Somewhere along the borders of Salt Lake County must lie a secret city — an underground city. Inside this city there are purple and gold banners hung about with posters praising Kobe Bryant, awaiting his annual return to Salt Lake City.
I’ve attended several Jazz vs. Lakers games at EnergySolutions Arena over the years, and each time it seems as though the number of fans wearing the purple and gold colors of the Lakers tends to rise. Wednesday’s contest, a 95-86 win for the Utah Jazz, was no different. The gates of East L.A. City, Utah, open for a short time during basketball season for these Utah Laker fans to converge on EnergySolutions Arena.
The Utah Laker fans make up 20-25 percent of the arena when the Los Angeles Lakers are in town, so in a year when these two teams play against each other only three times with only one game played in Salt Lake City, the necessity for the Jazz to beat the Lakers at home drastically increases. EnergySolutions Arena never stops being loud, but with so many Laker fans in attendance the cheers are loud for when the Lakers do something positive, dampening one of the best home court advantages in the NBA.
Winning games at home isn’t lost on the Jazz. They know, especially against the Lakers, the season will be tight and home wins can make the difference.
“The West is going to be tight all year,” Jazz guard Gordon Hayward said. “It’s good to get wins at home because playing teams on the road is tough so we’ve got to get all these at home.”
Hayward’s defensive play in the first half against the Lakers on Wednesday helped the Jazz jump to an early lead. He had three blocked shots and two steals, one of which he snatched from behind Lakers’ superstar Kobe Bryant. After taking the ball away from Bryant, Hayward sprinted down the court and finished the play with a two-hand dunk. The Jazz held Bryant to seven points in the first half.
“We were physical with [Bryant],” Hayward said. “We didn’t give him anything too easy to get him going.”
Hayward said the Jazz still need to learn to play defense without fouling. The Lakers attempted 46 free throws in the game, and Hayward himself fouled out of the game. He had already committed his fourth foul while there was still 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Even while shutting down the Lakers in the first half, Bryant and his teammates found a way to battle back into the game, bringing the 4,000-5,000 Laker fans to their feet and silencing the Jazz fans. The arena felt as though home court advantage had shifted — that is until Jazz guard Randy Foye shifted the balance right back. The Lakers had cut the lead to four points at 70-66, and then Foye nailed three consecutive 3-pointers to send the Jazz fans into a frenzy and the Laker fans back into their seats.
“It was real important,” Foye said. “We lost three in a row so it was real important to get back to our winning ways.”
Foye gave all the credit to his teammates in being able to find him open for those 3-point shots and help the Jazz pull away from the Lakers.
The Jazz split their home games with the Lakers in the previous three seasons, but in 2008 when the two teams played just one time in Salt Lake City, the Jazz won. That win in 2008 was important because the Jazz were the No. 8 seed in the playoffs that year. A loss at home to the Lakers could have been detrimental. Just like that year this was the only game of the season that will be played in Salt Lake City between the two teams. If the Western Conference turns out to be as tight as Hayward said it would be, look back to this home win for the Jazz. It was a win against one of the supposed elite teams in the conference, and it was also a win in an environment that didn’t feature “the loudest fans in the NBA.”