SALT LAKE CITY — The Jazz made a concerted effort in the offseason to add height to combat the Los Angeles Lakers, and it was clear Friday night they did that.
Looks like they picked up some attitude, too.
As they say in the bakery and bank lines, neeeeeext!
For the Jazz, the comeback against Miami was impressive, Orlando was sound, Atlanta uplifting, Charlotte gratifying and Portland exhilarating.
"We've played some pretty good teams and come back," said guard Raja Bell. "But we haven't played anyone with the resume of the Lakers."
The Jazz picked up their best win of the season, overcoming a 19-point, first-half deficit at ESA to beat the defending champion Lakers, 102-96. They did it by withstanding a fourth-quarter onslaught by L.A.'s Kobe Bryant (14 points, 31 overall).
OK, there were those two air balls Andrei Kirilenko slung in the fourth quarter that didn't exactly ooze confidence. And C.J. Miles launched a clanger that made dogs bark in Wendover.
Plus, there was that awful start.
But right now the Jazz are acting like the Fonz himself — nice skills and a ton of attitude. So while the new-found height was evident, so was something that has been mostly missing in the postseason the last three years: demeanor.
Let's just say this isn't a bunch you'd enjoy facing, either in, or on, a court.
"I think we're tough," said Bell. "We obviously don't quit. There's definitely a toughness about us."
There are checkpoints in an 82-game NBA season that tend to tell a team where it stands. Road wins are one thing, as are back-to-backs and games against division contenders, as well as those against exotic strangers from the Far East (i.e. Miami, Boston).
But for the Jazz, there is one undeniable and unavoidable measuring stick: the Los Angeles Lakers.
Beat the Lakers and you've faced your demons. Lose and its business as usual.
That doesn't mean the Jazz don't take the losses personally. Last year they lost four straight to the Lakers in the conference semifinals, the previous year they dropped four of five. The Jazz are 3-12 the last three years against L.A. in the playoffs.
In the regular season, the Jazz haven't fared much better, losing 10 of their previous 13.
But this year promised to be a somewhat different cast of characters. Gone was the hopelessly out-sized Carlos Boozer, on whom L.A.'s Pau Gasol regularly dined. In Boozer's place this year was the brawnier, quicker Al Jefferson.
It wasn't an enormous change, but still. Boozer couldn't guard his own lunch, much less an All-Star forward.
Utah also added veteran big man Francisco Elson, as well as noted Kobe-baiter Bell.
Hence, the possibly-but-not-necessarily-enhanced Jazz met the Lakers for the first of four games this season and won. Trailing by five with 2:32 to go, it looked like the same old treatment: Bryant beating the Jazz down the stretch. The Jazz tried to slow him with both Bell and Kirilenko, to no avail.
What Kobe wants, Kobe takes.
And what Los Angeles wants, it orders on speed dial.
But even a Kirilenko air ball with 1:33 left didn't kill the Jazz. Deron Williams made a 3-pointer, Bell got a layup and a pair of free throws and the Jazz were safe, having scored the game's final 11 points.
"It was a great win for our team, because sometimes against teams like that, you feel like you can't," said coach Jerry Sloan.
While it's true there is more ahead in this saga, the Jazz did appear better equipped. They added length, some decent bench support and something they probably learned as kids but later forgot: The option to just say no.
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