SALT LAKE CITY — Despite the suspense, with the crowd screaming and the heat rising, it wasn't all that much different with the Los Angeles Lakers in town on Wednesday. They fed the ball to Kobe Bryant and got out of his way.
It's true he missed a shot at the end of regulation, thanks to the pestering hands of guard Raja Bell. He missed four of five shots in overtime, too. Yet in the end, it was business as usual: Los Angeles 90, Jazz 87. That makes it an even 100 losses for the Jazz all-time against the Lakers, with just 56 wins. It's true the Lakers aren't their old dominating selves. They're getting older by the minute.
Just don't tell Bryant. The man is 33 going on 21. On Tuesday he racked up 48 points against Phoenix, followed by an even 40 against the Jazz.
One other thing hasn't changed. For Bryant, winning in Utah is both personal and satisfying.
"Especially here," Bryant said. "These fans here are brutal. They say some pretty nasty stuff. So the last thing you want to do is give them the joy of walking out here with a win and thinking that affected you in any way."
So it went. Paul Millsap tied it up with 20 seconds left in regulation and Bell forced Bryant into a brick at the buzzer. The Jazz got the ball to Al Jefferson at the end of overtime, trailing by one, but Andrew Bynum slapped it away as Jefferson went up. A 25-point loss on opening night in Los Angeles morphed into a heart-pounder in January.
"Great effort. We're coming. We're getting better," Jazz coach Ty Corbin said.
While a win would have been the sixth in a row for Utah, it certainly wasn't the same sort of loss as the last time they met. This time the Jazz stared the Lakers down. They weren't cowed in the least.
If you didn't know better, you might have thought it was the playoffs.
"It's always like that," Bryant said.
A few years ago, it was the willing but aging Jazz, fighting off what NBA commissioner David Stern once referred to as "the inexorable march of time."
Now it's the other way around. The Jazz are young and learning, the Lakers proven and mature.
You remember the Lakers, right? Those are the guys who have in the past decade treated the Jazz like the neighborhood nerds. For three straight years (2008-10) the Jazz would get as far as L.A. in the playoffs and sink.
Last season L.A. took an unceremonious playoff exit, getting swept by Dallas in the conference semifinals. Suddenly the Lakers went from gold to old. Bryant was getting long in the tooth (33) and Derek Fisher (37) had lived out dog years as the front man for the players in last summer's lockout. Only one of L.A.'s starters on Wednesday was under 31.
They truly are different Lakers. No Phil Jackson, for one thing. The Zen Master has moved on, presumably to think deep thoughts and make commercials. Lamar Odom is in Dallas. Several players are hurting or out with injuries. Then there's the emotional stress. Bryant's wife has filed for divorce, while Gasol couldn't be happy knowing that the Lakers tried to trade him.
It didn't help that L.A. lost to Chicago and Sacramento on its first two nights, giving rise to the suspicion the Laker dominance really is dead. But then came the Jazz — the youngish, coltish Jazz — and it all turned around for the Lakers. They have won eight of their last 10. Bryant's back-to-back 40-point nights in Phoenix and Utah revived memories of when he was a kid, just starting out.
That's not to say the Jazz didn't look good, despite shooting just 39 percent. While it was veterans like Raja Bell, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Josh Howard and Devin Harris who took the Jazz down the stretch, youth was also served at times. Derrick Favors had some fine moments, getting five rebounds in 12 minutes. Enes Kanter banged his way around for four rebounds. Gordon Hayward struggled (1-7 shooting) but drew praise from Bryant.
Even in losing, this Jazz seems to be finding itself.
"They have a chance to be good for a long time," said Laker coach Mike Brown.
The Lakers are still beating the Jazz. They still have their star, still have their big men that give the Jazz fits. And they still have some fire inside.
But the Jazz are coming.
Even in losing, the future didn't seem too far off.
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