--The Lakers fell last night to the Utah Jazz 104-99, and saw their series lead cut to 2-1. Still, there's no reason for Lakers fans to panic. No rational basketball observer thought the Lakers would go undefeated in the playoffs, and Utah is one of the toughest places to play in the NBA.
In the Lakers' first two games against the Jazz, the purple and gold were so impressive that people were saying they were operating at a different speed than Utah. Now, many of those same people are claiming the Lakers lack toughness and Pau Gasol may be a liability in the middle.
The truth is that the Lakers have a more athletic team than the Jazz, and LA's big-3 (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom) are better as a unit than Utah's big-3 (Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur). Before the series began, I thought that Andrei Kirilenko would be the wild card that could potentially cause problems for the Lakers, but after three games it's evident that he's a shadow of his former self. Kirilenko's contributions are not that much greater than Vladimir Radmanovic's offensively, although he does a bit more away from the ball. Instead, the real wild card for Utah is Okur, who has skills, but seems to be a tad less athletic than the Jazz need him to be. Still, if Okur can be a commanding presence inside, and complement Boozer inside, then the Jazz are dangerous. Additionally, Deron Williams has been inconsistent all series as Derek Fisher has effectively defended him. Fisher is very familiar with Williams' game, from when they were teammates in Utah last year, and he's evidently taking advantage of his knowledge and experience. I've seen Williams play so well at times that one could argue he's just as good as Chris Paul. But he's not playing at that level in this series.
The Lakers lost last night because they had a bad game. It's as simple as that. They had been coasting through the first six games, and were bound for a let-down on the road in the loud Energy Solutions Arena. Pau Gasol got too whiny with the officials, and was virtually a non-factor. Lamar Odom only took three field goals the entire game. Yet, remarkably, the Lakers still had a shot to win the game late, and they may have escaped with a win, if not for turnovers. That is evidence of just how much more talented this Laker team. So in order for the Lakers to put away the Jazz, they will need Gasol to keep his head on his shoulders and for Odom to stay involved in the game plan. Gasol isn't a banger on the boards, and that's not necessarily a knock on him... that's just not his game. To slow down Boozer or Okur, the Lakers could afford to give a little extra playing time to guys like Ronny Turiaf, Chris Mihm, and DJ Mbenga. I'm not quite sure why Mihm has seldom played since coming back from injury, unless he's still not really 100%.
Overall, I still think the Lakers are the better team, and that they will win this series with at least one victory in Salt Lake City.
Finally, I haven't had a chance yet to note Kobe Bryant's MVP Award. Obviously it's well-deserved. This season, Bryant took his game to another level, as he finally learned how to involve his teammates, while still leveraging his tremendous individuals skills. His game has evolved to the point where it is now fair to say he's the best player in the NBA.
--The Dodgers are 7-3 since I wrote on April 28 that fans shouldn't be concerned. They're now 19-16, and back among the elite teams in the National League. Matt Kemp has taken his game to another level, and if he continues playing this well, then he might very well be the face of the franchise in the next few years along with Russell Martin. Kemp has the talent to be a regular 30-30 man, and his presence in the lineup every day is virtually required. In the meantime, Martin has rallied after a slow start, and may wind up as the NL starting catcher in the All-Star Game again.
Also quietly having a great season is Rafael Furcal. He's healthy for the first time in years, and as a shortstop with an OPS of over 1.000, he's been one of the NL's best players through 35 games. Juan Pierre has gotten hot, and has supplanted Andre Ethier in the lineup for the moment. Apparently, being benched early in the season has lit a fire under him. Either that, or resting a few games and not going after Cal Ripken's streak has helped keep him fresh. Either way, Pierre's style is still counter to the patient approach that Joe Torre and hitting coach Mike Easler preaches, so I'd expect the player nicknamed "Juan-for-five" to be back on the bench once he cools off.
At third base, Blake DeWitt's play has been so strong, that he's keeping a healthy Andy LaRoche in the minor leagues. Expect one of those two players to be traded within the next year, with LaRoche being the most likely to go.
Still, all is not completely right with the Dodgers. Andruw Jones remains an $18 million-a-year albatross, hitting .174 with one home run. Derek Lowe has become a concern as he's pitched 7 or more innings just once this season. In general, the rotation has been up and down all season, yet they still have to be careful in their handling of Clayton Kershaw. The 20-year old lefthander is one of the game's most talented prospects, but allowing him to pitch in the big leagues before he's ready could have serious consequences for his career. It's a difficult balance to strike.
--I will be broadcasting tonight's USC-Cal State Northridge baseball game tonight on KSCR with Bryan Fischer at 7 PM. You can find the broadcast at 1560 AM, or by logging onto KSCR.org and clicking on the sports live stream on the top right-hand portion of your screen.