Utah outscored the Lakers by five over the final three quarters of this game, and I'll probably look like a fool once the Jazz take both games in Utah (though playing at home on Sunday might feel odd), but it almost feels as if the Jazz have some sort of mental block when it comes to playing Los Angeles.
Actually, it felt as if they had a block. A block that may have dissipated as Game 2 moved along. How else would you explain Deron Williams' lack of aggressiveness offensively early on, or Carlos Boozer's iffy play? Yes, Boozer had a slow finish to the regular season, and wasn't too hot during the Houston series, but that was a different kind of stink - he was trying, but just missing shots in the face of great D from Dikembe Mutombo and/or Chuck Hayes.
Now, things turned around in the second half, and the Jazz may have pulled out a win had Jerry Sloan not gone with Ronnie Brewer on Kobe Bryant for as long as he did, or stuck with Matt Harpring for too long soon after (Harpring actually did play well in spite of his over-aggressive nature on Bryant defensively, but Andrei Kirilenko has actually had some success on KB, and everyone in the building appears to realize this save for Sloan); but the Jazz just couldn't close it out.
The Lakers closed quite well, coffee for everyone, and were righteously-good offensively. 120 points on 57.4 percent shooting, 35-43 from the line (not sure if you heard, but the Jazz needlessly hack a lot), all behind perfect spacing, extra passing, and sound finishes. Mike Brown should be forced to watch and re-watch this game 14 times before tonight's Game 2. It's called the "elbow-extended." Get LeBron the ball there.
As always, Kobe Bryant was the catalyst, and the team's go-to guy during a breathtaking stretch in the third quarter. I may not agree with Bryant's selection as the MVP - the man isn't doing anything new this year, he's just around newer and/or improved teammates that actually deserve to share a court with Bryant - but you can't argue that he doesn't deserve it in one way:
Nobody, NOBODY, works harder at his game. Nobody has come close since Michael retired. And though that singular focus and dogged determination hasn't resulted in the "best player in the game" status that everyone thinks is his, it should be admired to no end. This is an NBA player that respects and cherishes the game as much as the devoted fans that cheer him on or observe him at every available opportunity, and there aren't a lot of those floating around.
For that, we appreciate and respect the man above all others in his league. Congrats, Kobe.
Derek Fisher had one of his white-hot nights from the perimeter; he reminded of a stretch of play he afforded the Lakers late in the 2000-01 season, nailing 7-10 shots from the floor and finishing with 22 points. Any time Fisher puts arc on his jumper, it's as good as gold. Any time he line-drives it, it has about a one-in-32 chance of going in.
Lamar Odom played a brilliant floor game, taking and making as many shots as Fisher while seeing two lay-ups roll in and out, and finishing with 19 points, 16 rebounds, and two blocks. Pau Gasol (20 points on 11 shots) was active and could have seemingly scored 40 had the Lakers gone to him every time down court, and the bench allowed a resting Bryant to stay off the court for nearly five minutes in the fourth quarter with their active play.
Still, it was Kobe's night. 34 points on 18 shots, eight boards, six assists, five turnovers, and a third-quarter run (15 points on seven shots, two assists) that kept the Jazz at bay even while Utah dropped in 34 points of their own. He was brilliant.
Even with two double-digit advantages for the victor, this is quite the series to behold. And if the Jazz can get over the willies and make a few sound adjustments, there is a very good chance that it returns back to El Lay next Wednesday as a best of three.
Putting Chauncey Billups' injury aside for one moment, one has to appreciate just how well both teams are playing at this point (Orlando wasn't shirking, Detroit wasn't slumming), and even though the Pistons were down early and lost the game eventually, you couldn't pin this loss on Billups' absence or any sustained stretch of uninspired play.
Though the Magic scored 16 of the game's first 18 points, you never got the feeling that Detroit was out of it, even with Billups limping toward the locker room. Detroit is so good, and when they decide to run a little offense instead of giving up early in a possession, they play at a championship level.
That said, Orlando was not to be denied. The team attacked offensively, going to its strong hand in nearly every possession and trying to get to the rim, and the result was an in-game lay-up line during the game's first quarter.
Piston coach Flip Saunders erred in going to Antonio McDyess (love ‘Dyess, but he's a converted power forward with surgically rebuilt legs, he's 6-8 and has endured just about every possible type of limb-related surgery that is possible over the years) initially off his bench, instead of Theo Ratliff.
Rasheed Wallace had a hero complex-thing going on top of that, you could see that he was relishing the chance to take this game over and lead his Pistons back, and the foul trouble that got in his way frustrated the man even more than usual. Still, his attitude save for one second quarter outburst was encouraging.
Though Orlando let Detroit back in it for a while - Jameer Nelson really enjoys shooting 20-foot jumpers - it was still a very impressive turn for the Magic. Rashard Lewis had 33 points on 11-15 shooting, and each of his four misses were good looks that wouldn't stay down. He had Detroit on its heels all game long.
Here's the rub: Orlando needs to play this hard, and connect this well, every time out if they want to have a chance against the Pistons. And they have a chance, even if Billups springs out of bed this morning fresh as a daisy.
If Billups limps out of bed, then Detroit needs to sit him for Game 4. Hamstring pulls don't go away easily, and though missing one game won't act as a panacea, it helps more than it hurts. And I'm not even thinking about the Conference finals or NBA Finals at this point. Detroit can beat Orlando, on the road, without Billups; and if the team falters, then heading into a best-of three with home court advantage and five full days' rest for CB isn't the worst option available.
For now, let's credit the Magic, who played a determined game, and salute Detroit, a team that could have folded but never stopped trying to make a game of it.