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Seeing the Utah Jazz win at home is never surprising, no matter the opponent, even in the tough and talented Western Conference. Nonetheless, the Jazz should thank the Houston Rockets for their assistance in the Jazz's recovery from a 2-0 hole against the Lakers. Anyone who watched the Utah-Houston series came away knowing that a team capable of knocking off the Rockets -- who defended and battled as if their lives were on the line -- could certainly handle themselves down two games to the Lakers. This point was furthered in Game 4, when the Jazz answered the bell in overtime after blowing their late game lead. As we've said throughout the series, this Jazz team is special -- as in title-contender special. And with Kobe's back ailing, the Jazz will arrive in Los Angeles full of confidence and belief.
A well-known recipe for pulling off a road upset is to quickly quiet the crowd. The Jazz need only copy their Game 1 start to do that. Whipping outlet passes to Deron Williams beyond the top of the key, they flew up the floor, extending and racing up the wings. Los Angeles did a poor job of sprinting back, neglecting to keep pace with the super-athletic Ronnie Brewer. Sometimes the Lakers got back, but lost focus of where the threats were: They slowed the ball, but still allowed lob passes for dunks. Other times, they stopped the first wave, but missed the trailer coming late. In a game that projects to be tight, every preventable bucket takes on added meaning, so the Lakers know they must improve their transition defense and force Utah into their half-court game. Of course, if L.A. can score more efficiently on offense, it will go a long way towards negating Utah's running game, which (like most teams) is based on rebounds, and not on inbounds passes (which only Phoenix and Golden State can pull off).
Another basic goal for Utah is to get Carlos Boozer back in business. He struggled again in Game 4, and is clearly bothered by L.A.'s length inside -- he simply cannot find his touch. Part of his problem is his concern for getting his shot blocked. As he maneuvers around the sea of arms near the rim, Boozer's timing on his release is different every time. Better for him to just go up and shoot, or pass it outside. Going up strong would help him get to the free-throw line more than he has thus far. But tossing up close shots and hoping they go in is not something Utah can afford to do in Game 5.
For the Jazz, getting production from all of their guys outside of their top three, as they did in Game 4, could be the difference in this game. In placing so much attention on Mehmet Okur, Boozer and Williams, the Lakers allow the other Jazz players to make strong scoring contributions within the offense. It's a big reason why they had the second-best offensive-scoring efficiency in the NBA during the regular season. Whether it's Andrei Kirilenko scoring off an inbounds play, Matt Harpring cutting past Luke Walton (which he did numerous times) for layups and jumpers, Brewer dunking in transition, or Kyle Korver hitting shots off kickouts; the Jazz's "secondary" players scored 62 of the 123 total points in Game 4. The Lakers, outside of Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant, scored just 31. If L.A. again looks to close off looks for Boozer and Williams, and to limit perimeter touches for Okur spotted up behind the 3-point line, then those other Jazz players will bear the burden of scoring in bunches to keep the game close.
Of course, L.A. can do a much better job defensively against these secondary threats. First, the Lakers should eliminate fouls of players not in scoring position (the Jazz shot 45 free throws). Second, they should tighten up their interior defense on baseline inbounds plays, playing Brewer for the lob and rotating hot onto Korver without jumping for his shot fakes. If the Lakers can upgrade their defensive intensity and discipline in these areas, and Boozer still struggles from the field, Utah will have a tough time scoring enough points to win.
Going into this series, it appeared Kobe was the only player who could single-handedly carry his team to four wins. But Williams is showing signs of perhaps joining the small list of players capable of doing that. His late-game heroics were based on one simple fact: Williams both believed he could be the hero and did not fear the possibility of being the goat. It's rare for a player to have this mind-set and the incredible talent to match it. Just ask Kobe. If Williams carries this effort into Game 5 and performs up to these lofty standards, Utah's chances to win go way up. But doing it on the road is far different than doing it at home.
Going back home should do wonders for the Lakers, who can be pleased with much of their road effort. They are getting the shots they want, and making them (47.4 percent). In fact, were it not for their abnormally low free-throw percentage in Game 4 (14 of 25, 56 percent), they'd be headed home to end the series. The Lakers big three poured in 82 points, and they can expect their other guys to find the range back home. Kobe's back is the gigantic variable facing them, of course. He'll play, naturally, but as guys ranging from Larry Bird to Tracy McGrady can attest, playing well with a sore back is very tough to do.
Utah is a terrific team and full of confidence. But the Lakers, when healthy, are just a bit better. L.A.'s players know and feel the pressure to win this game, and the fans do too. That atmosphere should be enough to help the Lakers play a great game -- especially their secondary guys. And if Kobe's back holds up, they can put up too many points for Utah to match.PREDICTION: Lakers win Game 5
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.