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EVEN UTAH COACH JERRY SLOAN knew the odds of his team's advancing past the Western Conference's top-seeded Lakers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. "It looks pretty bleak," he said five days before the start of the series. "We're just like a little dent in the road as far as they're concerned."
Actually, Utah was more like a speed bump—capable of slowing down the Lakers but ultimately unable to stop them. At times this year L.A. has made itself vulnerable by playing down to the level of its competition. But against Utah these Lakers looked hungry and eager to avenge last year's 39-point beat-down by Boston in the clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
From the opening tip of Game 1, Kobe Bryant wore an icy, no-smiles expression. Like a cold-blooded killer, he let Jazz defenders pick their poison. When they chose to double-team him, Bryant dished to teammates for open three-pointers. When they chose to guard him one-on-one, he used an arsenal of moves to score. The Lakers led 62-40 at halftime and, despite a second-half letup, never let Utah get closer than nine points. Bryant finished with 24 points and eight assists, Trevor Ariza scored 21, and Pau Gasol added 20 in a 113-100 victory.
Phil Jackson was also all business. He broke with his tradition of slipping on his most recent championship ring during the playoffs, admitting he was tired of wearing his 2002 prize for the past seven postseasons. Jackson seemed more intense, too, arguing with referees and using his familiar two-pinkie whistle to get his players' attention. Despite winning the opener, Jackson wasn't doing cartwheels. "I don't even know if we can say we prevailed on that second-half effort, but we got the win," he said after the game. "It wasn't a coach's delight."
Still, Jackson must have enjoyed watching Ariza. The lanky forward, acquired from Orlando in November 2007, missed most of the '08 playoffs with a broken right foot. Finally healthy, he developed into L.A.'s version of the Spurs' Bruce Bowen—a lockdown defender and long-range specialist. (Ariza was 11 of 18 from three-point range in the Utah series.)
In Game 2, Ariza and the Lakers rushed out of the gate with 41 first-quarter points. Jazz guard Deron Williams sparkled with a game-high 35 points, but L.A.'s offense was relentless. Bryant played the assassin again with 26 points (23 in the second half), and Gasol added 22 as the Lakers held off a late Utah run for a 119-109 victory. Jackson earned his 195th career postseason win, the most of any NBA coach.
After letting Game 3, in Utah, slip away 88-86 on a 14-foot fadeaway jumper by Williams with 2.2 seconds left, the Lakers came out strong in Game 4. Bryant scored L.A.'s first 11 points, using the pick-and-roll with Gasol to perfection. He finished with 38 points on 16-of-24 shooting as the Lakers won 108-94 to take a 3-1 lead. In Game 5, Bryant hammered the final nail into Utah's coffin with 31 points, while Lamar Odom added 26 for a 107-96 victory.
Sloan's intuition was correct. It would take more than a dent to bump these Lakers off the road to a title.