SALT LAKE CITY - Happy to be home, the Utah Jazz is desperate for another chance on the road.
Utah hosts Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers, who lead 3-2 and can wrap it up by becoming the first road team to win in the series.
Los Angeles won at home, 111-104, on Wednesday night to move within a victory of clinching. The Jazz had its most competitive road performance of the series, but still couldn't overcome the Lakers - even as Kobe Bryant played conservatively with a bad back.
If the Jazz lose tonight, it won't get another chance.
"If we lose, we go home," Utah forward Matt Harpring said. "We certainly don't want to lose on our homecourt the last game of the year. No way."
The Lakers have the advantage of knowing a loss won't end their season.
They also know that eventually Bryant's back will be healthy enough for him to drive to the basket again. But the best thing for Bryant's back would be ending this series as soon as possible and letting him rest up before the Western Conference finals.
Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said Bryant and three other starters sat out yesterday instead of practicing. He added that Bryant, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol already know what they need to do in Utah, where the Jazz are 4-1 in the playoffs and went 37-4 in the regular season.
"The message is being under control. It's about execution at this point. It's about winning the game," Jackson said. "There's a lot of intensity. We probably have to play 10 points better than we did [Wednesday] night to win it."
Bryant was not available to reporters yesterday afternoon.
Odom said Bryant's performance in Game 5 was an example for the rest of the Lakers. The league MVP's back stiffened up in the fourth quarter and he did not attempt a field goal in the period, but still finished with 26 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
"Incredible, as always," Odom said. "Kobe made plays for us when he needed to."
The Jazz was pretty relaxed at practice, although still unhappy about Gasol's offensive rebound and dunk to put the Lakers up, 107-102, with 20 seconds remaining in Game 5. The Jazz felt Gasol shoved Mehmet Okur in the back before grabbing the rebound, but there was no foul called.
"You can't worry about that. If you keep that in your craw, then you're going to be affected by it in the next game," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "The biggest thing to do is to wipe it out and get ready to go [tonight]."
The Jazz couldn't blame the loss on Gasol's late rebound. It was one of six he pulled down in the game and all six were on offense.
Utah had several other missed opportunities, but still was within one point in the final minutes.
"You watch the tape of the game, you wish you could jump in the screen and play it all over again," said Carlos Boozer, who had 18 points and 12 rebounds. "I thought we had the opportunity to take the lead a few times, and looking back on it, it's definitely frustrating. You put the pressure on the home team if you get the lead."
Boozer said he and guard Deron Williams watched video from the game on the flight home. As difficult as it was, he said the Jazz showed it could hang with the Lakers in Los Angeles and would be confident playing a Game 7 there.
Now, Utah just has to force one.
"We've got two left with them," Boozer said. "We've got to win [tonight] to have the second one."
Williams has been averaging nearly 23 points and 11 assists in this series. He scored 27 on Wednesday and had 10 assists.
The rest of the Jazz hasn't been as consistent. Sloan said he was disappointed in some outside shots his players took quickly instead of setting up the offense and giving the inside players a chance at the rebound.
But he said overall, the Jazz's composure has improved each game.
"We're tough enough," Sloan said. "I think we've grown a lot in that area." *