As the Lakers win Game 4 of their series with the Jazz tonight, completing the series sweep, they’ll enter the Western Conference riding a six-game winning streak. Even though they’ve played very well over that span, there’s still a looming concern for the purple and gold as they prepare to face the Suns.
They lack the killer instinct.
Three of the four wins for the Lakers in the semifinals came with fairly comfortable margins, but there was one overarching theme that defined all four of the contests. In each game, LA would get out to a fast start, outpacing Utah by double digits in the first or second quarter. Certainly, it’s a good sign that they start games on the right foot.
That said, lethargy, too, has struck in each game — and it nearly got the better of the Lakers in Game 3. The Lakers would continually fall into second-half lulls, allowing the Jazz to come back within reach of a victory.
For the defending champions to advance to the Finals and defeat the Suns, they will need to avoid succumbing to any such stretches of difficulty. Playing Phoenix, it is likely Phil Jackson will work hard to get the ball inside to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who can outmuscle Suns post defenders like Amar’e Stoudemire, Channing Frye, and Louis Amundson. Accordingly, those high-percentage shots will spring them out to appreciable leads early in games.
Phoenix is not an easy foe to put down, however. On the strength of its transition play, early-scoring mindset, and lights-out perimeter shooting, the team can bounce back in a hurry from sizable deficits. At the center of those comebacks will be Steve Nash, who showed his toughness in the Suns’ sweep-ensuring Game 4 against the Spurs.
He will run Derek Fisher ragged, and the Lakers will be running on empty toward the end of the game. That’s where Kobe will need to step in and deliver the final knockout blows. He needs to regain that killer instinct he hasn’t shown so far in the postseason.
You know who has shown that murderous intent so far in the playoffs? The Orlando Magic. They’ve obliterated the competition, making the considerable Hawks look like a D-League team. They continue to pile on the points and don’t stop until the job is done.
So the Lakers have something to learn from their potential Finals counterparts in the West: keep applying pressure until there’s nothing more than charred remains of your opponent.
Otherwise, they may find a way to come back and haunt you.