LAKERS VS. JAZZ GAME PREVIEW
By JEFF BARTL
The Los Angeles Lakers have gone 16-1 since the All-Star break to move within striking distance of San Antonio for the top spot in the Western Conference.
Though the Lakers likely will be short-handed Friday night, that may not matter much when they visit the injury-riddled Utah Jazz.
Los Angeles (54-20) saw three players ejected following a pair of fourth-quarter skirmishes in a 110-82 rout of Dallas on Thursday.
Steve Blake took exception to a hard foul on a two-handed shove by Dallas' Jason Terry, and the ensuing tussle led to them being tossed. Matt Barnes came to Blake's defense, and also was ejected with the Mavs' Brendan Haywood. Shannon Brown was thrown out after a separate incident.
"This is a family here," Barnes said. "So if someone comes and hits your brother, pushes your brother, then you definitely have their back. And that's the case here."
Despite the ejections, and possible looming suspensions, Kobe Bryant said incidents such as this can do a team good.
"It brings us closer together, simple as that," said Bryant, who wasn't involved in either fracas, and is averaging 34.3 points over his last four games after finishing with 28. Andrew Bynum added 18 points and 13 rebounds, and Pau Gasol chipped in 20 points as Los Angeles pulled within 2 1/2 games of the struggling Spurs, who will try to avoid their sixth loss in a row earlier Friday night.
Following narrow victories over Phoenix in triple overtime and the Los Angeles Clippers last week, the Lakers have started winning in dominating fashion again, blowing out New Orleans and the Mavericks by a combined 46 points.
"It just shows that we're geared up," Bryant told the NBA's official website. "We're getting really close to being ready and we're locked in and focused. When we're like that, we're a tough team to beat."
The Lakers convincingly beat the Jazz in the most recent meeting as Bryant scored 21 and Gasol 20 in a 120-91 victory on Jan. 25.
The Jazz (36-39) come in having dropped six straight, and out of the playoff picture by going 5-16 since Ty Corbin replaced longtime coach Jerry Sloan. Utah fell 100-95 in overtime Monday against Washington, which entered the game an NBA-worst 1-35 on the road.
C.J. Miles scored a team-high 17 points, but was 3 of 12 from 3-point range and 1 of 4 in overtime.
The Jazz have not lost seven straight since a nine-game skid from March 4-19, 2005.
"It don't hurt no more than it did against the second-best team in the West, the Mavericks," forward Paul Millsap said referring to Saturday's 94-77 loss. "It's losing, period."
Making matters worse, starters Andrei Kirilenko (bruised nerve in left knee), Devin Harris (strained hamstring) and Raja Bell (strained left calf) have been ruled out against the Lakers. Backup guard Ronnie Price also is out indefinitely with a strained leg muscle.
Rookies Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors logged considerable minutes, scoring 12 and 11, respectively. Corbin lauded their performances and the two will be expected to contribute more given the number of injuries.
"The young guys were playing well," Corbin said. "They played hard and I thought they deserved to be on the floor."
Al Jefferson had 16 rebounds to go with 15 points, but Corbin did not play Jefferson in overtime. Rumors swirled of a rift between the two, but both insisted there is no issue.
The Jazz defeated the Lakers 102-96 on Nov. 26 despite 31 points from Bryant.
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