The Lakers have now played the Utah Jazz in the NBA Playoffs three years in a row. In all three years, the Lakers have won the first two games at the Staples Center. However, they lost game three to the Jazz the last two years when the venue switched to Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City.
But this year it was different – barely. The Lakers eked out a 111-110 victory in a closely contested game that could have gone either way. There were no less than eight lead changes in the final two minutes.
Two things have really stood out so far in this year’s playoffs. The Lakers have played in the two hardest venues – Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City – compared to any of the other competitors in the NBA’s second season.
Not only have the Lakers played in the toughest venues during the playoffs, but six of their seven wins have been close. And none closer than tonight’s contest with both teams trading baskets and the lead down to the wire.
Both bode well for the Lakers down the road. When a team gets to the conference finals and the NBA finals, it can surely expect to be tested. This is where those close games playing on the road in tough venues really matters.
Of the other remaining teams that hold series leads – Orlando, Cleveland, and Phoenix – all have had runaway victories and have not been involved in as many tight games as the Lakers. But will the Lakers use this competitive experience to their advantage?
Again tonight as it was last year and the year before, when push came to shove in the final minutes, it was the usual suspects who took over the game, namely Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher.
With less than two minutes left in the game, Kobe Bryant hit an 18-foot jumper to put the Lakers up 103-102. The next time he got his hands on the ball, he hit a 24-foot jumper to tie the game at 106. After Deron Williams hit a jumper for Utah to put them up 108-106, Derek Fisher made a 24-foot jump shot to give the Lakers a one-point lead, 109-108, with just 28 seconds remaining.
After Wesley Matthews missed a jumper and Carlos Boozer missed the layup, Matthews fouled Bryant who snared the rebound. Bryant made both free throws with seven seconds on the clock.
When Utah inbounded the ball, Fisher immediately fouled Deron Williams who made both free throws to cut the Lakers lead to 111-110
Now here are the three points that bothered me in those final seconds. When the Lakers inbounded, Derek Fisher was grabbed by the waist and spun to the floor. There was no call.
I realize officials should swallow their whistles in the closing seconds and let the players play. But on an obvious foul like the one on Fisher, which allowed Kyle Korver to steal the pass with 4.4 seconds left, in my opinion that should have been an exception. D-Fish should have gone to the free throw line.
As the play moved down to the other end, where was Ron Artest when the Jazz inbounded? Deron Williams had a wide open 22-foot jumper. Artest, slipping and sliding, made a mad dash towards Williams but was too far away to contest the shot.
Fortunately, Williams’ shot was a bit too strong and bounced back over the rim. Wesley Matthews ran from corner and went right between Bryant and Pau Gasol. Both stood and watched as Matthews missed a sure tap in and gave the Lakers their 3-0 series lead.
Sloppy play, guys. Especially from three veterans with loads of playoff experience. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. It was a good thing that luck was on the Lakers side, or this year would have been the same as the past two years, a loss in game three.
Let’s clear that up by Monday night, guys, and see if you can get out of Energy Solutions Arena with a sweep.
In case you are wondering why the Lakers took so many perimeter shots while Andrew Bynum only had one shot the entire game, Utah was doubling up in the post. And guess who was left open? The usual suspect – Ron Artest.
That is why there was the flap about Ron Artest’s poor perimeter percentage. If a team is going to double up in the post, they are certainly not going to leave Kobe Bryant or Derek Fisher unguarded. So, who is going to be the open man time and time again? You got it, Ron Artest.
But tonight Artest found his range, going 4-for-7 from beyond the arc and 7-for-13 overall, and you see what a difference that made. It kept the Lakers close until Bryant and Fisher could seal it.
By the way, you know it is playoff time when D-Fish, who averaged only seven points per game during the regular season, scores 20 points and hits the three-pointer that gave the Lakers the lead for good.
Oh, and speaking of luck, don’t shed any tears for Utah because of their two near misses in the final four seconds. Did you see Kyle Korver tonight? If wasn’t unbelievable, I don’t know who is. He shot 9-for-10 overall and get this, five-for-five from beyond the arc for a career playoff high of 23 points.
I know Korver led the NBA in 3-point average .536. But in the playoffs going into tonight, he was 6-for-16 against Denver and 0-for-2 against the Lakers for a .333 average. So, like Artest, Korver found his range tonight, and that was fortunate for Utah or it might have been a blowout.
Even though Utah is down 0-3, don’t think that they won’t put up a fight in Game Four. A Jerry Sloan team never quits despite the odds. The Lakers had better come prepared to play and play hard for 48 minutes.