And now, intermission.
No disrespect to the Utah Jazz and their curmudgeonly coach, their crowbar point guard and their surprisingly crass fans, but what else would you call this?
The Jazz's conference semifinal series with the Lakers is the part in this postseason drama where you get a drink, use the facilities, check your program, catch your breath, 15 minutes of wane.
Beginning Sunday at Staples Center, this series should have all the excitement of slowly closing curtain, all the energy of softly murmuring spectators, all the sparkle of old soda in cheap plastic cups.
Less than 48 hours after the roaring end of a rousing first-round brawl with Oklahoma City, how else could you spin this? After a week filled with imagination and intrigue, what else could this feel like?
Utah again? Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer and a bunch of guys drawing charges, again? Yeah, intermission. The Lakers will never say it, they can't afford to believe it, but everyone knows it, and it's as real as that yawn that will fill your face at 6:18 of today's first quarter.
The Jazz's problems are two. Having lost eight of 11 games to the Lakers in the last two postseasons, the Utah players don't seem to believe they can beat them. Having lost three of four games to the Lakers this season by double digits, they would be correct.
Already down in the expectations department, the Jazz is also trailing in the athletic department. Utah could be without two of its best players, Mehmet Okur out for the season and Andrei Kirilenko perhaps out until the middle of the series. It has nobody who can guard Kobe Bryant into a distressed sweat, nobody whom Ron Artest needs to guard with a nutty grin, nobody who has ever really beaten the Lakers in anything.
The Jazz's best players, point guard Williams and power forward Boozer, can dominate, but only for so long. Both will eventually be worn down by the physical Lakers defense. It happened each of the last two years. In the final game of the last two playoff series between these teams, Williams and Boozer combined to shoot 21 for 57, scoring 57 total points, both of them trudging off the court, exhausted, into summer.
Why would this year's curtain be pulled any differently? If anything, it could be more wrinkled. Williams, at the end of Friday night's clinching game in the first-round series with the Denver Nuggets, appeared to injure his elbow. If he's not 100%, the Jazz's chances are less than zero percent.
Ah, those Nuggets. Now that would have been fun. Until Coach George Karl left the bench for cancer treatments, the Nuggets actually believed they could beat the Lakers. The Nuggets could run with them, bump with them, yap at them, that would have been a hoot.
Kudos to the Jazz for beating the Nuggets. It helped that the Nuggets had completely fallen apart, but still, the Jazz is worthy of admiration. No team in the NBA plays with more consistent integrity. No team more consistently refuses to quit.
At times, every game in this series will be difficult. In the end, several will be close. The Lakers will have to show up. This can't be a repeat of last year's embarrassing second-round struggle against the Houston Rockets.
But it won't be. The Lakers have been scared straight. The Jazz should be scared to death.
‘'The Oklahoma City series put us in a place mentally where we're in good shape,'' said new hero Pau Gasol.
The Lakers' biggest difficulty will be to deal with the decreased energy here. There won't be any showdowns at the OKC Corral. The Lakers will have to be more methodical than magical. They will have to stifle their yawns and sharpen their elbows and get to work.
"I think they've got more dedication, if I know that team," Coach Phil Jackson said of the Jazz. "They have belief they can beat us. All these games will be tough.''
He said it as if reading from a pre-packaged pregame speech. No Gipper needed here.
"Any time you have a team with good veterans and young athletes, it's going to be a tough task,'' Ron Artest said as if repeating verse. "We have to tough it out.''
Gasol spoke of the Jazz as if reciting from a textbook. Took him all of 0.5 seconds.
"They're going to play hard, we respect their game, we understand what they do and what they are good at,'' he said.
The teams know each other. They know what's next. The Lakers just need to be the Lakers. It might not be that interesting, it won't be all that much fun, but it will be enough to fill the time until the postseason's real drama resumes.
‘'No secrets, guys,'' Kobe Bryant said. "No secrets there.''
Nope. Lakers in five. Can we just get on with it?
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