Sunday, May 11, 2008

Lakers: From up to even

The Lakers won their first six playoff games, and with a couple more stops and a couple more buckets this weekend, they could have swept the Jazz, too. Everything was going great for LA: Kobe was on top of his game, Odom and Gasol were flourishing in the triangle, Fisher was knocking down open 3s, the ball was moving, both the initial defense and rotations were sharp enough. Quite simply, they had the look of a champion.

What a difference a weekend in Salt Lake makes.

Where are the Lakers now?

Kobe injured his back in Game 4, and Utah's physical style at both ends of the floor has gotten the best of LA's frontline the entire series, but most notably in Utah. Most important, however, is how the ball stopped moving during crucial junctures in the fourth quarter and overtime on Sunday.

Look, Kobe has won countless games by taking over down the stretch and scoring at will. And he has plenty of those games left in his future. But Kobe's, and the Lakers', biggest growth this season (and why they're title contenders) is trusting the teammates who have become more viable options, and trusting the offense that puts those teammates in the best positions to contribute.

And so, with his stiff back limiting his explosiveness and lift, Kobe, now more than ever, needed to trust the offense, and the teammates who earned that trust, throughout a first-place season. In particular, Gasol, Odom and Fisher -- the latter two combined for 20 fourth-quarter points and led the late charge that forced overtime. Instead, much of LA's late-game and overtime offense consisted of clear-outs for Bryant, who forced errant 3-pointers and stalled the offense.

There is no way the Lakers should lose to the Jazz. They are the better team. They have the matchup advantages. But now this is a series. And regardless of whether or not Kobe's condition improves, more games in this series (and perhaps beyond) will be in doubt coming down the stretch. How will Kobe and the Lakers play it?