- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Appearances count out here, so you'll have to forgive the lack of joy after the Lakers dispatched the Utah Jazz in Game 5 with an effort that was sufficient to advance past the first round, but didn't have the appearance of a championship preview.
Even though each of the Lakers' four victories came by double digits, one coach graded their performance a C+, and the evaluation of another Lakers staffer consisted of a simple "Yeccch."
This series didn't feel like the playoffs. It was more like a screen test, intriguing only when speculating how this effort would fare in a Finals matchup with Cleveland. You could just hear frustrated movie directors yelling, "Cut! OK, this time show me serious, like someone showed up to repossess your car."
The Jazz were weaker but not meeker, essentially without Mehmet Okur and lacking enough other scorers to keep up with the Lakers. Lakers coach Phil Jackson thanked Utah "for giving us a run and a good hard series," as if they were a sparring partner hired to prep the Lakers for the big fight.
The Houston Rockets are next (unless Portland becomes the ninth NBA team to overcome a 3-1 deficit), and looming as a potential conference finals opponent is Denver, which is raining haymakers on the New Orleans Hornets.
A quick glance at the stats would indicate the Lakers are fine. They averaged over 106 points per game in the series, shot almost 50 percent and made 45 percent of their 3-pointers. But Utah grabbed six more rebounds over the course of five games, just a small indication of how the Jazz consistently worked harder.
Another telltale sign: the presence of the Lakers' starters on the court at the final buzzer, because the second unit couldn't keep a 22-point lead from dipping down to six when the Utah backups rallied in the fourth quarter. It would be easy to dismiss the Lakers' deflation as reserves unable to keep momentum against Jazz backups fighting to keep their season alive, but Kobe Bryant was on the court with the Lakers' backups, and then was joined by the rest of the starting lineup, while Utah coach Jerry Sloan kept Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer on the bench until sending Williams back in with 3:15 remaining.
"I told them in the locker room we have to improve as we go forward," Jackson said.
At times the Lakers act as if this is all beneath them, as if they're too cool to be bothered with the mundane things such as boxing out or running the offense.
"We've got to give better effort," Bryant said.
Two concerns for the Lakers: the bench, once one of the best in the league, hasn't produced consistently and lost Luke Walton indefinitely with a left-ankle injury. And Andrew Bynum, whose return from a knee injury was heralded as the piece that would make the Lakers unbeatable, had a miserable week.
He averaged only five points, lost his starting job midway through the series, pulled down a total of 15 rebounds and looked consistently slow on defense. He complained that the bulky brace he wears on his right knee bothers him ... back when he was talking to the media after games ... and admitted he was a step behind on the court. Nevertheless, the matchups with Houston's undersized power forwards and Yao Ming (or Portland's Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden) will probably bring Bynum back into the starting lineup, Jackson said.
That would mean a return to bench for Lamar Odom, whose stellar play (18 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting 63 percent) was the most consistently positive part of the series for the Lakers.
"Lamar's playing great," Jackson said. "His effort off the bench is going to be very important to us."
It's strange to be so down on a team that did have a lot of things going for it.
"They're awfully good," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "They all pass the ball, they all shoot the ball. They've got a tremendous number of things to deal with. I would say they can be as good as anybody."
Can be. Will be? That's another matter. You can't win a championship in April, but you sure can send signals that you're ready. That's not the message emanating from the Lakers right now.
Bryant, who averaged 27 points, said he'll "have a spirited conversation with the group and see if we can't correct that the next series."
Better to be making corrections than making vacation plans. Still not advisable to be plotting street closures for a parade.