Posted May 11 2010 3:37AM
SALT LAKE CITY -- The "Let's go Suns" chants started in the final seconds Monday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
What else could the Jazz fans do after being swept in four games for the first time in franchise history, the clincher a 111-96 Game 4 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals?
Funny thing is, Lakers star Kobe Bryant was thinking same thing.
"Let's get to the Suns."
He didn't say it.
But you could read it all over his face after the Lakers blew past the Jazz and into the Western Conference finals for the third straight season. The Lakers will host the Suns in Game 1 on May 17.
The same Suns that eliminated the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs two years in a row, in 2006 and 2007, stinging defeats that Bryant remembers well.
When asked if seeing the Suns again would be extra special, considering their recent playoff history, Bryant's nonchalant expression turned dark.
"What do you think?" Bryant said, scowling back at the reporter that asked a question he already knew the answer to. "You already know."
The mere mention of the Suns seemed to stir up the fire in Bryant, who torched the Jazz for 30 points or more in all four games of this series. He's scored 30-plus in five straight games, going back to the Lakers' first round win over Oklahoma City.
But the Suns pose a different challenge altogether, considering the Lakers' long playoff history against them. They've played 56 postseason games against the Suns, the second highest total against a single team, trailing only their longtime Eastern Conference nemesis Boston Celtics.
As Bryant moved off the of the podium and headed down a hallway to the Lakers' team bus he was asked about the Suns again and used colorful language about the Lakers' Pacific Division rivals.
It's clear Bryant can't wait to see Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and the rest of Los Suns, arguably the hottest team in the playoffs this side of the 8-0 Orlando Magic and the Lakers, winners of six straight games.
He knows he didn't have the help in 2006 and 2007 that he has now.
"We need to do something and do it now," a heated Bryant said after the Suns eliminated the Lakers in five games in April of 2007. Bryant demanded to be traded in December of 2007. The Lakers stole Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies at the trade deadline in Feb. 1, 2008.
Gasol worked the Jazz over for 33 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks Monday night. Three years ago there was no one to match Bryant's brilliance in a tense setting like Monday night, an elimination game where he and Gasol combined for 65 of the Lakers' 111 points, the two of them alone outscoring the Jazz starters by seven points.
"They have a great combo, they have that two-man combo in Nash and Amar'e and their screen and roll situations are phenomenal," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We think that we have a good combination in Pau and Kobe and we're going to try and match that."
The Lakers will also have six days of rest, a break Bryant called "heavenly," to prepare for a Suns team that presents a completely different set of problems than the team the Lakers handled 3-1 in the regular season series.
"The difference with how they played when we met them in the regular season and how they play now, I think, is just confidence," Bryant said. "They believe in what they are doing. Obviously, things became a little more stable for them [after] the trade deadline. They are very, very hungry."
No more than Bryant, who has spent this postseason finding motivation in all sorts of places. When the Lakers struggled down the stretch of the season and had to wrestle with the Thunder in the first round, their critics came out en masse. Bryant was "getting old" and perhaps ready to surrender his title as the league's reigning postseason king.
"People made Kobe mad," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. "People owe him an apology. I heard [TNT's] Chuck [Barkley] say he's getting old and that he can't do the things he used to do. And he pretty much did them. He played great all series. But they have a great team, they're deep, it's not just one guy beating us, it's the next guy stepping up and the next guy. And that's what separates them."
That's why Bryant can't wait to see the Suns again.
He knows he's showing up to the fight better prepared than he was before.
When asked if he was still upset about those back-to-back playoff losses to the Suns, Bryant couldn't hide behind his emotions behind his designed sunglasses if he'd tried. He's still seething about it.
"Just a little bit," he said.
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