#5 Utah Jazz
(53-29, 2nd place in Northwest Division)
#1 Los Angeles Lakers
(57-25, 1st place in Pacific Division)
How They Got Here: Many thought that the Jazz were finished, particularly when C Mehmet Okur went down with a season ending injury in Game 1 of their best of seven series with the Denver Nuggets. However, riding a home court advantage that could realistically be second to none in the NBA, Utah survived the battle with its divisional counterparts and moved on to the showdown with the defending champs.
Player To Watch: G Deron Williams was just all over the place in the opening series against the Nuggets. He led the team in scoring with 25.8 points per game, and he also dished out a whopping 68 assists along the way to boot against just 18 turnovers. Williams shot 48.1 percent from beyond the arc and was the true difference maker. He’ll need to be “The Man” once again for the Jazz to have the Lakers singing the blues.
X-Factor: F Paul Millsap had the series of his life against the Nuggets, scoring 17.3 points per game to go with almost a full ten boards. The matchups on the inside against the Lakers are going to be significantly more difficult. However, Millsap can be a sneaky contributor even if he isn’t scoring, so he’ll be one to watch on both sides of the court.
Key To Victory: Utah badly needs to stay out of foul trouble. Los Angeles has a knack of drawing fouls on opposing teams, and the Jazz aren’t deep enough without Okur and F Andrei Kirilenko to afford to have stars sitting on the bench. If that holds true, Utah may stand a chance.
Los Angeles Lakers
How They Got Here: When you’re the champs, you always have a massive bulls-eye sitting on your chest, and that’s what the Lakers found out when they got the best shot of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference quarterfinals. At times in that series, LA looked incredibly dominant. In others, not so much. The dominating team needs to be the consistent one to show up though, or someone will pick the purple and gold off.
Player To Watch: For a guy that was having a “bad series,” and looked “washed up” and/or “injured” according to the media, G Kobe Bryant still averaged 23.5 points per game against the Thunder. He’ll probably need to shoot better than the 40.8 percent that he did from the field against Oklahoma City, but there’s no doubting that Kobe has the heart of a champion.
X-Factor: F Lamar Odom has really become the forgotten man on this team, and we’re not really sure why he isn’t getting the respect he deserves. HC Phil Jackson gets great quality minutes out of Odom, as he is averaging 7.8 points and 6.8 boards in just 27 minutes of action per game.
Key To Victory: Don’t let Utah’s bigs beat you. If you’re LA, you have to be satisfied if Williams beats you. But you can’t let Millsap, F Carlos Boozer, and the rest of the post players dominate in the paint. F Pau Gasol and C Andrew Bynum need to stay physical, and if that’s the case, the Lakers should be fine.
The Final Word: This could be a gritty, gritty series. Utah has the ability to get the job done here, but when the game is on the line, we still want the ball in Kobe’s hands no matter whether he’s hurting and fatigued or not. The Lakers will once again be tested, but they’ll figure out how to get through thanks to home court advantage in the deciding game.
Lakers in 7