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Let’s play: You wanted ‘em, now Jazz have ‘em: the Lakers

SHARE Let’s play: You wanted ‘em, now Jazz have ‘em: the Lakers

Admit it, Jazz fans. You wanted the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Portland Trail Blazers? Too dumb to survive in the postseason, a fact they proved in blowing Game 4 on Friday night.No, Jazz vs. Lakers is the matchup you want to see, if you prefer a series that can go seven games and provide dramatic individual duels, not to mention constant reminders from the media sophisticates of La-La Land about what a bunch of rubes we are up here along the Wasatch.

The Jazz, naturally, won't say they're glad to face the Lakers - after all, how glad can you be to play a team with a diesel for a center? - but after five days of inactivity and grumpy practices, they're ready to play somebody.

"We were looking forward to playing whomever as quickly as possible," said forward Adam Keefe.

Karl Malone said he could envision this matchup coming during the offseason, when the Lakers signed free-agent center Shaquille O'Neal.

"I knew when they signed him, if pieces got put in place, they'd have as good a shot as anybody," Malone said. "I didn't say, `Oh, my,' just that I thought the West would be tougher than ever."

Most people expect this series to come down to what kind of defensive job the Jazz can do on O'Neal, and that should be a huge factor, but the coaches stressed in a short practice Saturday that the Lakers' other players can't be overlooked.

"We emphasized that the Lakers got every loose ball, every timely putback Friday night," said assistant coach Gordon Chiesa.

"These guys get a lot of hustle plays," Malone said of the Lakers. "The little things are what are going to win this series."

Still, O'Neal is going to present a challenge to the Jazz's relatively diminutive centers. O'Neal is 7-foot-1 and weighs 300 pounds (at least). According to the teams' official statistics, O'Neal has a mere 20-pound advantage over Jazz starting center Greg Ostertag, but one look at the pair side-by-side will tell you something's wrong with that picture. Utah's backup centers, Antoine Carr and Greg Foster, are shorter and slimmer, respectively, than Ostertag.

"He presents a huge problem," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "He's playing better now then he has all year long."

"We're not going to stop him," Malone said. "We're just going to try to get in his way sometimes."

Chiesa said the key to defending someone like O'Neal is concentration.

"With any of the great centers you have to mentally prepare yourself to take him on," he said. "Obviously, that's much harder done than said. The answer is try to slow him down. If we let O'Neal post-up inside consistently, he's going to make plays at will."

O'Neal is not the only Laker with low-post ability, however. Elden Campbell can play in the paint, and Sean Rooks is better than the number of minutes he played this season.

"They're bigger than we are at every position," Sloan said. "That presents a problem right off the bat. Usually big bodies have a tendency to wear you down."

Early in the season, there were those who criticized the Laker bench. But that was before rookies such as Derek Fisher and Travis Knight and Kobe Bryant proved they could play, and before veterans such as Jerome Kersey and Byron Scott proved they weren't washed-up.

Sloan said people also shouldn't be deceived by the fact the Lakers finished as just the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.

"If they'd had all their people healthy, they might have won 70 games," the Jazz coach said.

One question today's Game 1 should answer is whether it was a good thing for the Jazz to sweep the Clippers and have five days "off" between games.

"Sometimes it's not so good to have five or six days off," said Malone, who noted the Jazz went through some of the most intense practices of his career this week, "because sometimes that steamroller gets going and it's hard to shut it down. They're going to try to come in and make a statement the first game."