- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- There's always a fine line you walk when you're playing your little brother in a pickup basketball game. You don't necessarily want to destroy him so badly he refuses to play with you again (shagging your own rebounds is never fun) but you also don't want him to have any bragging rights by beating you.
So you play with him a little. Let him jump out to an early lead. Maybe let him take a lead late or get within striking distance. Eventually, however, you finally put him away and pretend like it was a hard-fought game and he'd have a chance next time, even though you knew he never stood a chance.
That's what the little brother Utah Jazz are facing in their Western Conference semifinal series against the big brother Los Angeles Lakers, who have won 16 straight games against Utah in Staples Center and are two wins away from eliminating them in the playoffs for the third year in a row.
The Lakers' 111-103 win over the Jazz on Tuesday, which gave L.A. a 2-0 series lead heading to Utah for Game 3 on Saturday, played out much like Game 1. The Lakers played around with Utah in the first quarter, asserted their dominance in the second and third quarters, and made it a game in the end before coming away with the win. They might as well have put their arms around their undersized opposition, tapped them on the head and said, "Good game, kid, you almost had me there. Maybe next time."
This is the third straight year the Jazz have played the Lakers in the postseason, yet they seem as starstruck and unready for the moment as they did two years ago. Perhaps it's because the Lakers have always been bigger and stronger than the Jazz, and unfortunately for the Jazz, their two 7-footers -- Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos -- are arguably their two worst players or perhaps the least-prepared to produce in the playoffs.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan has continually preached toughness with his young players, but Fesenko and Koufos are the antithesis of tough. Especially Fesenko, who is straight out of central casting for every clichéd basketball film you've ever seen. He's the big Ukrainian center who isn't quite all there. Perhaps you recall his doppelgangers in such forgettable films as "Eddie" and "Celtic Pride." Sloan continually pokes and prods his 7-1, 300-pound center, hoping to get him to be more assertive, you know, when he isn't busy looking up at the "kiss cam" or looking at the celebrities sitting courtside.
"I'm not checking it out during the meeting, but when the huddle is broken and the players are sitting, I'll look -- it's fun," said Fesenko when he was called out for looking at the big screen in between timeouts. "I was really flattered that Sylvester Stallone shook my hand while we were passing by on Sunday. That's really huge that Sylvester Stallone shook my hand. I was speechless; I wanted to say something but nothing came out."
On Tuesday, Fesenko, who started but finished with only two points on 1-of-7 shooting, experienced his highlight moment of the game when he committed a loose-ball foul with 1.2 seconds remaining in the half, 90 feet from the Lakers' basket. The play prompted Jack Nicholson to scream from his courtside seat, "He hit his arm, what the [expletive] are you looking at! Get in the [expletive] game!" The smile on Fesenko's face when he was told Nicholson was heckling him was as wide as a tourist strolling down the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Fesenko, who may be the last basketball player to actually wear his wristbands on his wrists, is a nice guy, but that's the problem with the Jazz. They are a roster filled with nice guys and none of them are nicer and softer than their 7-footers who are supposed to be protecting the paint and providing a low-post presence. Koufos, who also finished with two points, is such a softy, he dries himself off and gets dressed away from his locker when there are reporters near his area. If he can't muscle middle-aged scribes out of his area, how is he supposed to fare against the likes of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom? Those three combined for 50 points, 44 rebounds and nine blocked shots.
"It's hard to say we have a relationship," Fesenko said of his relationship with Sloan. "Sometimes Coach is really harsh on me, but I realize I deserve it. Every player needs to be motivated. He's not trying to offend me; he sees the potential I have and he wants me to get to there. It's Jerry Sloan, Hall of Famer. I can't complain. He was in the NBA when my mom was born, so he probably knows more than me. I saw tapes of him as a player and I wouldn't want to play against him."
Of course he doesn't -- that would entail his getting down and dirty in the paint, which we've seen is not Utah's forte. The Lakers not only outscored the Jazz in the paint 64-50, but the Lakers hit 32 of 48 shots in the paint while the Jazz connected on only 25 of 59. The Lakers also outrebounded the Jazz 58-40.
Sloan, who was one of the toughest players in the league, knows better than anyone what kind of team he has and he knows their limitations. He almost sounded like a coach simply looking to get his young players experience rather than trying to win the series before the game.
"We have to realize who we are," said Sloan. "We got a lot of young guys we're counting on to try and play against Ron Artest, Kobe Bryant and people like that. They're busting their butt and trying their best from my standpoint, but these guys are all-star performers. I've been pleased with the way our guys have tried to play.
"They tried hard against Denver and we were fortunate to win that series, and it was great for them. Having a bunch of young guys, it's critical for their development to get to the playoffs and get a chance to see how tough it is and see what the game is all about so they have a chance to get better. And hopefully, if you have the right continuity and keep the group of guys together, maybe the next year you can win four or five more games."
Unless the Jazz can grow a few inches or at least play like they've grown a few inches, it looks like they will have to wait until next year to get those extra wins.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
The Jazz have dropped 16 straight to the Lakers, with no signs of change.