Familiarity should help Lakers
After Game 4 of the Lakers' first-round series against the Thunder, when Oklahoma City came back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the series at two games apiece, Derek Fisher leaned on the experience of Los Angeles' win over Utah in the 2008 Western Conference semifinals as proof that the Lakers could win two games, lose two and then win two more to close out a series.
Kobe Bryant said that if there was any team in the league that the Lakers would feel prepared to face after watching tape and strategizing for only one day before a playoff series, it would be the Jazz.
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"We see them every year it seems like in the playoffs," Bryant said after Saturday's practice. "Preseason, regular season, so, we're very familiar."
The Jazz were a notch on the Lakers' belts each of the past two postseasons during their runs to the Finals, beating them in six games in the second round in 2008, as Fisher recently recalled, and in five games in the first round last year.
That success carried over to the regular season, when L.A. took the season series 3-1, winning by an average of 17.7 points in the three victories.
All that success against one team can breed contempt, especially when that team legitimately feels as if it has a chance at a championship if it can just get past the purple-and-gold roadblock standing in its way.
"I think they come with more dedication if I know that team," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "They'll come with belief that they can beat us. All these games will be tough, hard-fought."
On the flip side, drawing an opponent such as the Jazz can provide a sorely needed surge of confidence for a team like the Lakers that fought and clawed its way through the first round, just so long as the memory of past success doesn't lead to overconfidence.
"When it comes down to it, it's the semifinals of the conference, and you got to play extremely hard to be able to move on and be successful against whomever," Pau Gasol said. "Utah plays hard. They execute, and they're very good at what they do, so we need to stay focused at all times and not take extra confidence from our success in the past. I think we're ready. I think the series against Oklahoma really put us in the position mentally where we're in good shape."
Added Jackson, "We know how potent a team they are, what they can do and how well they play together."
And so just like the Lakers' No. 1 versus No. 8 matchup against Oklahoma City in the first round felt nothing like Goliath versus David, the Lakers' No. 1 versus No. 5 series against Utah doesn't feel much like a Lakers landslide, either, despite what evidence suggests.
However, here are five ways the Lakers could shorten the series in their favor:
1. Take care of home court, steal one on the road
The Lakers tied for the second-best home record in the league during the regular season and have won their past 14 games against the Jazz at the Staples Center. As the higher-seeded team, the Lakers can advance to the Western Conference finals if they simply win all their home games against the Jazz. But to avoid going to a Game 7 in which a key player's injury or foul trouble could sway the results of the whole series, they'll have to win one game in Energy Solutions Arena, which hosts one of the most boisterous home crowds in the league. L.A. was able to withstand the ferocious Ford Center atmosphere to close out Game 6 on the road against the Thunder and ended Denver's and Orlando's seasons last season on the road as well.
"We're used to the noise we face in Utah; we've been there so many times," Kobe Bryant said. "Oklahoma was a little different. Utah, we're used to being there."
2. Get Kobe going
Not just offensively, but defensively. The first-round series against the Thunder turned on its heels when Bryant volunteered to guard Russell Westbrook. He can be equally valuable stopping his former Olympic teammate, big-bodied point guard Deron Williams, who torched the Nuggets for 25.8 points and 11.3 assists while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from beyond the arc during the first round. The Lakers waited until Game 5 to throw Bryant on Westbrook and weren't too forthcoming talking about the possibility of putting Bryant on Williams as a surprise tactic before Game 1. When Jackson was asked about the potential matchup, he said, "Maybe, but probably limited." All Bryant would say when asked whether we might see him on Williams was, "You could."
On offense, Bryant was much more aggressive in Game 6, scoring 32 points after scoring only 25 points in Games 4 and 5 combined. He can be equally effective as a scorer and as a setup man and hasn't chosen which identity he'll assume against Utah. "It depends on the defense," Bryant said. "I'll let them choose."
