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Lakers can't finish it off
SALT LAKE CITY — It looked like a playoff game, felt like one too, and the only thing giving it away was a solemn group of Lakers slipping into their winter coats, slowly and quietly, before walking to the team bus in crisp late-November weather.
The Lakers didn't lose to the Utah Jazz as much as fade away in the final minute, unable to hang on to a seven-point lead they held at the start of the fourth quarter and falling, 114-108, in front of an animated selloutcrowd at EnergySolutions Arena.
This was an important foray for the Lakers, who had played eight of their first 11 games in safe Staples Center. They were rewarded with everything but a victory against the team with the best record in the league.
Lamar Odom was snakebit in the final two minutes, launching a three-pointer that somehow crawled out of the hoop, and missing a shot that the official scorer called a two-foot running hook, but, was, well, a layup.
"I put the blame on myself," said Odom, who had 26 points. "Missed. Rolled right out. Right around the rim and fell out. I'll be the goat tonight. I'll take the blame for that one. Basketball's a humbling game, a humbling experience, right? Those are plays I've got to make."
The Lakers made quite a few of them, enough to seriously threaten what had been the best start in Jazz history. The Lakers inched their way back from an 11-point deficit in the first quarter and maintained an 89-82 lead on Kobe Bryant's free throw with 11:49 to play.
But the Jazz (12-1) hammered away from there, eroding the Lakers possession by possession, as the rebounds continued to fall dramatically in Utah's favor, 45-27 by the end of the game.
On consecutive late trips to Utah's end of the court, the Jazz collected three offensive rebounds and turned them into a pair of 20-footers, one by Mehmet Okur and one by Deron Williams.
"We just didn't finish it out," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "But I told them they had nothing to be ashamed of except that rebound total when they look at it."
Bryant started off well enough, scoring 14 in the first quarter, but he had only two in the fourth quarter, missing all three of his shots and two of four free throws. Only one of those shots was inside the three-point arc, a 20-footer 47 seconds into the quarter. He finished with 27 points on nine-for-18 shooting.
Bryant looked good while blocking Williams' breakaway dunk attempt with 3:23 to play, but Jackson still sensed some weariness.
"He got tired," Jackson said. "Even his free throws were short. He had an open opportunity two or three times and the rest of his shots were short, so he got a little leg-weary."
Said Bryant: "In the fourth quarter, I kind of took on the role of a facilitator. Kwame played extremely well. Lamar got in rhythm. We're going to ride that momentum as much as we possibly could."
Kwame Brown, playing more than twice the minutes of an ineffective Andrew Bynum, had 15 points, three steals and three blocked shots. Bynum had only four points in 14 minutes.
Beforehand, as the Lakers blew into town on a four-game win streak and atop the Pacific Division, Jackson downplayed the importance of this one.
He did allow, grudgingly, that it was the type of game that "piques your interest."
He also briefly sized up the Western Conference contenders, putting Utah near, but not at, the top.
"I think Utah is a legitimate team," he said. "I don't think that they're going to win the West as far as the best record, but I think that they're going to be a good team out here.
"San Antonio's going to be one of them. I think Dallas is going to be up there. I think they'll probably return to the form that brought them 60 wins last year."
As for the Lakers, Jackson was very complimentary, up to a certain point. It wasn't a statement game, he proclaimed. One thing was missing.
"When we win these games, then it will be a statement."