Old rivals Lakers, Jazz back together in playoffs

For Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, this third time isn’t particularly charming.For the third straight postseason, the Utah Jazz have run into the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol ended Utah’s last two playoff runs, and the franchise with 15 NBA titles again is blocking the Jazz’s pursuit of their first.Although Utah finished just four games behind the top-seeded Lakers in the overall Western Conference standings, Boozer knows his scrappy but injury-tagged team isn’t given much of a shot to hold off Bryant and his playoff-tested crew in the second-round series, which starts with Game 1 on Sunday at Staples Center.”We’re underdogs again,” Boozer said Saturday before flying to Los Angeles. “We’re undermanned again. I don’t know I’ve ever been anything other than the underdog. I know it’s not the easiest position to be in, but it’s the position that we’re in.”Bryant didn’t exactly spend the Lakers’ 39-hour gap between playoff games studying up on fifth-seeded Utah after Los Angeles finally eliminated Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in six games. Boozer and Williams are more experienced than the Thunder’s dynamic duo and more familiar with the Lakers, although they’re on equally short rest after knocking off Denver on Friday night.”No scouting report necessary for either team,” Bryant said. “We know their offense inside-out. They know our offense inside-out, as well as the defense. We’ve played each other so many times, including preseason. We’re just extremely, extremely familiar with each other.”These franchises have more in common than their geographically bizarre nicknames – which would actually make a whole lot more sense if they swapped.The Lakers have met the Jazz in five previous postseasons dating to 1988. The winner reached the NBA finals each time, from Utah’s Stockton-and-Malone powerhouses in the late 1990s to Bryant’s last two Los Angeles clubs.The Lakers are virtually unchanged from last year, with only Ron Artest added to the mix of last season’s champions who routed Utah in five games in last spring’s first round. The Jazz came back impressively from that disappointment, jumping into the conference title picture this spring behind a breakout season from Williams, a first-time All-Star.”Any time you’re playing the Lakers, it’s a tough task,” Williams said. “But we do feel a lot more confident than we have in the past. We feel like we’re a tougher team this year, mentally and physically. We finally answered a lot of the questions people have about this team.”The Jazz’s biggest changes have been forced by recent injuries, which could be the prevailing theme of the series’ first two games at Staples Center before a three-day break as the series shifts to Utah.Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko likely is out for at least the first two games while he recovers from the strained left calf that sidelined him late in the regular season. Center Mehmet Okur already is out for the postseason, while Williams also has a bruised elbow that could limit him in Game 1.Utah still eliminated the fourth-seeded Nuggets with relentless effort from their roster stacked with overachieving role players around Williams and Boozer.”It gives us a little bit of confidence,” Boozer said. “It gives us something to set our hat on a little bit. We’ve continued to improve even though we’re missing Memo and we’re missing A.K.”Utah has excelled on the road in big games in recent years, winning a first-round playoff series without a homecourt advantage in three of the past four postseasons. Yet the Jazz have lost 14 straight games to the Lakers at Staples Center, including three playoff losses in each of the past two seasons.Los Angeles won the regular-season series 3-1, and clearly has plenty of confidence against Utah coach Jerry Sloan’s time-tested approach. The Lakers’ height and size underneath would be difficult for the Jazz even if Okur was healthy.”They try to take care of us early and put us in trouble,” Sloan said. “That’s one of the things that’s hurt us as much as anything – how we get started.”Yet the Thunder didn’t allow Los Angeles’ twin 7-footers Gasol and Andrew Bynum to slow them down, stretching the Lakers until their last-second victory in Game 6 on Gasol’s cerebral tip-in of Bryant’s miss. Even the Lakers agree they feel more vulnerable this season, prone to even more inconsistent play than the 2009 club described by Bryant as “bipolar.”Bynum also might be limited in the series after aggravating a tiny tear in the meniscus in his right knee during the series clincher in Oklahoma City. If he can’t play much, Lakers coach Phil Jackson likely would use Lamar Odom in a smaller lineup that could be more to Utah’s liking.Jackson was forced to deploy Bryant to slow down the speedy Westbrook at times in the first round. Williams also is probably too fast for starting point guard Derek Fisher – another challenge the Lakers must address to succeed.”It’s great for us to get through it and understand that we’re not the best thing since sliced bread,” Artest said. “We actually have to work. We can’t fall asleep, and we did that tonight. Every time we fall asleep, we get punished.”

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