Now that the Utah Jazz is here and the way is clear to the West finals . . .
A funny thing happened on the way to the "Lakers in three" forecasts the writers were making up lines about in the first half when the home team sauntered to a 14-point lead . . . before the Jazz not only wiped it out but led by four with four minutes left.
Then and only then did the Lakers go ahead to stay with Kobe Bryant, looking more like the Kobe of old, scoring 11 of his 31 points in the last 3:57 of their 104-99 victory.
Maybe the Lakers just wanted to give him a little game-saving practice!
Bryant, who has tracked up in the three games since last weekend's low ebb with a sore knee in Oklahoma City, passed the 39-hour turnaround test, playing Sunday afternoon after finishing off the Thunder on Friday night.
"It's a lot better," said Bryant. "I'm able to move around in a game where we only had a day between.
"It's an early game at that. It was very encouraging to be able to move around and do what I wanted to do."
Well, it was encouraging in Lakerdom.
For the Jazz, which keeps running into the Lakers at this time of year, and bouncing off, it was like the return of a recurring nightmare.
"They will take your nose and stick it in the ground and turn around on their heels on top of you," said Utah Coach Jerry Sloan, lamenting the rally that fell short.
"That's how good they are. That's what they [his players] have to fight through."
A year ago, Utah went into free fall at season's end, dropped to No. 8 and fell into the Lakers' laps in the first round, which lasted five games for the Jazz.
This time the Jazz finished No. 5 and dispatched the No. 4 Denver Nuggets in the first round, making it clear Sloan's team is in a better place.
On the other hand, as Sloan noted before the game, "We know who we're playing.
"That [the Lakers' length] is where we've had our biggest problem. And then, we haven't been able to guard Kobe Bryant. He's been a guy that's been able to get to the free-throw line.
"With younger guys, that's what you run into."
The Lakers have now won 17 of the last 23 meetings over three seasons, and may have blown double-digit leads in 15.
The Jazz started the fourth quarter with a 12-1 run, turning an eight-point deficit into an 85-82 lead. Utah had gotten to within 82-81 before Phil Jackson, trying to get his reserves over the hump . . . and staying with his reserves as the Jazz sliced the lead to one point . . . put his regulars back in.
In retrospect, did Jackson leave the reserves in too long?
"Absolutely not," he said. "There is no retrospect. They played well in Oklahoma City. They played relatively well in the second quarter. I wanted to give them the opportunity to right themselves."
Maybe next game.
"It was kind of repetitive," said Deron Williams, who led the Jazz with 24 points. "We couldn't get any stops at the end. They made shots. Kobe made some unbelievable shots.
"That was pretty much it."
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