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Dave McMenamin

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Disappearing leads one issue Lakers can't afford to ignore

By By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted Apr 28 2009 2:51PM

LOS ANGELES -- Kobe Bryant sat at the podium after the Lakers clinched their first round series against the Jazz in Game 5 on Monday with a smile on his face and a gash under his right eye.

"No stitches, no stitches," Bryant said about the still bloody wound that looked so bad that you almost didn't believe him when he said it was OK.

Los Angeles took care of business in its first closeout opportunity of the Playoffs with a 107-96 win, but after the team let another big lead all but disappear for the fourth time of the series, the Lakers' championship aspirations are looking about the same as Kobe's cut: In need of immediate medical attention.

L.A can be pleased with Games 4 and 5 after it slammed the door shut on any upset plans by Utah to extend it to a Game 6 back in Salt Lake City. However, the overall grade for the series on a weighted scale for this Lakers team that was supposed to show why it was the No. 1 seed in the West was more "satisfactory" than "exceeds expectations."

The goal of any top seed in the early rounds of the Playoffs is to advance as quickly as possible. The Lakers might not have swept the Jazz like the Cavs erased the Pistons in four, but they did manage to win all four games by double digits. And in the one game L.A. dropped, Bryant shot a measly 5-for-24, the team shot less than 40 percent, Utah outrebounded them by 15 thanks to a Herculean 23-point, 22-rebound effort by Carlos Boozer and the Lakers still only lost by two.

But those leads that dried up like roles being offered to Lindsay Lohan these days, where did they go?

In Game 1, a 22-point lead was cut to eight. In Game 2, 20 points dwindled to three. In Game 3, a 13-point third-quarter advantage became a two-point loss. On Monday, L.A. had its starters resting comfortably on the bench until all but six points of a 22-point lead vanished.

"We got a week here to have a spirited conversation with the group and see if you can't correct that next series," Bryant said.

Asked if he thought if it would come back to haunt the Lakers if they kept relinquishing big leads, Lamar Odom said, "Maybe, but it won't be Utah [making the comeback]."

Of course, the Jazz had something to do with it. Deron Williams played his heart out in the other Jazz comebacks and on Monday, Utah coach Jerry Sloan said he has "never seen a guy play that hard in his life" than the way backup guard Ronnie Price did in his 14 minutes in Game 5. Price racked up eight points, three rebounds, five assists and 7-to-8 perfect screens in Sloan's estimation, as he entered in mop-up duty, but played as if it was a one-possession game.

And, of course, the Jazz have more problems than the Lakers right now as they enter an uneasy offseason that could see the departure of Boozer to free agency if he keeps his word and opts out of his contract. "Now's the time to take care of the other stuff," Boozer said Monday.

Some wondered whether this would be the end of the road for Sloan as well after such a trying season in which his team battled injuries on the court and he coped with death off of it (his brother, his former teammate Norm Van Lier, his longtime boss and Jazz owner Larry Miller), but Sloan dismissed that notion saying, "That's not a problem."

You can't completely bury the Lakers for taking five games to get past a 48-win team. Some aspects of their game were great. Odom averaged 18 points and 15 rebounds per game over the final two games of the series when L.A. outrebounded the Jazz by an average of 7.0 per game after being beaten on the boards by 7.7 per game in Games 1-3. Trevor Ariza couldn't miss and Shannon Brown looked like a veteran in the series, too.

But beyond just giving up leads, other trouble spots appeared. The Lakers lost two bench players in Luke Walton (torn deltoid ligament in his left ankle) and Jordan Farmar (sprained confidence after being completely removed from the rotation). Bryant's breathtaking 38-point performance won Game 4, but he strayed from the game plan that Jackson laid out to establish the bigs early.

Which brings us to the biggest negative of all: the Lakers' 21-year-old big man, Andrew Bynum. After coming back strong from a right knee injury for the final four games of the season, he was a non-factor at best and a liability at worst his five postseason games so far.

"It doesn't really matter who we play," Odom answered when he was asked who he'd like to face in the second round -- Portland or Houston. "I hope it goes seven games and 10 overtimes and they break the record for minutes played."

But it will matter if The Incredible Shrinking Bynum doesn't turn things around after totaling just eight points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes over the final three games of the series.

Jackson said he plans on going back to Bynum as a starter against Yao Ming in the next round if the Rockets should advance.

If Bynum and the Lakers play the way they played against Utah when they face Houston, Yao's 7-foot-6, 310-pound body could rip that wound wide open and flat line L.A.'s title hopes.

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