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So far, so good, but this is no time for half measures

May 17, 2008|Bill Plaschke

SALT LAKE CITY -- Halfway there.

A season that began in histrionics is halfway to history.

A season that began in tiny torn pieces is halfway toward becoming one eye-popping, jaw-dropping quilt.

A dreamcoat, it would be.

Eight more wins, it would take.

The Lakers on Friday reached the midway point of their patchwork journey toward a previously unimaginable NBA title in typical many-colored fashion.

They turned out the lights on the league's best home court.

They put out the fire in the league's most consistently intense team.

In the Western Conference semifinals, they won their clinching Game 6 in Utah, and the 108-105 victory had nothing to do with Jazz.

It was hard rock, as the Lakers scored the first seven points of the game, the last six points of the first half, took a 19-point lead, came out flying against the strangely plodding Jazz.

It was a little country, as the EnergySolutions Arena fans whined and cursed and cried, yelling at the officials when they should have been yelling at the Kirilenkos and Boozers.

In the end, it was a lot of soul, the Lakers hanging on against a final push by a desperate team seemingly unbeatable on its home court.

The Jazz somehow closed it to three points in the final seconds, but Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams each missed three-point attempts.

In both cases, Lakers were charging the shooter, Sasha Vujacic rushing Okur, Bryant harassing Williams, the hotshots always hustling.

Game, Set, Wasatch.

"A real solid performance by our players," said a clearly relieved Lakers Coach Phil Jackson.

"We just got lost in what we were doing," said a clearly weary Utah Coach Jerry Sloan.

It was only the sixth time in 47 games here that the visitors have triumphed -- with two of those wins owned by the Lakers.

Denver done, Utah used, two series gone, two more to go, the Lakers now set to enjoy home-court advantage in the conference finals against the winner of Monday's semifinal Game 7 between New Orleans and San Antonio.

The Lakers will be watching that game.

But at this point in the postseason, everyone is watching the Lakers.

When spring began, most pegged the Lakers as a conference finals team at best, or perhaps potential losers in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics.

Halfway there, and everything has changed.

So far in this postseason, the Lakers have been the only team to sweep a series.

So far, they are only the second team to win a conference semifinal game on the road.

So far, they have racked up the most impressive two-game stretch of anybody, leading from start to finish in their last two games against the 54-win Jazz.

So far, nobody has looked tougher or smarter or better.

Are they really good enough to not only reach the Finals, but win there?

Put it another way:

Is there any question they haven't answered?

It only seemed that most of those answers were provided Friday night.

Kobe Bryant's playoff unselfishness? Check.

With the exception of that strange overtime in Game 4, Bryant deferred to his teammates when his back was aching or his jump shot was jiggling, and his teammates responded.

He scored only nine baskets Friday but had eight rebounds and six assists and missed just two of 17 free throws.

Pau Gasol's playoff toughness? Check.

Gasol disappeared in Game 3 here, but never again, shaken awake by the moment, dominating the middle, 17 points and 13 rebounds Friday, turning Boozer into a mean-looking prop.

Lamar Odom's willingness to join the playoff scrum? Check.

Odom flew to the basket throughout the series, coming up huge in the final minutes of Game 5 to help the Lakers to that victory, then grabbing the ball and sinking two foul shots in crunch time Friday.

Derek Fisher's age? Chuckle.

Fisher was in the face of Deron Williams throughout Game 6, the Jazz leader hitting just nine of 21 shots and only two of eight three-point attempts.

As impressive as the Lakers appeared during the early blowout Friday, they were just as impressive in the final clinging moment.

The Jazz took advantage of some loose play by the Lakers' reserves and narrowed the gap to seven points in the final six minutes.

Kobe anyone?

The guy who had struggled with his outside shot threw in a fall-away three-pointer.

Then, on the next possession, he threw in another fall-away jumper while being hacked by Matt Harpring, allowing Bryant to turn it into another three-point play.

When the Jazz closed it back to seven points in the final two minutes, yes, it was Bryant who grabbed a big rebound and turned it into two finishing-touch foul shots.

It was a season in a night, big leads and close calls and Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.

Eight wins down, eight wins to go, halfway there, feels like halfway home.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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