NBA: Lakers show their muscle and might
By Bill Plaschke
Los Angeles Times
SALT LAKE CITY — It was a sweep, all right.
The Los Angeles Lakers swept this doubter completely off his feet, reduced me to a pillar of salt, knocked me directly into a setting Suns.
Before watching the Lakers take the court against the Utah Jazz for the fourth game of a 3-0 playoff series Monday, I figured the ensuing Western Conference finals would be a regular Nash pit.
I figured wrong. The Phoenix Suns have no chance.
Anybody who watched the Lakers tear apart the NBA's most synchronized team on its most important night at its ear-bending home would agree.
Anybody who watched the Lakers become the first team to ever sweep the Jazz with a 111-96 victory could not argue.
Maybe not even the Suns. You know they were watching. But their star Steve Nash could only witness it on television with one eye shut. I saw it in person with 19,000 surprised fans screaming. Trust me, little dude, it was harsher than it looked.
In terms Nash will understand, this wasn't just a sweep, it was a sandstorm. As trailers go, this one previewed all the good parts. The Lakers were nothing the Jazz could handle. The Lakers were everything the Suns are not.
The Lakers played big. Even with Andrew Bynum tied behind their back, they played big. Pau Gasol hair big. Phil Jackson scowl big. Ron Artest baggage big.
Phoenix is not big. Amare Stoudemire averaged 20 points and nine rebounds against the Lakers this season, but he has little help inside. Not Jarron Collins. Not Channing Frye. Not Louis Amundson. And, even if he's recovered from his back injury, certainly not Robin Lopez.
The conference finals beginning Monday at Staples Center will be Stoudemire matched against Gasol, Lamar Odom and the sore, baffling Bynum.
It won't even be close. Monday was about muscle, and for all their newfound tenacity, the Suns still don't have that muscle.
The Suns don't have Gasol spinning through the Jazz defense for a reverse layup that was such a piece of art, Gasol held up his right hand for several long seconds afterward in triumph.
Gasol wound up with 33 points, 14 rebounds, and the unadorned admiration of the Lakers toughest critic.
"He played like Pau," said Kobe Bryant. "He was able to penetrate, tear them up."
The Suns don't have Bynum blocking Carlos Boozer, then blocking Ronnie Price, two plays that showed he can dominate if he just stays determined.
The Suns don't have Odom darting inside for a dunk attempt in which he was fouled, and another, Odom ending up with 10 points and five rebounds and six free throws.
They don't have the kind of power that can overcome a defense that held the Jazz to three baskets in 19 attempts in a first-half run, the Lakers outscoring the Suns by 21 points during that time.
"We were just trying to be aggressive," said Gasol. "I know they have a little problem guarding the post, so we're just being aggressive."
Save that quote. You will read it again beginning next week in the series against Phoenix.
The Suns also don't have anyone to consistently take the brunt of Bryant's drives, because he's driving again, his fearlessness back, his flexibility back, his teammates along for the ride.
Bryant scored 32 points with 12 rebounds, his fourth consecutive Good Kobe game of this series, and did the Suns hear this warning?
"I feel healthy," said Bryant. "That's the big difference."
Oklahoma City reminded them what it was like to play desperate. Utah reminded what it was like to play strong. Phoenix can do little to make them forget.
The Lakers also showed toughness in geography, this basic group closing out their fourth consecutive playoff series on the road for the first time in club history, the first two series this year and the final two series last year. And this wasn't just anywhere on the road, this was the strange confines of an angry mob who never ceased to amaze.
On Tuesday at EnergySolutions Arena, I left my press seat and returned to the press room with 2:28 left in the first half and the Lakers leading, 53-34.
"You can go right to LAX, there's nothing to see here," yelled one Lakers fan.
"Your Lakers got all the calls," countered an angry Jazz fan. "The Lakers didn't earn this. They didn't earn it!"
That fan was a father holding his son's hand as they headed to the bathroom. It is the first time I have been heckled by a parent holding a child. It is, I hope, the last time I will be among this crowd until next spring.
It's now on to Phoenix, where the competition will be more furious, but the outcome won't be much different.
"We've got it back," Bryant said. "We're here now."
That rising team from Phoenix? Better duck.