SALT LAKE CITY -- The Lakers came up with their best effort of the season Wednesday night in Utah, upsetting the Jazz 96-81 despite being without either Kobe Bryant or Andrew Bynum.
It's almost impossible to overstate how hard it is to beat the Jazz in Salt Lake City, so to do it without two starters, including the best player on the team, is a stunning development. Pau Gasol, after scoring 21 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in Monday night's win, came up with 22 points and 19 boards against Utah. It was the Lakers' third win in a row, and one that could set the tone for the rest of the season.
I'll try to explain why.
Utah came into this game riding a nine-game winning streak, including 10 straight at home. So far this season the Jazz are 22-7 at home but only 10-13 on the road. Last season the Jazz, at 33-8, were tied for the third-best home record in the West. But at 15-26, Utah had the worst road record of any team that made the playoffs.
The team has been that way for years, ever since Jerry Sloan took over as coach 22 years ago. Sloan is the longest-tendered coach of one team, not only in the NBA, but in all of professional sports.
He figured out something years ago that I'm surprised more coaches haven't. Sloan was a hard-nosed defensive player in his playing days with the Bulls, and he teaches defense the same way now. But he realized something that, for whatever reason, other coaches don't want to accept.
Sloan knows NBA referees can't call a foul on every play. Think about that for a second. What if, on every trip down the court, the officials called a foul? The game would last four hours and every player would foul out. The home crowd would probably riot. Good NBA officials don't call every foul; they manage the flow of the game as best they can while trying not to give either team an advantage. There's a big difference.
So why do the Jazz win so many more games at home than they do on the road, more than any other team, almost every season? Because the Jazz play more physically in their own arena than any other team. Utah can't do that as a road team, because it won't get the calls and the crowd will turn against the team. But at home, it's a really smart way to play.
I've asked players and coaches about this for years, and surprisingly, they not only admit it -- they compliment Sloan and his players for being so good at it.
"They've become very good at mucking up the game when they're at home," Phil Jackson told me once. "It's something they've done for years, and as an opponent, you need to be ready for it."
John Stockton and Karl Malone, the two best players in Jazz history, were perfect to play under this system. They would grab, hold, set hard screens and almost play more as if they were playing football rather than basketball. The rest of the Jazz followed, and Sloan has been successfully executing that game plan ever since.
By the way, if you're wondering why the referees just don't put a stop to it, what can they do? If they were to call 20 straight fouls on the Jazz in the first 10 minutes, the game would be over. Instead, it's up to the other team to adjust to a more physical style of play, and when that happens, Utah has imposed its will on the game.
This style also isn't always the best way to win a title (although Pat Riley almost did it with the Knicks once). The Jazz have made the NBA Finals twice but lost each time to Chicago. The Lakers have knocked Utah out two years in a row, and I'm convinced the reason is that in the postseason all teams are allowed to play a more physical game. So Utah's advantage, in a sense, is nullified.
Some of the other people in our traveling party think I'm making too much of this. They cite the fact that Utah's stars don't know how to win on the road, or that the altitude in Salt Lake City is a factor. But does that make any sense? They play 41 games in Utah and go 33-8. They play 41 games outside Utah and go 15-26 with the exact same guys.
No other team has that big a disparity, and I'm convinced it's because at home, they get away with more. If Kobe Bryant gets tackled in Staples Center, there's a good chance it's called a two-shot foul. He gets tackled in Utah, there's a good chance the Jazz are going the other way with the ball.
It also doesn't hurt the Jazz that their fans are right on top of the court, more so than in any other building in the league. And those fans are as loud any as crowd in sports. The referees are in charge of controlling the game, and I can't think of another building that would get out of control faster if the calls went against the Jazz. Sloan knows this, and encourages his team to take advantage of it.
I'm not suggesting a mass conspiracy theory here. What I am suggesting is that Sloan is smarter than most NBA coaches because he finds out where the line is with physical play, and then adjusts to it based on where the game is played. He does more with less than any coach in the league, and that's one of the reasons.
And the Lakers found a way to win anyway, without Bryant or Bynum.
The key to the victory was that L.A. jumped out in front early, continued to run and never let the Jazz "muck up" the game the way they like to do. When you consider everything that was working against them, this Lakers win is the most impressive of the season so far. Better than Dallas, and yes, better than Boston.
The home team had won nine of the past 10 games between the Lakers and Jazz going into Wednesday, and I'm convinced that even the most loyal L.A. fans had this figured as a loss. Instead, it's a win that could shape the remaining 28 regular-season games.
Talk about going into the break on a high. Wow.
John Ireland hosts the "Mason & Ireland" show on ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles.