Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Sports Network - National Basketball Association

The Sports Network - National Basketball Association

It's rare that an NBA team breathes a sigh of relief when they move on in the postseason to face a club that, on paper, should be a tougher matchup.
The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, however, are likely thrilled to have the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder in the rear view mirror as they get ready to battle the playoff-tested Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals.
The young and talented Thunder gave LA fits in the opening round but Pau Gasol's putback off a Kobe Bryant miss with half a second remaining in Game 6, lifted the Lakers into the second round with a 95-94 win in Oklahoma City.
The Lakers had blown a seven-point lead with 4 1/2 minutes left, but then came back from a three-point deficit to take the series.
"There's still a ways to go for this team to really rally together, to have the one-minded effort that I like to call it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I thought we got out of sync in the second half. Fortunately we won this game. It's something I will really talk to them about."
The Thunder had already won twice on their home court and nearly a third time against the defending champs, but Gasol, with his dominant inside play, pushed the Lakers into round two against Utah.
"I had a good look, but it just didn't go down for me," Bryant said. "Pau just kept playing. He's done that numerous times. Obviously, it saved the game for us."
The Jazz, meanwhile, finished off Northwest Division rival Denver in six games Friday night despite being without two starters, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko, for the majority of the set.
Foul trouble and injuries played a significant role in the series-clinching victory for Utah, a game in which rookie Wesley Matthews stepped up and scored 23 points for the Jazz.
"I'm terribly excited about the way these guys played, the effort they put in to win a ball game," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "We started off this series and were in tough position because we lost two guys (Okur and Kirilenko) who couldn't play. But the guys came in and played in their place and I thought did a terrific job."
Utah point guard Deron Williams, who was the star of the series, bruised his left elbow in the closing seconds of the series clincher when he went down after a collision with Denver forward Chris Andersen. The All-Star is expected to be able to go against the Lakers when the series starts in LA on Sunday.
"I'll be alright," Williams said.
The Lakers beat the Jazz in three of the four meetings during this regular season. It will be the third straight year the teams will meet in the playoffs. The Lakers beat Utah in five games in the first round last year and in 2008, LA prevailed in six games in the conference semifinals.
"Obviously, we've had a lot of trouble with the Lakers, everybody knows that," Sloan said. "They're big and long and we're not very big and long when it's all said and done. But you come and play and do the best you can."
The Jazz will trying to avoid becoming the 14th team in NBA history to be eliminated by the same team in three consecutive playoffs. To do that, Utah will have to find a way to win at Staples Center. The Jazz have dropped 14 consecutive games to the Lakers in Hollywood, including all six in the 2008 and 2009 playoffs.
"We're a much better team than what we were," Utah forward Paul Millsap said. "We look forward to it being different this time, a different outcome."
POINT GUARD: This is the one huge advantage Utah has in the series. Williams has been the NBA's best point guard this season and became the first player in NBA history with at least 20 points and 10 assists in each of the first five games of a playoff set against Denver. He was held to 14 and 10 in the series clincher and banged up his elbow but finished the series averaging 25.8 points per game and 11.2 assists with just 18 turnovers and 240 minutes of action.
His counterpart, veteran Derek Fisher, is the weak link of this Lakers team. Fisher lacks the quickness at this stage of his career to stick with the upper echelon point guards and Jackson will likely have to go to use Bryant and reserves like Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar early and often to try and slow Williams off the dribble.
SHOOTING GUARD: Matthews took over the starting spot for Utah when Ronnie Brewer was dealt and was one of just two Jazz players to compete in every game this season. The Marquette product, averaged 9.4 points and 2.3 boards in the regular season and upped that to 13.8 and 3.7 in the first round vs. Denver, with 23 points in the series clincher. Matthews has a bright future ahead of him, especially playing alongside Williams, but asking him to slow down Bryant is a tall order.
Despite being banged-up a lot this season, Bryant again finished within the top five in scoring and will likely come in third in the MVP voting. In Kobe's 13 seasons with the Lakers they have appeared in postseason play in all but one season (2004-05), and have reached the NBA Finals six times, winning championships in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2009. Bryant is also the youngest player in NBA history to score 25,000 points and also moved past the legendary Jerry West to become the Lakers all-time leading scorer. Perhaps more importantly, he remains the best closer in the game.
CENTER: The Jazz lost Okur in Game 1 against the Nuggets when the Turkish star suffered a ruptured left Achilles'. Sloan replaced Okur in the starting lineup with Kyrylo Fesenko but since the Nuggets don't have a dominant pivot man, the Jazz mentor went small a lot using Carlos Boozer and Millsap at the same time for significant minutes. The Lakers have far more length than Denver and Sloan will likely have to play Fesenko or Kosta Koufos, two 7-footers, for more minutes. Okur is a great shooter that could help stretch the floor, while Fesenko and Koufos are far more traditional, plodding centers.
LA's Andrew Bynum has a lot of talent and had a very solid series against Oklahoma City, averaging 12.0 points and 9.0 rebounds. No one can question Bynum's skills but a history of leg injuries and inconsistency is always lurking. That said, Bynum should be to take advantage of Utah's depleted situation in the pivot. In fact, Sloan will likely try and use Boozer and Millsap together again, hoping their edge in quickness can offset Bynum's size and power.
SMALL FORWARD: Ron Artest spent the last series chasing Kevin Durant all over the floor and did a fine job. No one can stop the supremely gifted Durant but Artest forced him to work and that was the plan. One would think Artest will have a better chance to contribute on the offensive end in this series. The former All-Star averaged just 8.2 ppg vs. Oklahoma City and shot a miserable 34.4 percent from the floor and 18.8 percent from long range.
Kirilenko missed 15 of the Jazz's final 17 regular season games and the entire Denver series with a host of calf injuries. The Russian veteran has begun a rehab program and a return for this series is on the table. If Kirilenko can go, it would be a huge lift for Sloan. He is one of the game's best stat- stuffers, averaging 11.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.43 steals and 1.22 blocks this season.
"I'm feeling better and better," Kirilenko told the Salt Lake City News. "[My] endurance is getting better. I can survive way more time on the floor without getting my calf tired, so I feel like it's going in the right direction, better and better."
IF AK-47 can't go, C.J. Miles will get the nod. Miles did yeoman work in Kirilenko's place vs. the Thunder, netting 13.7 ppg. Miles, however doesn't offer much on the boards.
EDGE: EVEN if Kirilenko plays.
POWER FORWARD: Gasol has been the perfect "Robin" to Bryant's "Batman" since the Lakers acquired his services during the 2007-08 campaign. The lanky Spaniard is LA's top rebounder and shot blocking threat and gives Jackson an imposing presence on the front line.
Boozer was spectacular against the Nuggets, averaging a double-double of 22.5 ppg and 13.3 rebounds. He's also the type of powerful, physical presence that could make things miserable for Gasol by leaning on him and moving him from the spots he likes on the offensive end. Boozer is also the key to Sloan's inside strategy on offense, but must find a way to deal with Gasol and Lamar Odom's length.
BENCH: Both teams have a star coming off the bench. Sloan can call on Millsap, who averaged 17.3 ppg and 9.8 rebounds vs. Denver, while Jackson can rely on the gifted Odom, who possesses playmaking and ball-handing skills rarely seen in a 6-foot-11 player.
After Millsap, however, Sloan's bench is thin. Three-point specialist Kyle Korver and guard Ronnie Price were the only other players to get meaningful minutes against the Nuggets. Koufos will likely have to step up at some point in this series.
Jackson has more options although he tends to get frustrated with his bench players. Brown is a solid defender while Farmar offers some two-way skills in the backcourt. Luke Walton can also provide some energy at times.
COACHING: Both coaches at the elite level. Jackson has won 10 titles as a head coach and helped the Lakers become the first NBA franchise to 3,000 wins back in January. The 'Zen Master' is in his 10th season as head coach of the Lakers and has led the franchise to six Western Conference titles, and has the highest playoff winning percentage of any coach in league history. He passed legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach with his 10th title last summer, and his resume is beyond reproach.
Sloan's teams have been one of the most successful over the last 15 years with two NBA Finals appearances and numerous berths in the playoffs. The only coach in NBA history to have captured 1,000 wins with one team, Sloan is the fourth winningest coach in league history.
PREDICTION: The Jazz never match up well with the Lakers even with a healthy Okur and Kirilenko, and Staples Center has been a house of horrors for them. That said, Bryant seems to be a little more banged-up than he is letting on and that should keep Utah in the series for a little bit. However, LA's length with Gasol, Bynum and Odom should be too much for Sloan and Company to overcome.


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