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Dave McMenamin

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Jazz get back in series at Bryant's house of pain

By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted Apr 24 2009 7:07AM

SALT LAKE CITY -- He thought he had exorcised his demons.

He thought he had turned his personal house of horrors into his home away from home.

But after Thursday's 5-for-24 shooting night by Kobe Bryant, including a last-second potential game-winning three that came up long and to the right, The House that Larry Miller Built caged the Mamba once again.

Deron Williams' pull-up jumper with 2.2 second remaining lifted Utah to an 88-86 Game 3 victory and suddenly put the No. 8 Jazz in a hotly-contested 2-1 series with the top-seeded Lakers.

At the morning's shootaround, Bryant dismissed his dismal career Playoffs record in Utah like a judge throwing out evidence and declaring it can't be used in a case.

"It don't count," Bryant said of his 1-7 record at the Delta Center (and renamed EnergySolutions Arena) in the previous three series he played against the Jazz. "That was in 1997 and '98, when they had Karl Malone and John Stockton and I had no facial hair."

It's the same edifice that housed the baby-faced Bryant as he launched a litany of infamous airballs in 1997 as a rookie. But now, buoyed by a goatee growing on the face of a man who has posed for photos holding three Larry O'Brien and one Maurice Podoloff trophies, it was just another gym to him.

After starting his postseason career in Utah with seven straight losses, Bryant finally broke through in Game 6 of last season's Western Conference semifinals. He poured in 34 points in the series clincher, including back-to-back jumpers on Matt Harpring late in the fourth quarter that gave him the chance to make eye contact and direct a profanity laced scream at the crowd.

Apparently his guttural roar upset the Delta deities and EnergySolutions spirits.

Thursday was a time warp. Bryant was stymied by the building once again; Carlos Boozer (23 points, 22 rebounds) balled like he never had a knee injury that caused him to miss half the season; the 32-year-old Harpring scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter and gave Utah its first lead since the third quarter with a dunk ("We ain't see Matt dunk in about five years," Boozer said); and Williams dusted off an old Utah standby to win the game ("It was the same play we've always run for 20 years, just different people," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said). This was the definition of home-court advantage as the Utah fans funneled noise onto the court like a Los Angeles crowd sprinkles celebrities in its courtside seats.

"We have the best crowd in basketball," Boozer said. "They helped us get back, they gave us more confidence and then we made more plays to give ourselves more confidence."

Utah led by nine points after the first quarter after it held L.A. to just 17 points on 6-for-25 shooting (24 percent), a vast improvement from the opening stanza of Game 2 when the Lakers dropped in 41 points on 18-for-21 shooting.

The Lakers battled back on the strength of Lamar Odom (21 points, 14 rebounds) and Pau Gasol (20 and nine), who combined for 10 offensive boards to get L.A. something out of all the would-be empty possessions from Bryant's misses.

Los Angeles used a 19-2 run that spanned the end of the second quarter through the middle of the third that turned an eight-point deficit into a nine-point lead that would reach 13 before Utah rallied in the fourth.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said "a lot of things didn't click for [Bryant] tonight, that hurt." But Bryant, for his part, seemed almost chipper in the postgame press conference, blurting out "I know I missed some shots, but come on guys, no questions?" as the media waited for the microphone to start the asking.

"It was a combination of two things, one I just didn't shoot the ball well, two, they did a good job of mixing up their defense," Bryant said.

After allowing the Lakers to shoot 55 percent in Game 1 and 60 percent in Game 2, the Jazz held L.A. to 36.8 percent in Game 3.

Besides corralling Kobe, they made a concerted effort to contain the Lakers' two breakout stars from the beginning of the series -- Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown. The duo combined to shoot just 4-for-13 on Thursday (after combining to go 20-for-26 in Games 1 and 2) as the Utah defenders succeeded in running them off of catch-and-shoot situations to make them put it on the floor.

This time the Jazz were the team with star cameo contributions. Aside from Harpring, Andrei Kirilenko energized with eight points, three rebounds, a block and a steal as a starter. Kyle Korver's key second-half threes helped and Ronnie Brewer, who had 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists, nailed the defensive assignment on Bryant.

"You've got to give Ronnie Brewer a lot of credit," Korver said. "We tried to make it hard on [Bryant], we tried to double him, tried to get the ball out of his hands, but he's capable of hitting just amazing shots and in the first couple of games he did and tonight they didn't go in for him."

There's a lesson to be learned here about premature judgement. Everybody thought this series was already over after L.A. held 20-point leads in both Game 1 and Game 2 the same way that Bryant thought he had solved the Salt Lake City conundrum last spring.

It isn't and he didn't.

Bryant is now 1-for-8 for his postseason career in Utah and this No. 1 vs. No. 8 series is just getting started.

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