Monson: Only excess of toughness can negate deficit of talent

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Los Angeles

Conclusion after Game 1 here: The only thing that can beat the Lakers in their semifinal playoff matchup with the Jazz is ... drawing a conclusion about their preeminence too soon.


Not us.

We can see the truth for what it is, even in a five-point margin. The Lakers have to play along, in their minds at least, that the Jazz are a legitimate threat. And they are -- but only if the Lakers get goofy.

They did exactly that over stretches in Sunday's opener at Staples Center, but not enough to suffer the consequences of a loss, only to have to extricate themselves from trouble in a 104-99 victory.

In a sense, the Lakers got the best of both worlds in Game 1: They took a wake-up call, without paying a steep price for it. They got slapped, without losing consciousness.

The Lakers' bench, in particular, blew apart at the start of the fourth quarter, squandering a comfortable lead that turned into a four-point deficit, by way of terrific plays by Paul Millsap and the rest of the Jazz second-teamers.

"I am disappointed in our energy today," Lamar Odom said. "Our collective energy as a [reserve] unit is really suspect."

In the first game of a new playoff series?

Stuff like that is precisely what can hurt the Lakers -- with help from the plucky Jazz, who do not have the talent of L.A., but who will not simply fade away.

Still, the most talented Laker of all, Kobe Bryant, took over down the stretch, righting the game's wrongs, by scoring 13 fourth-quarter points, with help from Pau Gasol (five points) and Odom (four).

"I felt that [Kobe] just put the game on his shoulders," said Phil Jackson.

That, then, is the Jazz's tall order in this series -- eclipsing the Lakers' advantages. Let's say it the way it is: They're not as good as L.A. That much was plain to see when the game started and when it ended.

Afterward, Jerry Sloan said he hoped the Jazz could "come with enough toughness to withstand their toughness." He followed that with: "They are very long for us to deal with."

But then he struck the initial theme, again, saying the Jazz have to find some backbone: "You can't accept getting your nose rubbed in the dirt."

Jazz toughness will play a role here, but it's not toughness against toughness as much as toughness against greater talent, greater size.

Despite missing an opportunity Sunday -- they went five straight fourth-quarter possessions without a score -- the Jazz are fundamentally flawed against the Lakers. On the defensive end, they aren't long enough to stop them. On the offensive end, they struggle to shoot over them.

L.A. hit 53 percent from the floor, including a ridiculous 15-for-19 in the first quarter. The Jazz shot 44 percent. The Lakers blocked seven shots, including two swats in the closing minutes, while the Jazz blocked only two attempts. The Lakers beat the Jazz on the boards, too.

"It's an advantage that we have," Gasol said.

Deron Williams, who led the Jazz with 24 points, correctly added there was nothing his team could do about the Lakers' superior length, "unless we're going to grow another three inches tomorrow."

They can play more physical.

Sloan, after all, was asked if he, in his prime, could have slowed Bryant, and his response was: "Maybe not, but he would spend more time on his ass."

OK, that's a lie. He didn't actually say it, but who doubts he would have thought it?

That draws the lines in this series, all tidy and neat.

The Lakers can't ease up.

The Jazz can't give up.

If neither happens, this thing is a foregone conclusion.


hosts the "Monson and Graham Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at