— The object is to win. By the standard, the Lakers can declare mission accomplished after Game 1 against the Jazz.
But if there's a bad way to win, this was among the worst. The Lakers took what should have been an easy victory and turned it into a nail-biter. They could have thoroughly demoralized the Jazz. Instead, they gave Utah reason to think it can win.
Now this looks like a series than can go seven games.
That’s amazing, because it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that this looked like anything but what would be a summary execution of the Jazz.
The Lakers loped to an easy double-digit lead. It was a thing of beauty, a coldly efficient basketball demonstration. The Lakers hit their shots, controlled the boards, played effective defense and totally dominated the Jazz.
The dominance continued into the fourth. Just when you were ready to call the Smithsonian and suggest the game be preserved forever as an example of how the game should be played, it all changed.
It turned into a prime example of the worst way to win. It’s also why all wins are not alike. There are wins that leave an opponent curled up in the corner sucking its figurative thumb, and there are wins that leave an opponent thinking, “Damn! We coulda won that thing. We shoulda won that thing.”
It’s hard to say exactly what changed. The Lakers didn’t do anything egregiously bad, like throwing up shots from 30 feet with 15 seconds left on the shot clock or committing scads of dumb fouls. They just neglected to kick the Jazz when they were down, got a little lax on defense, lost a bit of their intensity, and suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives.
Utah actually took a lead with seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter and managed to hold it for a while before Kobe Bryant was forced to put on his Superman cape and perform some serious fourth-quarter heroics to restore order. The final score was 105-99. It should not have been that close.
“We want to make sure we work and we put more effort into keeping leads and building on leads and stretching the games out,” Pau Gasol said. “It’s always a little bit frustrating when you lose leads and you’re on the bench and you can’t do anything. It happens hopefully not very often, but we got stagnant. Guys weren’t sharp out there.”
So the Jazz lost, but this was one of those moral victories that coaches like to say they don’t believe in. You can’t blame them for that. Real victories are a lot easier to sleep on than almost victories.
But better a moral victory than the total humiliation that the Lakers could have inflicted. Better to leave the Staples Center thinking you let one get away than checking your extremities to make sure you didn’t lose any limbs out there.
Until that fourth quarter, the Jazz had no reason to either hope or believe that they could beat the Lakers. L.A. had beaten them three of four times during the regular season and they were treating the Jazz as if they were the New Jersey Nets.
And then they backed off the accelerator just a hair and watched the Jazz catch and pass them.
The Lakers probably aren’t worried. They’re telling themselves they won the game and there’s nothing to worry about. They’re looking at what Kobe did during Kobe time and figuring that if they get in trouble again, all they have to do is give the ball to 24 and clear out.
“We put ourselves in a little bit of a hole and let them gain all the momentum,” Kobe Bryant said. “At that point, you’ve just got to buckle down.”
Phil Jackson won’t let them off easy, if only because coaches always look for the negatives, especially in victories. Then they use them to beat the arrogance out of their teams.
He'll be telling the Lakers they can’t keep playing as they did and hope to cruise to an easy win. After all, L.A. just finished a similar series against Oklahoma City. Jackson can remind them they can't afford to take any team likely.
They’ll sort of listen, just like your kids sort of listen when you rant and rave about whatever it is you rant and rave about — messy rooms, too many text messages, too much time playing World of Warcraft, not enough time studying, whatever.
But they won’t take real notice until they lose a game. And if they don’t play better than they did Sunday, they will lose a game and then another. And the Jazz will decide that they have a shot against them, even in Staples Center.
This is how seven-game series are born. It starts with a loser’s knowledge that if it had just played a little better, it would have won, and a winner’s presumption that it doesn’t have to do anything special to keep winning.
That’s the situation we have, thanks to the Lakers’ brief lapse and Utah’s comeback. It has all the makings of a seven-game series.
At least we can hope it does.