The Utah Jazz’s 125-112 loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles on Tuesday night was an all-too-fitting end to their 2008-09 regular season.
Once again, the team was not at full-strength, with injuries keeping starters Mehmet Okur and C.J. Miles out of the game with a strained right hamstring and a dislocated left index finger, respectively. Sometimes it hurts to be so true to form.
Equally befitting was yet another road loss. With a 15-26 record, Utah once again ended a season with a losing mark in games away from Energy Solutions Arena.
Playing two nights in a row again proved detrimental to the team. One of the surest bets in the NBA this season was against the Jazz in the second game of a back-to-back set. Since the season's tip off in October, Utah struggled without at least one day of rest, going 3-18 in such situations, which was among the absolute worst in the NBA.
More than anything else, in-game lapses were the biggest culprits in Utah's most recent loss, and maybe their disappointing season. They kept pinning themselves in corners that eventually proved too difficult to fight out of.
On Tuesday, when they needed 48 minutes of good basketball to have a chance to increase their playoff standing and perhaps ease their troubles, the Jazz only provided about 30 minutes.
The game started well for Utah. With Matt Harpring starting for Miles and Jarron Collins replacing Okur, the Jazz seemed to have an added amount of toughness. They not only stayed in the game, they led for a good portion of the first half.
Inconsistency made a visit during the second quarter, though, and the Jazz fell behind by nine points. They cut the deficit to 56-55 by halftime, but they were already in a defensive mode, more focused on blocking punches than throwing them.
After the intermission, L.A. again built up a 9-point lead, and the Utah again erased it. The next round of blows, though, was too much for the Jazz to handle.
Behind three-point plays by Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom and a Bryant-assisted three-point basket by Shannon Brown, the Lakers increased a one-point lead to an eight-point margin at the close of the third quarter.
Leading 91-83, the Lakers began the final quarter with a quick 10-0 run that put the Jazz down for the count. Trailing by 18, Utah seemed resigned to their fate as the Western Conference's 8-seed, never mounting any sort of a comeback.
Much like last season, when the Jazz and Lakers faced off in the second round of the playoffs, Utah struggled to defend the Lakers' big men. With Bryant watching from the bench with foul trouble, center Andrew Bynum carried the Lakers' scoring load in a first half. He finished with 20 points and combined with fellow front-line players Odom and Pau Gasol to score 58 points.
Though Lakers leading scorer Bryant had relatively low-key game due to prolonged stays on the bench, he still managed to play an integral part in putting Utah away, scoring and setting up crucial baskets. Bryant finished with 16 points on only 5-11 shooting.
For the Jazz, Deron Williams led all players with 25 points and 13 assists. Forward Andrei Kirilenko scored 20, but countered that output with six turnovers and zero blocked shots.
Despite their incomplete effort and the historic lack of success by No. 8 seeds against No. 1 seeds in the playoffs -- the bottom seed has only beat the top seed three out of 50 times -- the Jazz did provide at least one indicator of not being willing to just lay down and let L.A. roll over them in the playoffs.
In the second half, Williams took exception to Bynum running into him following a dunk by the Lakers' big man. Two plays after the collision, Williams set a pick on the much bigger Bynum that resembled a football hit by a free safety, and picked up a foul. When Bryant came to the defense of his teammate, a discussion between he and Williams ensued and both were assessed technical fouls.
Though it could have been merely frustration for the Jazz's late-season slide or legitimate retaliation, Williams' play can set the tone for the upcoming playoff series between the two teams, and served as a reminder that the Lakers will have to work hard to beat the Jazz four more times before the Utah's season is over.
Utah has until the weekend to regroup from their 2-7 finish to the season. They'll need toughness and pride similar to what Williams displayed if they are going to have any chance of defeating the Lakers in the best-of-7 series.