2. Jazz vs. Lakers: Five Things To Watch
The Jazz were a notch on the Lakers' belts in each of their past two postseason runs to the Finals, beating them in six games in the second round in 2008, as Derek 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.
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Sunday, May 2
Bucks-Hawks, 1 ET
Jazz-Lakers, 3:30 ET
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."
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.
"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."
3. Adjustments May Decide Series
Aside from defensive tactics, one big question for Sunday will be who, individually, will show up offensively.
Despite his game-high 24 points, Jamal Crawford is shooting only 36 percent in this series, Joe Johnson is making only 27 percent of his 3-pointers and the Hawks -- despite their substantial size advantage -- are grabbing only two more offensive rebounds per game than the Bucks.
Brandon Jennings, after his 34-point outburst in Game 1, has shot 3-for-15, 5-for-11, 9-for-16, 8-for-20 and 4-for-15 in the five games since. Carlos Delfino, who led Milwaukee with 20 points, is shooting only 38 percent from the field, and coach Scott Skiles has had to roll the dice on Jerry Stackhouse, Ersan Ilyasova and Luke Ridnour from game to game, not knowing what he'll get from his bench on any given night.
Come Sunday, we'll see which players are gamers, and which coach can make the one or two tactical adjustments that will keep a season alive and send the other team home.
And, as Hawks coach Mike Woodson showed with his use of a zone defense in the pivotal third quarter Friday night, it might be an adjustment that has been kept in someone's back pocket all season, waiting to be brought out at just the right time.
4. Schedule: Sunday, May 2
5.Bynum Playing Against Jazz
LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum will start today with a small tear in the meniscus in his right knee in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals series against the Utah Jazz.
"Andrew's preparing to play," Lakers coach Phil Jackson told reporters before the game Sunday. "He's come in, he's doing some therapy and he's going to activate himself and he's going to try to work through it."
Bynum missed the final 13 games of the regular season with a strained left Achilles tendon and when he returned for the start of the playoffs, Jackson targeted a 24-minute limit for the 7-footer. But Bynum ended up averaging 29.8 minutes in the six-game series against Oklahoma City.
The Lakers may have to monitor Bynum's minutes against Utah on Sunday.
"If he's limited in what he can do, if his ability to run full out is going to be something that's going to hamper him, we'll have to measure that," Jackson said.
Bynum suffered the injury in the first half of the Lakers' 95-94 first-round series-clinching win on Friday against the Thunder while fighting for rebounding position against Nenad Krstic. The fifth-year veteran played 12 minutes in the second half after sustaining the injury.
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Crawford Has Arrived
MILWAUKEE -- Jamal Crawford told me something once.
He said: "This is my year. There comes a point where no matter what the reason is -- coaches, me, whatever -- [if you are not producing] after three or four years in the league, you are about to be shopped around, start traveling, moving to different teams, about to be labeled a role player. So that's why right now I gotta do this."
That was in 2004, just before he started the moving, his time in Chicago winding down before the bids in New York and the Bay (Golden State) that almost turned his career into collateral damage. And it was long before now, when his Atlanta Hawks are facing elimination in a first-round playoff series, down to Milwaukee three games to two, and all eyes are on him to save them.
His Hawks? Yes. Joe Johnson is the leader of this team, but Crawford, the recently crowned NBA Sixth Man of the Year, is the player the Hawks brought to Atlanta specifically to get them over this hump, to get them into the Eastern Conference finals and, ultimately, the Finals.
His 4-for-18, 11-point night in Wednesday's Game 5 loss at home, then, seriously ratcheted up the pressure on Crawford to come through in Vinnie Johnson fashion in Game 6 on Friday night in Milwaukee and keep Atlanta playing into May. It's the type of pressure, as Floyd Mayweather likes to say, that separates those who are talented from those who are God-gifted.
8. D-Will Playing
Deron Williams started on Sunday after bruising his left elbow against Denver.
9. Bynum Questionable
Well, given his history it could have been worse, but the injury suffered by Andrew Bynum to his right knee in Friday's series-clinching win over the Oklahoma City Thunder definitely left a mark, reports ESPNLA.com's Dave McMenamin.
An MRI on Saturday revealed a small tear of his anterior horn (i.e., the front) of his lateral meniscus in his right knee. Say it five times fast. I'll wait ...
Bynum is officially listed as day-to-day, and he's questionable for Sunday's Game 1 against Utah at the Staples Center.
Interestingly, the injury isn't necessarily new. Writes McMenamin: "The Lakers said they became aware of the tear last June when Bynum came in for his end-of-season exit interview, but Bynum was able to play with the injury without it bothering him during the 2009-10 season. When Bynum hyperextended his right knee [Friday] the tear went from 'very small' to 'small.'"
Obviously the tenor of the series changes from the start if Bynum can't go. In combination with Pau Gasol, his presence gives the Lakers more size than the relatively small Jazz can comfortably handle. If Bynum misses time, Jerry Sloan's defensive game plan gets a lot less complicated.
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