I wasn't shocked that the Los Angeles Lakers had a difficult time with the 8th-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. If Nick Collison boxed out Pau Gasol, we'd be talking about a Game 7 for those teams. But the Lakers are now in the 2nd Round... and waiting for them are the Utah Jazz.
These guys are no strangers to each other. The Lakers put away the Jazz in the last two postseasons so no doubt that the Jazz are looking for revenge.
I brought back the boys from The Lakers Nation, Jason Riley and Chris Manning. By the way, those two guys do a brand-spankin' new podcast called Basketball Taboo so you guys should check that out. Also, follow these handsome boys on Twitter. Jason's username is @jriley21... and Chris's username is @LD2k. Also, follow the MAIN Twitter account of The Lakers Nation: @TheLakersNation.
Their answers are in purple. Go read.
Well, that was one tough series. Just like what we expected, right?
JASON: That depends on how you look at it. Did I think the Lakers would need 6 games to advance? Yes. Did I expect Oak City to send shockwaves through Los Angeles after Game 4? Not so much. Oklahoma City was slightly better than advertised – which says a lot, considering they won 50 games this season and were led by a legitimate superstar (Durant).
Oak City exploited the two major weaknesses of this Lakers team:
1. Transition Defense.
2. Guard Penetration.
It took 100% of the Lakers focus and energy to end the Thunderstorm – something we probably didn’t expect, but after a lethargic couple months of Lakers basketball, it was certainly nice to see.
CHRIS: Yes, indeed it was. Like I expected, the Lakers gutted out a huge win in Game 6 and when they finally were able to utilize their size, they took the series away. The Thunder, however, should be given a lot of credit. They're all young, explosive, hungry and very, VERY talented. I loved Durant's comments, "next season starts now." This is just the beginning for them and it's a crazy thought to think they will be in their prime as Kobe closes his career. What a team; OKC should be proud. I'm glad to knock them off; they gave all the fans a scare, but ultimately, made the Lakers a much more focused and better team. The road, dare I say, gets easier from here ironically.
Kobe Bryant had two big games (Games 2 and 6). I guess we should stop worrying about him, right?
JASON: Tentatively, yes.
It’s no secret that Kobe is not healthy. His lift hasn’t consistently been there (sore knee) and his jumper has been unpredictable (finger) through six games.
The worry about Kobe challenge is the expectations Bryant has set for us throughout his career. We’re used to seeing him dominate in big moments, methodically shutdown opposing superstars, and go on ludicrous scoring runs. More than any other time in his career, Bryant will be forced to pick and choose his spots to try and dominate – much like we saw in that 3rd quarter of Game 6.
As long as we are willing to lower our expectations for Kobe from cyborg to human, then yes, we have nothing to worry about.
CHRIS: Yes. I think he had a HUGE game in Game 5, actually. He had his bounce back in his step and he facilitated flawlessly as he ever has. I love how it opened him up for Game 6 and, boy, did he carry us in that third and 4th. It was an amazing performance by Kobe an, if I were the media, I would stop writing this guy off already. People should know better.
Do you believe that the road to the Finals actually get easier from here on out?
Before the playoffs started, there were three teams that appeared to be legitimate challenges to the Lakers crown – two of them have already been eliminated:
1. Denver. (Eliminated)
2. Dallas. (Eliminated)
3. Phoenix. (vs. Spurs in Round 2)
Utah (Round 2 opponent) is a good team – one that reliably loses to the Lakers. Additionally, they will be without Okur (their starting center) and likely AK47, a good, long defender to neutralize Bryant. This is a much better matchup than Oak City and Denver would be for the Lakers; and if L.A. takes care of business, I think it’s safe to say that Phoenix or San Antonio in the WCF is a more desirable matchup than the Dallas Mavericks would have been.
The road from here to the NBA Finals isn’t an easy one, but it can’t be much harder than trying to slow down the Thunder fast-break and quiet their deafening crowd..
CHRIS: Yes, I do. Utah won't be "easy" but the Lakers won't face that combination of youth and speed from here on out. I love the idea of not playing the Thunder. Lakers excel in tough, gritty grind-it-out type of teams. The Thunder were their Achilles heel. It won't get "easier," but it will get easier - make sense? Thought so.
The Spurs are playing at a very high level but Phx. is actually playing some defense - shocker! It will be fun to see watch those two teams beat the hell out of each other. As for Utah, Deron Williams has a history with health issues so his injury will be key for them. If he isn't 100%, the Jazz have zero chance to defeat the Lakers. As for Bynum's injury with his knee, they can get past the Jazz, but winning it all may be difficult beyond this series. The Lakers need all their length and size they can get to win it all. Health is always the key factor but I think the Lakers clicked in this last series. I think the Lakers will really dominate the West from here on out. I have that feeling... but I'm wary of the Spurs.