Bryant might want to choose the facilitator role on his own. In three regular-season games against the Jazz this season, he made only 22 of 66 shots from the field (33.3 percent) and 2 of 16 3-pointers (12.5 percent).
3. Have the better bench
During the first round, the Lakers mostly played an eight-man rotation, with Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown carrying the bulk of the bench duties and Luke Walton picking up some fringe minutes as the series dragged. Utah's bench was even shorter, as coach Jerry Sloan relied on forward Paul Millsap and guard Kyle Korver as his key reserves, with Ronnie Price next in line. Although Odom was mostly absent against Oklahoma City, averaging just 7.8 points and 6.8 rebounds, Millsap was downright awesome against Denver, putting up 17.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game on 61.2 percent shooting.
A deep talent pool becomes most valuable when an injury occurs. Lakers center Andrew Bynum is questionable for Game 1 because of a small meniscus tear in his right knee. Utah's Williams will be a game-time decision while he's dealing with a sore left elbow. If Odom or Price has to step into either team's starting lineup in place of Bynum or Williams, it will put that much more pressure on the rest of each team's reserves to be ready.
"We're going to probably have to have bench support [Sunday]," Jackson said.
At some point in the series, the Jazz will get the added support of Andrei Kirilenko's return to their bench as well, which makes the Lakers' bench production all the more crucial. Kirilenko missed the first round because of a strained left calf and told reporters Saturday that he hopes to return to the court in a week for Game 3 in Salt Lake City. He left open the possibility for a Game 2 return Tuesday in Los Angeles if his calf continues to improve.
4. Recognize Utah's changes
As much as the Jazz are Sloan simply running the pick and roll year after year after year, only two of Utah's starters are the same from last year's playoff series against L.A.: Williams and Carlos Boozer. Brawny 7-foot-1, 300-pound Kyrylo Fesenko will start at center, and he caused Denver's Carmelo Anthony to question, "Fesenko? Fesenko? Don't get me wrong. He is a great player. He's playing with a lot of confidence, but Fesenko?" in the first round after he filled in for injured All-Star Mehmet Okur. C.J. Miles has replaced Korver in the starting lineup at small forward. Undrafted rookie Wesley Matthews, who will start at shooting guard, is playing with a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed by the NBA's all-rookie first and second teams, which were announced last week. Matthews averaged 13.8 points and 3.7 rebounds against the Nuggets.
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"We got to hustle and not take anybody for granted," Ron Artest said. "That's the main thing. Respect everybody."
5. Be tougher
Jackson said he heard Sloan saying, "We let Carmelo play with his tuxedo on" after the Nuggets won Game 1, but then the Jazz became a different team.
"[Sloan's comment] meant to us that you better come out and be physical," Jackson said. "And they did. They came out and were physical defenders and took a lot of charges."
With both teams knowing each other inside and out, execution won't be as paramount as the simple concept of which team wants it more. Hard work and toughness are manifested in the Lakers in the form of Artest. After wrestling with Kevin Durant for six games, he won't have a specific defensive assignment against the Jazz, but he'll be asked to impart his toughness on half of Utah's roster.
"I actually just talked to Ron and said, 'I hope you know, there are four guys, five guys perhaps if Kirilenko plays, who you could be matched up with,'" Jackson said. "So, he's well aware of it and has asked for assignments from Boozer to Millsap on down."
Artest said he will get rid of the shoulder pad he wore over his bruised left shoulder Friday, running into man-to-man combat without any shield.
"There's really no excuses at this point," Artest said. "We just have to go out there and play 100 percent. We got to tough it out."
The pick: Lakers in 6. If Bynum's knee limits him in the series, Utah could have a chance. Then again, the Lakers beat the Jazz in Utah by 15 points on Feb. 10 without Bynum or Bryant.
L.A. is equipped to handle what Utah has to offer. "It's just a matter of who's the better team out there and who wants it more," Gasol said. "No secrets, guys." Yup, it's no secret that the Lakers will tune out the Jazz once again.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.