Who would have expected a team coached by Jerry Sloan to play so meekly in a do-or-die game? But, except for a mini-streak at the start of the third quarter, that's exactly what the Jazz did in ending their season with a 111-96 loss to the Lakers.
Here's what usually transpires when a team is up 3-0 and can close out a series on the road:
- The home team plays extremely hard until the waning moments. Then they remember that winning the game will only compel them to hit the road one more time and end their season in foreign territory. So they tend to fall flat in the clutch.
- Or, the team in command of the series subconsciously decides that the celebratory partying is better on their home turf that it is on the road. So they tend to cruise through the game and get slaughtered.
But the Jazz were sloppy from the opening tip, then temporarily responded to Sloan's halftime spiel before finally giving up the ghost as the game (and their season) approached the finish line.
Meanwhile, the Lakers demonstrated the killer instinct they lacked in the previous round in Oklahoma City.
For sure, the Lakers are bigger and longer up front and, in Kobe Bryant, have the spectacular go-to scorer that Utah lacks. And Pau Gasol absolutely buried Carlos Boozer. Moreover, setting aside four quick-hitting bursts for layups made by Deron Williams before the Lakers could get their defense organized, Derek Fisher did an adequate job of controlling Utah's best player.
Still, this is the Lakers' modus operandi in any given playoff series: They take a few games to learn the rhythms and movements of their opponents, and the keys to disrupting the bad guys' game plan. Once they've absorbed their lessons, the Lakers get extremely comfortable doing whatever it is that they have to do in order to win. This is a testament to the team's versatility, adaptability, overall intelligence, as well as the savvy of L.A.'s coaching staff.
Against the Jazz, the Lakers' defense had to learn how to cope with Sloan's screening, cutting, curling, screening-the-screener perpetual motion designs. What's unique about Utah's offense is that they mostly set their screens near or at the foul line. These relatively tight sets allow little time for weak-side defenders to provide adequate help without leaving the rim blatantly unprotected.
To counter this, the Lakers mostly clustered in the lane and allowed the Jazz to unload 3-point shots. (Unlike Game 3, however, they made sure to stay in touch with long-distance marksman Kyle Korver.) They occasionally changed this up by chasing the 3-point shooters off of the bonus shots and forcing them into the yaw of their long and tall defense. As a result, Utah shot only 4 for 16 from the outlands -- with Williams going 0 for 7. With their perimeter shots not dropping, the Jazz were forced to try to challenge L.A.'s bigs, and were spectacularly unsuccessful.
Plus, operating in such close quarters where passing lanes were narrow and fast hands swiped at every dribble, the Jazz committed more than twice as many turnovers as did the Lakers -- 13-6.
On offense, the Lakers fully exploited the Gasol-Boozer mismatch. What continues to surprise, though, is how much Boozer was intimidated by Gasol's height and length. Instead of utilizing the six fouls at his disposal by bullying Gasol, Boozer wasted his precious legalized assaults with slaps and excuse-me transgressions.
In the offseason, Utah would best be served by making some kind of sign-and-trade deal to send Boozer elsewhere.
If the Jazz were unready, unwilling and unable to continue their season (they also missed a total of nine layups), the Lakers came out with fire in their eyes. No laissez-faire loss for the defending champs. No forfeiture of two days rest.
Indeed, except for Bynum's sad-sack performance and the overconfident few minutes early in the third quarter wherein the Jazz sliced a 17-point deficit to five, the Lakers were as sharp as they've been all season. They even did a terrific job in defense of the few high screen/rolls Utah threw at them in the first quarter -- with Gasol and even Bynum making terrific shows to destroy the timing and the spacing of these plays.
While it's also true that Kobe frequently massaged the ball too long and forced too many drives/shots, he also sliced and diced Utah's defense whenever the hometown heroes threatened to catch the Lakers from behind.
Together, Kobe and Gasol shot 23 for 41 and scored 65 points.
For sure, in just about every physical category, the Lakers were simply superior to the Jazz. But in their calm and confident yet intense approach to the close-out game, the Lakers also demonstrated the one trait that gives them an edge over teams with equivalent talent -- their mental toughness.
That's why the Lakers are the once and (probably) future champs.