The Lakers have eliminated the Jazz in the last two postseasons. Are they any different from the past two seasons?
JASON: Yes – The Jazz are missing two key pieces (Okur, Kirilenko).
In series past, Okur has pulled Gasol/Bynum out of the paint with his long range shooting, opening up the lane even more for D-Will to score and set up his teammates. They will certainly miss him more in this series vs. the Lakers than they did vs. Denver.
Additionally, the Utah Jazz crowd will seem subdued compared to the crazed Midwest fans of Oklahoma City. Thanks to the Thunder, the Lakers will be more prepared than ever to deal with the unfavorable road environment in Utah.
Those differences are all in the Lakers corner – not a good sign for the banged up Utah Jazz.
CHRIS: Yes, sort of. No AK47. Okur is hurt. Their center doesn't like playing in the low-lit STAPLES Center. There are a lot of different factors. But Boozer and Williams are playing a very high level of basketball and the Jazz are the highest scoring team in the postseason. I, however, don't think they have enough size to knock off the Lakers. The Lakers match up well against the Jazz and I think the hostile arena in Utah will be like a joke to the Lakers after experiencing that OKC crowd. I expect a 4-1 series.
Kobe doesn't want to give a scouting report since he's familiar with them. Some people that are reading this are NOT. So what are the keys for the Lakers to winning this series?
JASON: Lamar Odom – Khlamar had better numbers vs. Utah than any other opponent this season (16/10/2 on 60% shooting). When Lamar has it going, the second unit thrives… when the second unit thrives, the Lakers are nearly unbeatable.
Dominate the Paint – Gasol/Bynum vs. Fesenko/Boozer; Advantage: Lakers, in a landslide. L.A. needs to do exactly what they did in Games 5 and 6 vs. Oak City; pound the ball inside, get high percentage looks in the paint, and when the double comes, find wide open shooters on the perimeter. Utah has no answer for our towers down low.
Contain Deron Williams – The combination of Fish/Brown/Farmar aren’t going to keep D-Will out of the paint. Instead, they have to make him one-dimensional. When he’s scoring and setting up wide-open teammates, the Jazz can beat you. The Lakers rotations will have to make him a scorer or a passer, but not allow him to be both. Easier said than done, of course.
CHRIS: The keys to winning this series is just playing the Lakers game. Boozer said, "we'll see what happens." That is not a team in belief that they can win a title. However, any and every Sloan team will play hard and gritty. The Lakers need to be prepared for a physical, waring series much like in the past.
I would also love to see Kobe Bryant defend Williams a bit. Without Okur, the sweet outside shooting and spreading of the floor is limited for Utah. The Lakers need to make sure to rebound and apply pressure when the bench comes in. Beyond that, the Lakers are familiar with the Jazz.
Also, keep in mind the Jazz have lost 14 consecutive games in STAPLES Center. I feel the Jazz truly don't believe they can beat the Lakers. However, they will play them very hard. It's vital for the Lakers to play defense first, offense second. The Jazz can score. As long as the Lakers focus on their strengths, move the ball, execute (thanks Kobe), and play hard, Lakers have a real nice shot of winning this series.
Series-changing prediction: Kobe defending Williams and cutting off his penetration a bit. Kobe and co. learned a LOT from Westbrook last series. Let's see if they can build on it here.
Prediction for the series?
JASON: Lakers in 6 games.
On 36 hours rest, I think Utah has a puncher's chance to beat a fatigued Lakers team in Game 1 at Staples Center tomorrow.
Kobe will continue to defer to his teammates; Odom will emerge from the set of Keeping up with the Kardashians and join the Lakers in this series; Utah will cause less panic than Oak City did in the first round.
CHRIS: Lakers win in 5. I believe Jazz are good enough for a win... in Utah. But if the Lakers decide to show up, they will win all the close games. The only way Lakers lose is if they get outhustled. That simple.
Wanna say anything to the Jazz faithful? Or to anyone else out there?
JASON: Try not to get too excited when you win Game 3 at home after the invigorating return of Kirilenko… the story still ends the same. (In my head, this sounded more witty than arrogant; it certainly didn’t spill onto paper that way.)
As always, thanks, Rey. Keep up the good work!
CHRIS: The Silence of Salt Lake is among you. The Music Stops Here. Damn, that was totally a shameful LD2k video promotion. Sorry, had to. . . And oh, good LUCK, Utah. You're next.
PHOTO CREDITS: 1) Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images. 2) Alonzo Adams/AP. 3) Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images.We're always up late. How about buying us a coffee? Or an energy drink!?