SALT LAKE CITY — Who knew the NBA playoffs got started in early February? Well, if you'd been inside Energy-Solutions Arena on Saturday night, or perhaps even anywhere near it, you certainly would've thought that postseason play was under way.
And, in their first-round series, the Utah Jazz now lead the Los Angeles Lakers, 1-0. ...
OK, so it's really not playoff time yet — but hey, it sure felt like it at ESA.
The Jazz, feeding off a frenzied crowd that energized the home team tremendously down the stretch against Kobe Bryant and Co., turned back the Lakers 96-87 as most of the crowd of 19,000-plus roared its thunderous approval.
With a minute to go, they broke out that familiar old chant of "Beat L.A.! .... Beat L.A.! ... Beat L.A.! ..." that harkens back to the glory days of Stockton and Malone.
And this time, after two earlier losses to the Lakers (14-10) this season, that's precisely what the Jazz did Saturday night.
Of course, there were hundreds of Laker fans in attendance, too, many of them proudly wearing Bryant jerseys or T-shirts with the Laker star's No. 24 on it.
But by the final buzzer, even some of those folks might've felt a slight twinge of Jazz fever after watching the way Utah (13-9) played in the closing minutes — and the way the vocal crowd became an enthusiastic "Sixth Man" that couldn't be stopped.
"This crowd here and the way our home fans are ... these guys appreciate how they support what we're trying to do here and have always supported this organization, this team and this group of guys," Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said after his team snapped a two-game mini-slump that featured losses to two other West Coast ball clubs.
"I think they fed off the fans. They got up and the guys really got energized after hearing the energy that the fans brought to them.
"I thought the fans gave us a tremendous boost," he said.
Speaking of an invaluable "Sixth Man," the Jazz had several of them who came in off the bench and provided superb performances in the victory.
Point guard Earl Watson, who missed Utah's lopsided loss at Golden State on Friday night with an ankle injury and wasn't expected to play Saturday, drilled two huge 3-pointers in the decisive fourth period, dished out a game-high 11 assists, came up with a couple of big steals and completely outplayed Laker counterpart Derek Fisher down the stretch.
"The crowd atmosphere was great," Watson said. "The fans are always positive here, always loud, and tonight we needed 'em extra loud and they came through."
Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, Utah's dynamic young duo of post players, scored a combined 22 points and pulled down 14 rebounds between them, shooting a combined 11-of-18 from the field, and did a terrific job of defending L.A. big man Andrew Bynum.
"They are going to get better as the season goes on," Watson said of Favors and Kanter. "They are young, neither one is 21 yet, and they are going to continue to be healthy. So we just stay together and continue to build their game and get better as the year goes on."
Veteran forward Josh Howard also scored in double figures with a dozen points as Utah's bench dominated L.A. in scoring by an impressive 49-12 margin.
"Me and him came in and played good defense," Favors said of the role he and Kanter played in the win. "But I think Coach (Corbin) trusts us a little bit, so we come in and play defense, rebound, and score when we get the opportunity.
"The crowd, we've got the best fans in the NBA. They always help us out; when the game's on the line, they keep us in games."
Especially in a playoff-type atmosphere in early February.
email: [email protected]