Early Tuesday evening, the Lakers filing into Staples Center with jaws tight and patience thin, Jerry Sloan's weathered face cringed into the oncoming storm.
"They move you around," Sloan said. "They put you where they want to put you."
Yes, they can. Yes, they should.
And, for once, yes, they did.
On a night filled with powerful promise, the bouncing, battering Lakers put Sloan's Jazz where they wanted to in the conference semifinals -- down two games to none, with chances of a series comeback slim and none, after a 111-103 victory.
The Lakers also put their fans where they wanted to put them -- back in the championship dreaming business.
With four consecutive postseason victories for the first time this spring, the Lakers are starting to resemble a team that could seriously challenge for the NBA championship. With Cleveland's LeBron James suddenly nursing a sore elbow, with Orlando still being nutty Orlando, maybe there are enough cracks in the East for a powerful, cohesive Lakers team to knock somebody down.
I'm not buying it yet. This is still battered Utah. This is still a Lakers team that is 1-2 on the playoff road with the only win coming on a last-second shot. Andrew Bynum needs to survive another month on a torn knee, Derek Fisher needs to survive against more great point guards, Kobe Bryant needs to somehow stay young.
I'm not buying it yet. But a Staples Center crowd that roared with a renewed emotion even when the Lakers trailed early here Tuesday seemed to be buying it. More important, a group of Lakers players who joyfully seemed to feed off one another's energy for one of the first times this postseason seemed to be buying it.
"We did what we're supposed to do," Jordan Farmer said.
Bynum, in his second game since his knee tear was diagnosed, was lunging everywhere, 17 points and 14 rebounds and four blocks. Lamar Odom showed up for a second consecutive game with his first playoff double-double. Pau Gasol was so consistently effective with 22 points and 15 rebounds that at one point, fans serenaded one of his foul-line appearances with "M-V-P!"
Said Coach Phil Jackson: "We had some great play from our big guys."
Said Jazz guard Wesley Matthews: "Bynum is one of those blessed guys."
Then there's this: The last time the Lakers won four consecutive playoff games, they were four wins that spurred them to a championship, last season, at the end of the Western Conference finals against Denver and the beginning of the NBA Finals against Orlando.
Jackson wasn't thrilled with the Lakers' 20 turnovers, and warned afterward that "it's going to get much more intense, we will not survive a game in Utah like we played tonight."
Here's guessing he was just trying to get his team ready for Saturday's Game 3 in Utah -- "I can't emphasize how important the next game is," he said -- because, really, how can you criticize this effort? The Lakers had a 58-40 rebounding edge, a 14-point difference in the paint, and threw out a defense that held Deron Williams to four baskets while blocking 13 shots.
The Jazz threatened late, pulling as close as four with five minutes remaining, but Bryant loudly closed Utah out in the final minutes with a long jumper at the 24-second buzzer, a driving dunk, and an arena-wide glare.
"It's my responsibility when things get tight to make plays," Bryant said.
For once, everyone on the Lakers seemed to share that responsibility, beginning with the folks who run the game activities.
Believe it or not, the Lakers released their old-fashioned brass band from their rafter hideaway and allowed them to play the national anthem. It was their first anthem this season. It was the best anthem I've heard this spring.
Then, more karma, one of basketball's hottest potential free agents showed up, guy by the name of Chris Bosh, walking around the floor just long enough for the Buss family to get a good look at him.
Then the game started, and it got better, the Lakers tugging and tossing each other with teamwork typified when Odom blocked Carlos Boozer's shot, then Gasol blocked Boozer's shot, then, with the crowd roaring, Odom thumped Gasol in the chest.
Even Jack Nicholson, who has been quiet this spring, finally got involved, screaming at the officials late in the second quarter, cursing them out from the sideline.
While Nicholson needs to watch his mouth, his swagger becomes the fans' swagger, which has helped the Lakers become almost unbeatable here in the postseason, winning 38 of their last 44 playoff games at Staples.
During the break after the first quarter, even with his team leading by four, Jackson implored his team with, "You have a fight on your hands."
The Lakers then hit the Jazz with some of their best shots this spring. The ringing in ears in this loud place was really a bell. The championship battle has begun.
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