If sympathy is at all possible in professional sports, you would think that NBA players around America are feeling pretty sorry for the Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons. The other 6 first round match ups are as exciting as they are unpredictable, with no team assured of a clean sweep and easy progress to the conference semis.
So, while 12 other teams quietly get excited about the prospect of a lengthy post season run, the two respective conference 8th seeds must be cursing their 82 game record for landing them in the utterly unenviable position of facing the two most bonafide contenders in the League: Kobe’s Lakers and LeBron’s Cavaliers.
The thing which separates these two 8th seeds is swagger. Somewhere within the wounded roster of Detroit is the knowledge that just a year ago they were in the Eastern Conference Finals with the same bravado that has been a constant in Mo-Town over the past 6 years. Despite the loss of their leader to the Denver Nuggets the Pistons remain a much more dangerous team than the Jazz because they can summon upon previous and recent experience when looking up at the stacked odds against them.
In contrast, Utah has nowhere to hide and no old victorious mindset to revert to. They are staring down the barrel at a Los Angeles team that appears destined to return to the Finals barring some freakish event or voodoo magic.
The proposition for the Jazz is simple enough: beat the Lakers or go home early. The question is how can Utah conjure the brilliance to overcome what is the most loaded roster in the NBA.
The answer is unlikely to be found in the paint where the Jazz will face a domineering front 3 which could comprise of 3 7 footers, Bynum, Gasol and Odom, all of whom can hurt you in different ways. One thing is guaranteed; if the Jazz cannot stop scoring down low and on their own glass the Lakers will simply and ruthlessly bully them off the court. They are just too big and too skilled.
If Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Ronnie Brewer can stop, or at least halt, the Los Angeles big men, they will force the Laker back court to pick up their scoring. Luckily for L.A. they have the best scorer in the world on their roster and plenty of worthy and effective sidekicks to partner him. Forcing the ball into Kobe’s hands is hardly a safer alternative to getting punished in the paint.
And then there is ‘The Bench Mob’, arguably the best reserves in the NBA. Nobody can bring more fire power off of the bench than L.A. In fact, the Lakers second string are so good that they force the other teams starters to play even more minutes while Kobe, Pau and Andrew enjoy a valuable rest on the sidelines.
The only bright light for the Utah Jazz is Deron Williams who will be asked to put the franchise on his shoulders and carry them out of the first round. For that to happen Williams will have to find the ‘playoff gear’, the fabled ‘next level’, that certain players are capable of elevating to when their teams really need them. Unless Deron Williams turns over night into Superman, even a monumental series from the Jazz guard will not be enough for Utah.
Lakers in 4.