NBA Playoffs: Lakers 109, Jazz 98
By John Nadel
LOS ANGELES ó Kobe Bryant made most of the shots that mattered, which he didn’t view as any great accomplishment.
That’s because there was nary a hand in his face when he took them.
Bryant, celebrating what’s expected to be his first NBA MVP award, converted six of his franchise playoff-record 21 foul shots in the fourth quarter, and the Los Angeles Lakers held off the Utah Jazz 109-98 Sunday to begin the second round of the playoffs.
Bryant finished with 38 points, six rebounds and seven assists, and the Lakers made it five straight victories to begin the postseason after winning eight of their last nine regular-season games to earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
“You’ve got to be able to knock those free throws down. They’re open looks,” said Bryant, who made his first 18 foul shots before missing two of his last five to finish 21-of-23. “It’s my responsibility to knock them down.”
The Lakers shot 38-of-46 from the foul line, while the Jazz went 22-of-30. The teams spent most of the final period going from one foul line to the other, with Los Angeles going 14-of-19 from the line and Utah 10-of-12. Twenty-four of the 60 personal fouls were called in the last 12 minutes.
“It’s an incredible night to have 23 foul shots,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “I know that Utah’s not going to be happy about it. We’ll probably see about half that in the next game, if not less. So for him to do that, it was our biggest scoring threat of the night right there.”
Utah coach Jerry Sloan said he didn’t have a problem with Bryant’s many trips to the foul line.
“They called them, he shot them, that’s fine,” Sloan said. “I can’t do anything about that.”
Regarding his team’s defense, Sloan said: “It was very, very poor at best. (Fouls) are what you do when you try and bail out. I’d say that’s very poor defense.”
There were some other unexpected numbers. For one, the Jazz outrebounded the Lakers 58-41, with 25 of their rebounds at the offensive end. For another, Utah attempted 95 shots to match its regular-season high, but converted only 36 (37.9 percent).
“We had open shots, we couldn’t make them,” Sloan said.
“A lot of it was just their defense,” said Deron Williams, who shot 5-for-18. “They pushed us outside farther than we wanted to go with our offense.”
Derek Fisher, who played with the Jazz last season, guarded Williams for the most part and had a career playoff-high six steals to go with five points and six assists.
“I think probably what confused him was how old I am,” the 33-year-old Fisher said, laughing. “When he fakes, I don’t go for it because I can’t react that fast so I end up stealing it from him.”
Game 2 will be played Wednesday night before the best-of-seven series shifts to Utah for Games 3 and 4. Word leaked late Friday that Bryant had won his first Most Valuable Player award and he expressed his joy on Saturday. The NBA has declined comment, but Bryant is expected to receive the MVP trophy from commissioner David Stern before Game 2.
The “MVP! MVP!” chants from the capacity crowd of 18,997 at Staples Center began before the opening tip, with the volume increasing significantly when Bryant was introduced with the other Los Angeles starters.
Bryant, who shot 8-for-16 from the field, scored 24 points to help the Lakers take a 54-41 halftime lead, and although they were on top the rest of the way, there were some anxious moments down the stretch.