Jazz let Game 1 slip through their fingers
Los Angeles » Their playoff run was four minutes away from making the leap from inspiring to miraculous. Their Staples Center losing streak to the Lakers was four minutes away from coming to an end in stunning fashion.
The Jazz still ended up on the wrong end of a 104-99 loss in Sunday's Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, faltering in those final minutes while the defending champions and Kobe Bryant most definitely did not.
"This is one of our best games here," Deron Williams said. "We were right there 'til the end. We fought, we battled back after we got down. We were able to take the lead in the last couple minutes of the game, we just couldn't get the stops when we needed them."
In the end, the Jazz were left with their 15th consecutive loss at Staples Center to the Lakers. They also must overcome discouraging history with Lakers coach Phil Jackson never having lost a playoff series (45-0) in which one of his teams has won Game 1.
The Jazz erased an eight-point deficit to start the fourth quarter as the Lakers' second-teamers crumbled and took a 93-89 lead with 4:10 left after Wesley Matthews double-teamed Pau Gasol to force a steal and flipped in a reverse layup at the other end.
But the Jazz couldn't finish off an improbable victory, making just one of their last eight shots as the Lakers outscored them 15-6 in the last four minutes. The afternoon's biggest play couldn't have better exemplified the Lakers' size advantage as well, especially with the Jazz missing injured starters Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko.
After Bryant missed a jumper, Lamar Odom came up with the offensive rebound over Carlos Boozer and scored to give the Lakers a 98-95 lead with 49.9 seconds left.
"I just jumped and the next thing I know, I thought I had it, and then I didn't have it and he put it in," Boozer said. "We've got to come down with [those] rebounds."
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan described Odom's basket as one of the "little things" that make all the difference against a team like the Lakers. "An offensive rebound over the top of you, it's kind of disheartening," Sloan said.
After Boozer was stripped by Derek Fisher at the other end, Bryant drove the lane, with no help arriving, for a layup to make it 100-95. Bryant finished with 31 points on 12-for-19 shooting, including 13 of his team's 23 points in the fourth quarter.
"It's tough to change momentum when it's that late in the game," Bryant said.
Williams had 24 points and eight assists despite straining his neck in the game's opening minute. Boozer added 18 points and 12 rebounds as the Jazz nearly stole a victory even with the Lakers shooting 60.3 percent through three quarters.
Down the stretch, the Jazz struggled with the Lakers' size -- Boozer tried to drive on Gasol out of a timeout with 2:18 remaining and was blocked by Odom -- as well as with slowing Bryant between C.J. Miles and Matthews.
With 3:16 left, Bryant gave the Lakers the lead for good as he backed down Miles, who hit the floor trying to draw an offensive foul. As he tried to get back up, Miles ended up fouling Bryant and gave up a three-point play that made it 94-93.
Miles, who also missed a 3-pointer that would have given the Jazz a 96-94 lead, described himself as getting caught "in between" on Bryant's three-point play.
"When he backed up, I tried to take it, but I didn't want to fall down," Miles said. "My feet were kind of in between his, I didn't want to fall all the way down. I slipped and tried to get up. I didn't think I touched him on the way up, but the ref called a foul."
The Jazz also had no answer for the Lakers' size between Gasol, Odom and Andrew Bynum, who combined for 34 rebounds. Gasol totaled 25 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks; Boozer described the Lakers as having "twin towers" inside.
"We've got to work with what we've got," said Boozer, who stressed being more physical and aggressive. "That's just the bottom line; ain't no secret to it. They've got more big guys that we have, so we've got to do what we've got to do. No excuses.
"We know we're David and we know they're Goliath. All we can do is give it everything we've got and go from there."
The Jazz were able to take some positives heading into Tuesday's Game 2, knowing well that a victory in the same game produced a seismic shift in their first-round series against Denver.
They erased the Lakers' 81-73 lead with a 12-1 burst to start the fourth quarter even with Williams on the bench. As Bynum and Odom struggled, the Jazz came alive behind Ronnie Price and Paul Millsap, who scored three times during the run.
The Jazz also overcame yet another slow start in the place where they have perfected the art. They closed the first quarter down 30-23, struggling just to throw entry passes against the Lakers' length, and trailed by 14 early in the second quarter.
"I just hope that our guys come with enough toughness to withstand their toughness," Sloan said. "They have a terrific team and you learn something by playing against them if you want to make yourself better.
"They will take your nose and stick it in the ground and turn around on their heels on top of you, that's how good they are. And we have to learn to fight through that."
One that got away
In short » Jazz come back from early deficit to lead with four minutes left but can't hold on to win.
Key moment » Lamar Odom's putback of a Kobe Bryant miss with 49.9 seconds left gives Lakers a 98-95 lead.
Key stat » Lakers outscore Jazz 15-6 in the final four minutes, with Bryant accounting for 11 of those points.