SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Jazz gave Derek Fisher his freedom, he gave them a free throw in return, and suddenly Mehmet Okur was pulling up from 26 feet trying to save the season. Okur's shot caromed off the rim into the hands of Deron Williams, who dribbled into his own narrow opening. With Kobe Bryant on his hip and the roar of nearly 20,000 fans falling on them both, Williams squeezed off the Jazz's last hopes into the air.
The shot, like many the Jazz hoisted in this series, was rushed, panicked. As much as Williams had pulled these Jazz along, even he couldn't deliver a comeback for the ages against the Los Angeles Lakers. The ball glanced off the side of the rim and into a scrum, effectively dropping the curtain on Utah's last act.
The Jazz walked off the court to a standing ovation, and they deserved one. They had played hard and frantic Friday, even if they had waited two quarters too long to do so. They lost, as Williams later said, to a better team. Much like a year ago when the Jazz fell to the San Antonio Spurs in last season's Western Conference finals, this simply wasn't their time.
The question now: Will it ever be?
Head coach Jerry Sloan called his Jazz young, citing the inexperience of their backcourt. Williams just completed his third season, Ronnie Brewer finished his second. Bryant and Derek Fisher are working on a dozen years each. So, yes, the Jazz are young. That's a fact. Starting next season, however, it can't be an excuse.
"You have to make the most of opportunities," Williams said late Friday. "You can't let things like this slip away. There are guys who go their whole careers without winning championships, without getting to the playoffs again. You never know what's going to happen injury-wise. Anything can happen."
Williams knows the clock is ticking. In two years, he joked, everybody will stop calling the Jazz young and start calling them old. The New Orleans Hornets may have already passed them. The Portland Trail Blazers will be better next season. The Golden State Warriors have promised to come back hungrier. The Houston Rockets, as they always do, hope to be healthy.
But what should worry the Jazz the most is the team that stared at them Friday. The Lakers are headed to the conference finals, but they'll be back next season. They, too, are young.
When the Jazz were triumphed as a possible heir to the Spurs a year ago, the Memphis Grizzlies hadn't dumped Pau Gasol into the Lakers' lap. Nor had Andrew Bynum developed into one of the league's best young centers. Bynum has since also developed into a doctor's office doorstop, but if he returns healthy, the Lakers should be that much better next season. And if he doesn't, it might not even matter.
Already, these Lakers are poised to reach the NBA Finals. That doesn't mean they will; Chris Paul could provide a stiff test, and the defending champion Spurs may yet have another game, if not another series, left in them. But the Lakers have continued to grow this season and this victory represented their biggest gain yet.
Prior to Friday, the only team to win even a single game on the road in the second round of these playoffs was Detroit. Winning in Orlando, however, isn't the same as winning in Salt Lake City. No environment in the NBA is tougher for a visiting team. The Jazz had lost only five games here all season, including the playoffs, and had just swept the Lakers from their floor in Games 3 and 4.
And yet the Lakers, as good teams tend to do, thrived on the hostility in their return. Less than 10 minutes into the game, they had built a 16-point lead.
"This was a wire-to-wire finish for us," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, "and that's impressive."
The wire did become considerably frayed by game's end. The Jazz hit five three-pointers in the final 2 minutes, 33 seconds to close within three, an indication, perhaps, of how different the outcome could have been had they played with that same desperation from the start.
"We didn't just lay down and die," Sloan said. "I was concerned about that."
In the end, though, Bryant killed the Jazz just the same. When Utah drew within seven with about five minutes left, he raised up and drilled a three-pointer. The next time down the floor, he faded deep, deep on a 22-footer, absorbed a foul from Matt Harpring and still banked in the shot. Head on. As the crowd groaned, Bryant strutted and glared into the stands.
"I went to the Black Mamba," Bryant said.
The Black Mamba still has some bite, and that should concern everyone who calls the West home. It's not a stretch to imagine Bryant playing at this level for another three seasons. As for the next series, the Hornets and Spurs will be happy to know that Bryant said his back felt "100 percent."
So even the Jazz, as young and talented as they are, have to wonder whether their window has closed before it even opened. Sloan, naturally, doesn't think that way. "I always believe," he said, "you can beat anybody if you believe."
Fortunately for the Jazz, Williams also believes, and that's why this season, like the last, still ends optimistically for them. Williams won't turn 23 until five weeks from now and he's already a beast. He'll get better, too. The question for the Jazz is whether they can surround him with enough tough-minded teammates.
Utah GM Kevin O'Connor has done a masterful job of assembling this roster, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have a few issues. Andrei Kirilenko began the season by asking for a trade, which prompted Williams to publicly rip him for having a poor work ethic. Kirilenko and Sloan came to a better understanding of each other, and the Russian forward, from most accounts, had a productive season. But then came Thursday. With the Jazz about to play their biggest game of the season, Kirilenko missed practice to fly to San Francisco to get some visa issues resolved. So he and his family could go to France for vacation.
This wasn't the same thing as Nick Van Exel chanting "Cancun! Cancun!" before a Lakers' playoff loss, but it still reportedly didn't go over too well with some of the Jazz. Or their fans, one of whom shockingly took the microphone from Friday's halftime act and started urging Jazz owner Larry Miller over the arena's sound system to trade Kirilenko.
Afterward, Kirilenko thought too much attention was being paid to his visa break. "Get me an American passport," he said, "and I'll never worry about it."
Sloan and Williams both said Kirilenko's absence had no impact on the game's outcome, and they were probably right. Two of those late three-pointers came from Kirilenko. Williams, in fact, sounded much more upbeat than a year ago when, after Utah's season-ending loss to the Spurs, he questioned whether some of his teammates even cared "if they win or lose."
Kirilenko was widely presumed to be among those teammates, as was Okur. This season, Carlos Boozer deserved to have a finger pointed at him. Matched against the Lakers' length, he shrunk, averaging 16 points in the series on 40 percent shooting. On Friday, he missed 11 of his 16 shots.
Boozer's coach, however, was quick with an explanation. "He's a young player," Sloan said, "and he's never been in that situation."
That excuse won't fly much longer. Sloan might have to wait on his young Jazz, but the rest of the West isn't. Friday night belonged to the Lakers. Next season might too.