level as rooting for the Boston Celtics, but Lakers fans haven't always seen eye-to-eye with the Utah Jazz (via Bill Oram of The Salt Lake Tribune). Considering that the teams have squared off with one another in three of the last five postseasons, it's a rivalry that's as obvious as it is overlooked.
Yet as the 2012-13 regular season enters its final turn, Lakers fans have a clear-cut second-favorite squad in the Jazz.
But the slumping Jazz planted their feet firmly in the doorway, preventing it from ever completely shutting. Whatever Bryant's injury took out of L.A.'s playoff sails, Utah's 10 losses in 13 games have given back in hurricane-strength gusts.
If it seems remarkable that this Lakers team is even part of the playoff picture, that's because it should. They closed the season's first half with a forgettable 106-93 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. It was the Lakers' 25th defeat in their first 42 games, the 10th time they had traveled to the wrong end of the scoreboard in 12 games.
The Lakers deserve some credit for fighting their way back into the postseason. As always, with the aid of some masterful displays by Bryant, the team has won 19 of its 27 games since that loss to the Grizzlies.
Whether due to a new-found trust in coach Mike D'Antoni's ability to handle his roster or some less-than-appealing offers being thrown their way, the Lakers stood pat at the Feb. 21 trade deadline amid a flurry of rumors.
That meant that Pau Gasol was safe (for now), and Dwight Howard would remain a Laker (at least through the end of this season). It also meant that Bryant now knew exactly who was going to help him salvage what once had the potential to be the most disappointing seasons in his NBA career.
Maybe Bryant wasn't impressed by the pieces left around him. He ramped his efficient scoring (29.0 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting) in the 12 games he played after the deadline passed (via NBA.com).
Well that or the 34-year-old was simply determined to do everything in his power to stop the season from becoming a complete disaster.
But even a superstar like Bryant couldn't do it on his own. He needed a complementary wingman, a whole team of them really.
And the Jazz were more than happy to meet Bryant's needs.
They have all but erased what was once a promising season.
It's exactly the opposite of what the franchise was trying to accomplish when they, like the Lakers, brushed trade offers aside despite having two prominent players months away from free agency, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, and two players capable of filling the vacated positions, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
Since that uneventful deadline the Jazz have crumbled like well-intentioned, poorly executed March Madness brackets. Utah now finds itself on the outside looking in at the playoff race, 1.5 games behind the eight-seed Lakers.
Starting point guard Mo Williams was having a decent season in the first year of his second tenure with the Jazz until a torn ligament in his right thumb kept him sidelined for more than two months. Since returning on Mar. 6, he's been dreadful (8.6 points per game, 35.4 field-goal percentage, via basketball-reference.com).
Of course when things are going this poorly this quickly, it's impossible to tab one player for the blame.
Jazz center Al Jefferson has been solid since the trade deadline (15.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, 45.8 field-goal percentage, via basketball-reference.com), but hasn't played up to his pre-deadline level (17.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 48.8 field-goal percentage). His frontcourt mate, Paul Millsap, has struggled just to say on the floor, missing four of the team's past 11 games.
Those vaunted backups, Kanter and Favors, have shown some of the inconsistencies expected out of young players. Randy Foye has been searching for his perimeter stroke for two months (33.1 three-point percentage since Feb. 1, 43.4 percent before then). Gordon Hayward has struggled with his shot all season (42.8 field-goal percentage), and losing nearly a full month to a shoulder injury didn't help.
But are the Lakers fans misguided in their new, still uncomfortable friendship? Are they buying into false hope, supporting a team mired in an impossible-to-win situation?
The Jazz have a slightly more favorable schedule down the stretch. Of their remaining 14 games, six come against current playoff teams and six will take place away from Salt Lake City. The Lakers close the season with seven playoff opponents in their final 13 games and also have six road games yet to play.
Still, I don't see a slight edge in the schedule being the deciding factor here.
The Lakers have been by far the superior team of late. They've won two of the three games that Bryant has missed—if you count the scoreless 12 minutes he logged against the Indiana Pacers as a missed game.
And things seem to be looking up in La La Land. Both Bryant and Pau Gasol are expected to return to action on Friday night according to D'Antoni (via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times). That means, as Bresnahan pointed out, the Lakers will have their top five players (Bryant, Gasol, Howard, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace) all available for the first time since Jan. 30.
Do you think the Jazz wish they could rethink their deadline stance now? Utah fans better hope for one heck of a lottery pick, because that's where this club is headed.
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