Coming off a poor shooting (5-24) performance in Game 3 at Energy Solutions Arena, Kobe Bryant again took 24 shot attempts, but this time he connected on 16 of them to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a convincing 108-94 win over the Utah Jazz. Kobe finished 16-24 for 38 points, pulled down 6 rebounds and registered 2 steals. He single handedly carried the Lakers in the first quarter, scoring the team’s first 11 points. Although the Jazz held a slim 25-20 lead after the 1st quarter, Utah obviously didn’t have an answer on how to stop Bryant. He finished the quarter 6-8 from the field for 13 points, and left Jazz coach Jerry Sloan searching down his bench for someone to contain him. Kobe was in his Mamba mode this evening. His typical pre-game pleasantries were nowhere to be found, and his on-court demeanor was strictly all business. Ronnie Brewer played solid defense on Bryant, pushing him out of his comfort zone and keeping a hand in his face. But the MVP was not the least bit fazed, as he left the Utah fans gasping in disbelief with one incredible shot after another.
The Lakers distributed the scoring load more evenly in the second period, allowing Bryant to rest for the first 5 minutes. The Lakers blistered the Jazz for 40 points in the quarter and led at halftime, 60-53. Luke Walton, Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic connected on three consecutive, trifectas in that period. Pau Gasol (13 points, 10 rebounds), Lamar Odom, who started in place of Andrew Bynum, (10 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists), and Derek Fisher (12 points, 4 assists) took turns punishing the Jazz. Brown had another strong showing, (10 points, 2 steals), and one spectacular play in particular. He swooped in for a driving layup with the ball held aloft in one hand, got hit while in the air, yet maintained his balance and still managed to score the basket. For a second there, I thought I was witnessing the second coming of Dr. J. Vujacic also played well, (9 points, 3 rebounds), connecting on timely three pointers that knocked the wind out of the Jazz each time they tried to crawl back into the game.
With their offense in high gear, the Lakers put the defensive clamps on the Jazz in the 3rd quarter, limiting them to only 16 points. The Lakers blew the game wide open, as Kobe came out firing while the team’s defense held the Jazz at bay. Looking awestruck and deflated, the Jazz continued to clang away as the Lakers widened the gap to 88-69 at the end of three. Starting the 4th quarter, the Lakers pushed the difference to 22 points, and this time they held on to their large lead. Utah posted a mild rally late in the game, but by that time, the outcome was already secure. Deron Williams (23 points, 13 assists), and Carlos Boozer, (23 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists), led the way for Utah. But as a team, Utah shot only 44%, compared to 52% for the Lakers. The Lakers also won the rebounding battle, 46-39, and shot slightly better tonight from the charity stripe, connecting on 20-28 for 71.4%. Utah missed 10 crucial free throws, (22-32), for a miserable 68.8%. The Lakers take a commanding 3-1 first round lead, with Game 5 due back at Staples Center on Monday evening where they hope to wrap up the series with the Jazz.
Andrew Bynum was replaced in the starting line-up by Lamar Odom, and again was a non-factor. He played only 7 minutes and scored 2 points. Odom was clearly the better defensive option and his play against the length of Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Milsap was outstanding. For his part, Bynum appeared a bit down and displayed a lack of intensity. The Jazz looked quicker to the ball and were able to easily maneuver around him. In order for the Lakers to advance deep into the postseason, Bynum will need to find his game and his fire. I am pleased by the actions of Jordan Farmar, who in losing his role to Shannon Brown, has nonetheless been the first to cheer his teammate on. Andrew needs to keep his head up and play any role that is asked of him. And by doing so with passion and fire, his minutes and play will increase and improve. I’m sure Kareem will remind him of this fact. Houston, winners yesterday over Portland, lead their series, 2-1 with Game 3 on the Rockets floor tomorrow. Yao-za!