- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- When the Los Angeles Lakers played the Utah Jazz last year in the first round of the playoffs, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan opined, "We're just like a little dent in the road as far as they're concerned," later saying, "We're not a nasty team."
Well, one year and one round later, it seems the Jazz are still learning how to be nasty while still playing the role of a pesky dent on the Lakers' road to a potential championship.
The Lakers' 104-99 win over the Jazz on Sunday afternoon in the first game of their conference semifinal series was like watching two old dance partners getting reacquainted with one another. The Lakers and Jazz have faced each other in the first two rounds of the playoffs the past three years and basically know what the other team will do almost instinctively before they do it. That's why Kobe Bryant said there would be no need to review film before playing Utah. After all, there's no need to rewatch a movie you've seen a hundred times before just so you can yell out the lines before they're uttered on screen.
Yet like a movie you've seen time and time again, the ending will never change, no matter how much you wish it would or yell at the characters to look behind them.
Listening to the Jazz at the end of the game, however, was almost like listening to the same broken record from last year.
"I just hope our guys come with enough toughness to withstand their toughness," said Sloan. "They will take your nose and stick [it] in the ground and turn around on their heels on top of you, that's how good they are. We have to learn to fight through that."
"I thought we had a lack of toughness in the first half," said Jazz point guard Deron Williams. "We only had one guy with two fouls coming into halftime and that's rare for a playoff game."
Well, you can't get tougher or nastier overnight (or in the case of the Jazz, over a year apparently) just like you can't grow three to five inches, which is really the Jazz's biggest problem against the Lakers. It's not that they don't know what the Lakers are doing; they simply aren't as big, as strong, as tough or as good as the Lakers.
It seems the only player on the Jazz who constantly shows toughness and shows up to play from the first quarter to the last for Utah is Williams. On Sunday, Williams, who was already nursing an injured elbow he suffered late in Utah's series-clinching win over the Denver Nuggets, forced the Jazz to call a timeout 20 seconds into the game after hurting his right arm on Utah's first possession. He again limped off the court at the end of the first quarter after hurting his right knee while going after a loose ball. Williams, however, battled through the injuries, scoring 17 points in the first half and finishing with 24 points and eight assists.
"Yeah, I'm beat up," Williams said. "You know, that's normal around this time of year. It's not a big deal and I'll be ready to go the next game."
Williams, who was guarded by Derek Fisher on the two minor injuries he suffered during the game, was guarded by Ron Artest for the majority of the game. The 6-foot-7 small forward is certainly one of the biggest and most aggressive defenders the 6-3 Williams has ever encountered, but it didn't seem to hamper him as he was able to get around him and create for himself and his teammates.
"I've had Shawn Marion and Grant Hill on me before," said Williams, who dunked over Artest at the end of the first half. "I feel I have a quickness advantage over him. Ron is a great defender but I definitely have a quickness advantage over him and I'm going to try and exploit that matchup."
Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson had wondered if Artest, who gets geared up to face the opponent's best scorer, would have a hard time finding the same motivation against the Jazz that he had last series against the Thunder, when he guarded the league's leading scorer, Kevin Durant.
"I'm a little concerned that he doesn't have a 'scorer' to go out and defend, Carmelo Anthony, or someone who is a qualified big scorer," Jackson said.
Well, Williams may not be as much of a "scorer" as Anthony or Durant, but Jackson better hope Artest finds a way to pretend he is and defend him as such, because Williams was the major reason why the Jazz were able to come back from a 14-point deficit and take a late four-point lead before the Lakers closed the game on a 15-4 run.
"We found out that Williams is very effective against smaller guards in post-up situations a couple years ago so we were fortunate to have Shannon [Brown] last year to be able to come in and relieve Fisher," Jackson said. "So that is one of the matchups we'll have to look to work with."
While Jackson will use a combination of Fisher, Artest and Brown to defend Williams in Game 2 on Tuesday, Williams must now figure out a way to break the Jazz's 15-game losing streak (including seven playoff games) to the Lakers at Staples Center.
"It's kind of repetitive," Williams said. "We had a chance to win this game; we just didn't make the plays down the stretch when it counted. Couldn't get a shot, Kobe hit some unbelievable shots and that's pretty much it."
It has pretty much been it every time the Jazz have played the Lakers the past three years and will likely continue to serve as their undoing this year no matter how much they would like the finale of this never-ending movie to change.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
The Jazz did not learn last year's lesson in toughness after losing Game 1.