I swapped questions with Chris over a SS&R for the series starting today. They don't have my answers to their questions just yet, but here is their response to mine:
1. The Lakers struggled down the stretch and had their hands full against the Thunder. What's the biggest reason(s) for their lack of dominating play late?
There are two reasons the Lakers struggled down the stretch. The first is injuries. Bynum missed a bunch of games down the stretch, but the far more important injuries were the ones slowing down Kobe Bryant. At one point this season, he at least 3 different injuries: his famously broken finger, a sprained ankle, and tendonitis in his knee. I'm not sure which injury was doing what, but it was turning Kobe into a shell of his former self. The other issue was shooting. The entire Laker team decided to go into a shooting slump together. Derek Fisher couldn't shoot, Ron Artest couldn't shoot, Kobe couldn't shoot, the bench couldn't shoot. Without that spacing, the triangle offense broke down, and the Lakers really struggled to pick up points. For whatever reason, both of these issues seem to be clearing up nicely. Fisher, and everyone else not named Ron Artest, have found their strokes, all the injuries are returned (though Andrew Bynum did pick up a new one, severity unknown) and Kobe has had games where he looks like Kobe again.
As for the Thunder, that's a different story. OKC was a struggle because they have the most athletic team in the league, and the comparison with the old guard on the Lakers was dramatic. That athleticism led to the Thunder getting a huge advantage at the line. I know a Lakers fan must tread carefully in questioning officiating, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't mention the FT disparity between games in Staples Center and the Ford Center was huge, with OKC getting 20+ more FT attempts in the three games in OKC. At Staples, the two teams shot FTs just about equally. The Ford Center's crowd was incredible, and that energy kept refs friendly and the Thunder in all their home games.
2. It doesn't seem to matter how poorly the Lakers might be playing, they always have a mental advantage over the Jazz. They definitely have the talent as well. How do you see them stepping things up in this series?
I don't know that the Lakers will step things up. In fact, it's more likely they'll step things down. I love the Lakers, but I'm not blind to the fact that this is an arrogant team, and they know exactly what they've done to the Jazz over the past few seasons. They'll see a Utah team decimated by injuries and think "We really only need to try in the 4th quarter". Sadly, they are also probably right. Over the past three years, Jazz-Lakers has not been a pretty sight for your side of the line. L.A. is 16-6 against the Jazz since 2008, and all 6 victories are in Utah. With three of the first 4 in L.A., Utah will have to be at their best just to get to a 3rd game at home in this series.
3. Deron has always played well against the Lakers. Outside of him, is there a player or players that concern you?
In a word, no. This isn't meant to disrespect the Jazz, who have some awesome pieces ... against other teams. Millsap and Boozer are both great, but they are also both stumpy short guys who struggle when matched up against a team with length. In my own site's preview, I said it was like the twin towers matching up with the twin basements. All the Jazz players that give L.A. trouble are sadly unavailable at least to start, and I think the real killer is Memo Okur. In order for Utah to have a good chance against L.A., you need the lane to be clear for Boozer, Millsap, and all those back cuts to work appropriately, and Fesenko isn't going to get it done.
4. You've had a full season and a playoff series with Artest. What are your thoughts on his contributions and would you rather have had Ariza at this point?
There are so many facets to this question. Last season, Ariza was crucial in the Lakers winning a championship, but he was crucial in a way I feel confident saying he couldn't repeat this year. Ariza is not a 50% 3 pt shooter, but that's what he provided in the L.A.'s title run last year. If you are asking about that Ariza, I'd take him in a heart beat. But, as Houston found out, Ariza is not that guy on a regular basis, at least not yet.
Watching Artest play in the triangle offense gives me an ulcer. He hasn't been able to shoot from the outside to save his life for months, and that's all we need him to do on that end really. So he's definitely causing the offense to struggle. But the defense ... the defense is incredible. Ariza was a nice defender, he did come up with those highlight steals last year, but Artest is by far the superior defender. Take a look at the comparison between Kevin Durant's regular season shooting numbers and his playoff shooting numbers for all the evidence you need of just how spectacular Artest was on that side of the court.
In this series, Artest's talents are wasted because Utah really doesn't have a wing threat. Hell, he may end up covering Deron Williams just because there's no one else on the perimeter worth his time. So Jazz fans might see his play and think the Lakers lost out on the swap, but they won't be seeing what Artest was brought in for. Artest was brought in for Melo (who won't be an issue now, thanks) and LeBron. Durant was a bonus. If he can regain even a bit of his shooting (and there were signs towards the end of the last series), I will be firmly in his corner on the Artest/Ariza question.
5. Finish this sentence: The Lakers will be in trouble in this series if...
The team plane crashes in Utah [ed. note: He said it, I didn't]? I shouldn't even joke about that, but other than a rash of injuries that evens the playing field, it's hard to see the Jazz giving L.A. much trouble.
I don't know about being in trouble, but the Lakers will struggle to beat the Jazz in Utah if they see 20+ FT disparities on the road again. The truth about the Thunder series is that, while OKC was a very good team, the Lakers likely would have swept the series if not for the FT disparity (statement contingent on the Thunder lying down in game 4 if game 3 were an LA victory, I'm not blaming a 20 pt game 4 loss on the refs). In Game 3, the Lakers lost by 5, and the Thunder shot an extra 24 free throws. I'm not screaming conspiracy, and whether the calls were justified or not is basically irrelevant. If Utah can force the same sorts of situations, and shoot 15-20 more FTs than L.A., they will be tough to beat in Utah. I expect it to happen once, but not twice, in the first two games in Utah.