A welcome working week

Times Staff Writer

If it seems like forever since the Lakers last played, they feel that way too.

Their team dinner party at an Italian eatery on Melrose Avenue erupted in joy Friday night after Kobe Bryant was e-mailed a story that he had won the NBA most valuable player award, leading to a degree of jubilation that seemed to follow the team to practice Saturday.

After six days without a game, the Lakers are eager to go up against someone other than themselves. They'll play Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals today against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center . . . finally.

Bryant could hardly contain a smile after Saturday's practice, perhaps because this will be his first MVP award or possibly because the Lakers were actually close to restarting their playoff drive.

A day after buying his teammates dinner for the second time in as many weeks, a repetitive occasion that could start getting costly, Bryant said he was honored and enthralled to be MVP.

"I didn't know if it was going to come in my career, but to have the moment come now is special, especially to share it with the group of guys we have here," he said. "We talked about [how] winning this MVP is extremely special because that means I'm doing good. I'm making my teammates better, putting them in a position to win."

Bryant hasn't been given official notice because the league waits to inform a player and his team until a day or two before the award is presented, which probably will be Wednesday before Game 2 at Staples Center. On that note, Bryant said he was reserving more detailed comment until "I hear from David Stern."

Until then, the Lakers can think about that other event -- an actual game.

They haven't played since finishing a four-game sweep Monday in Denver. Utah, on the other hand, was still going until Friday night's Game 6 clincher over Houston.

"Usually by mid-game, you're OK," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said in reference to a long layoff. "A couple runs out there, and guys are back in form."

The Lakers went 3-1 against Utah this season, and they never played the Jazz with Pau Gasol in the lineup. The Lakers thumped Utah in the most recent meeting, 106-95, in March at Salt Lake City, despite playing without Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who were both sidelined by injuries.

Gasol probably will guard brawny Utah forward Carlos Boozer, and Lamar Odom is expected to match up against Jazz center Mehmet Okur, primarily a perimeter player.

The hardest defensive task will go to Derek Fisher, charged with stopping point guard Deron Williams.

Williams averaged 18.8 points and 10.5 assists during the regular season, and he had two stellar games against the Lakers -- a career-high 35-point effort in a November game and a 26-point, 12-assist outburst in that March loss.

Fisher also will carry the added weight of having played for Utah last season as an integral part of a team that advanced to the West finals before losing to San Antonio.

"I'm happy for the fact that they made it to this point, and a lot of the guys that were my former teammates and friends, so to speak, and coaches," Fisher said. "At this point, they stand in the way of my goal and our team's goal, and so that's about where the sentiment kind of ends for me."


Frank Hamblen will have another busy series.

Before the season, Jackson divvied up the 30 NBA teams among his four assistant coaches. Hamblen was put in charge of scouting and preparing game plans for Utah. He was also assigned to track Denver.

"These have been my teams all year long," Hamblen said, smiling. "The way it wound up is just the way it is."

Hamblen was the primary author of a three-to-four-page scouting report handed out to the Lakers on Saturday. There were notes on Jazz players as well as diagrams of Utah's plays.

"I enjoy staying up late and watching the film and putting it all together. You really know your [assigned] team," Hamblen said. "You try to play guessing games with your opposing coach and what he's going to run, what changes he's going to make, what he's going to do coming out of a timeout."

Of the playoff teams still alive, Hamblen is also in charge of Detroit. Assistant coach Kurt Rambis tracks San Antonio, Boston and Cleveland. Brian Shaw has Orlando and Atlanta, and Jim Cleamons has New Orleans.

Cleamons pulled off a rarity when the Lakers advanced to the 2004 NBA Finals. He was in charge of teams in three consecutive rounds -- Houston, San Antonio and Minnesota.


Forward Trevor Ariza will have a medical exam Friday that could clear him to play in games and practices. Ariza has been out since Jan. 20 because of a broken bone in his foot, though he was recently cleared to begin basketball-related exercises. . . . Luke Walton has an upper respiratory infection but is expected to play today. . . . An updated schedule released by the NBA listed Game 2 on Wednesday, not Tuesday. Tipoff will still be at 7:30 p.m. at Staples Center.


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