LOS ANGELES – As celebrations go, this qualified as modest. They shared hugs and fist bumps, and walked off the court listening to the roar of the crowd fall upon their shoulders, all the while sidestepping the purple and gold streamers floating down from the arena's rafters.
Once inside their locker room, away from the din of their fans and the glow of their most recent accomplishment, the Los Angeles Lakers were greeted by a simple message on a marker board.
"12 TO GO"
It takes 16 playoff victories to win the NBA championship, and the Lakers had just punched out their first set of four, dismissing the Utah Jazz in a swift series that needed only five games. And just what did they learn over those five games and eight days?
Out here in the West, the Lakers have yet to encounter an opponent that gives them as much trouble as they create for themselves. If they continue to play as they did Monday, as they did for much of this series, then this season’s NBA Finals will look a lot like last season’s.
Once again, the Lakers ran out to a large lead, 22 points wide near the end of the third quarter. Once again, they surrendered most of it, forcing head coach Phil Jackson to push Kobe Bryant and the rest of his starters back onto the floor to keep a Jazz unit comprised almost solely of role players from sending the series back to Salt Lake City.
This has been a common theme for these Lakers, first in the regular season and now in the playoffs. As dominant as they are, they have consistently struggled to close out games. It cost them one game against the Jazz and threatened to cost them three others, including Monday's when backup guard Ronnie Price spirited Utah within six points of the lead with about four minutes remaining.
The Lakers ultimately turned back the Jazz in the 107-96 win – thanks largely to Bryant and Lamar Odom, who combined for 57 points. But they also left the floor knowing they have some work to do.
"I told them in the locker room," Jackson said, "we have to improve as we go forward."
No one more than their young center, Andrew Bynum. Jackson benched Bynum after the Lakers' Game 3 loss in Utah, and he hasn't played much better since then. For the series, Bynum averaged only three rebounds and one block – the two areas in which the Lakers are counting on him to help the most.
Bynum has lacked his usual explosiveness, which is understandable considering he missed almost the entire second half of the season with a knee injury. Still, the Lakers will need more from him in the second round, where they figure to face Yao Ming and the Rockets or, less likely, the Blazers with Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden. After Monday's win, Jackson said he plans to return Bynum to the starting lineup.
"Andrew is going to contribute, he's going to help us, he's going to dominate games," Odom said. "We just have to get him back into it … pushing him emotionally and physically as well, get him back to that high level."
The good news for the Lakers is that Odom is already at that level. After weathering much of the criticism for the Lakers' flat performance against the Boston Celtics in last season's NBA Finals, he played both tough and aggressively against the Jazz. He averaged 17.8 points and 11.0 rebounds in the series, punctuated by a Game 5 performance that included 26 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks.
While Odom started the past two games, Jackson values the punch he can provide off the bench. The Lakers' reserves, who deserve a good part of the blame for the team's struggles to sustain leads, can use all the help they can get – even more so now that Luke Walton is sidelined indefinitely with an ankle injury.
There is a casualness to these Lakers that, unless checked, figures to be further exposed as their competition increases. The eighth-seeded Jazz were a noticeable upgrade over last season's Nuggets, whom the Lakers swept. But they also aren't the Jazz of Karl Malone and John Stockton.
After Utah's first two losses in the series, Deron Williams told friends he was growing increasingly frustrated with the softness of some of his teammates. Williams has previously targeted Andrei Kirilenko for criticism, but he's said to have also soured considerably on Carlos Boozer.
Boozer angered franchise officials and teammates alike early in the season, when he spoke openly of wanting to test his free agency this summer. It didn't help that he made the comments while he was nursing a quadriceps injury that cost him more than half the season.
After Monday's season-ending loss, Boozer now says he'd like to return to the Jazz, adding that he feels like "one of those cornerstone people who brought this team back to prominence." In truth, the decision might not be entirely up to him. Even if Boozer doesn't opt out of his contract, the Jazz are expected to explore trading him and devote their resources to keeping Paul Millsap.
As if the Jazz needed any more evidence of Millsap's value, he helped lead Monday's comeback while Boozer watched from the bench.
"We're not getting that effort every night from everybody," Williams said, "and we've got to have that."
Both the Rockets and the Blazers figure to give the Lakers a better fight than the Jazz, but they, too, have their flaws – as does almost everyone in the West. The Blazers are inexperienced, the Hornets uninspired, the San Antonio Spurs too injured, the Dallas Mavericks too erratic. As well as the Rockets have played in the first round, they still lack a dependable playmaker in crunch time.
All season, the Lakers have pretty much had their way with the West. Scoring comes easy to them, sometimes too easy. Their defense has been, in Jackson's words, "spotty."
Eventually, they will need to toughen, if not before a possible meeting with the Nuggets in the conference finals then certainly by the NBA Finals, where LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers figure to be waiting.
"Now we have a week to have a spirited conversation with the group and see if we can correct that," Bryant said.
Kobe hardly seemed alarmed. Ugly or not, all wins count the same, and they already have four. But the Lakers also would be wise to remember something else: With 12 to go, they don't figure to get any easier.
- the Lakers