Even after the Los Angeles Lakers seized all the momentum by holding their home court and taking a 2-0 series lead against the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals, Game Three had all the makings of an L.A. letdown.
For one thing, EnergySolutions Arena (home of the Jazz) is arguably the most hostile environment of all the venues that house the remaining playoff teams (the Lakers and Staples Center, the Suns and US Airways Center, the Celtics and TD BankNorth Garden, the Cavaliers and Quicken Loans Arena, the Magic and Amway Arena and the Hawks and Philips Arena—for all you who suffer from short-term memory loss).
To add stale popcorn to a mundane movie, the Lakers had yet to truly pull out the urgency card during this postseason. Considering Game Three was as close to a must-win for Utah as Wesley Matthews' eventual tip attempt with under a second left, I would have been no less surprised if L.A. had a 2-1 series lead heading into Game Four than I was to hear that BP's stocks were rapidly sold leading up to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
As expected, the Jazz jumped out to a strong start, holding the Lakers to just 17 first-quarter points on 29 percent shooting, including 1-of-6 from downtown. Still, the Purple and Gold plowed its way through a first-frame fog and trailed by only five points through 12 minutes.
In the second stanza, Utah unveiled its largest lead of the game (13), a point at which the Lakers were all but forced to look themselves in the mirror and ask, "Flight or fight?" Apparently L.A. had done enough flying on its way to Salt Lake City, because by first half's end, the Lakers were behind by a mere four points despite zero field goal attempts and points from Andrew Bynum, and just four points on 1-of-4 shooting by Pau Gasol -- all of which were compiled in the first frame.
Come the third period, the two teams really buckled down, exchanging body blows and jaw breakers that did everything but break each other's proverbial jaw. Suddenly, the game became a paradigm our great grand kids' grand kids may very well be watching on ESPN Classic, which will probably be called ESPN Antiques by that time. When it was all said and done, nine lead changes and six ties had surfaced, and you just knew that a fourth quarter of fireworks was on the horizon.
After losing 82-80 to begin the final frame, the Jazz scored six of the period's first eight points and looked poised to pick apart L.A., just as they had done in each of the series' first two games at this juncture of the game. Still, the Lakers remained cool, calm and under control, taking what Utah gave them and throwing it right back in the Jazz's face as if to say, "If you thought we were not a clutch jump-shooting team, you might want to revise your game plan."
Purée a 3-for-6 shooting quarter for Ron Artest, a Kobe Bryant trey that tied the game at 106 with under a minute remaining and a deep triple from the right perimeter by Derek "Silent Assassin" Fisher, who yanked the lead out of Utah's grasp for good. And you have the gravy for a 3-0 L.A. potato mashing.
If you whited out the final score of Game Three's box score, anyone in their right mind would have assumed the Jazz jolted the Lakers. After all, they had a higher field goal percentage from the floor (including from three-point land); they attempted 12 more free throws and made 26 to L.A.'s 16; and they out-rebounded the Lakers, accounted for five more assists and never had a bigger deficit than four.
Perhaps most advantageous of all, Utah had a sellout crowd of almost 20,000 on its feet for most of the final 24 minutes, waving their white towels, barking at every perceivably bad call and even going as far as to chant, "Fisher sucks!"
Yet after a fourth quarter to never forget, the scoreboard read: LA Lakers 111, Jazz 110.
It was a game L.A. had absolutely no business winning.
Check that, it was a game the Lakers had absolutely no business even attempting to win.
But that is what championship-caliber teams do: They win games that they probably should not have won. They defy odds.
They make the improbable all too possible.
If nothing else, former Lakers head coach Rudy Tomjanovich said it best.
"Never underestimate the heart of a champion."
You can contact Josh Hoffman at JHoffMedia@gmail.com.