LOS ANGELES -- Early Tuesday evening, the Los Angeles Lakers filing into the Staples Center with jaws tight and patience thin, Jerry Sloan's weathered face cringed into the oncoming storm.
"They move you around," said Sloan. "They put you where they want to put you."
Yes, they can. Yes, they should.
And, for once, yes, they did.
On a night filled with powerful promise, a brilliant and bone-crushing Lakers put Sloan's Jazz where they want to put them in the conference semifinals -- down two games to none, with chances of a series comeback slim and none, after a 111-103 victory.
The Lakers also put their fans where they wanted to put them -- back in the championship dreaming business.
With four consecutive postseason victories, for the first time this spring, the Lakers are starting to resemble a team that could seriously challenge for the NBA championship. With Cleveland's LeBron James' suddenly nursing a sore elbow, with Orlando still being nutty Orlando, maybe there are enough cracks in the East for a powerful, cohesive Laker team to knock somebody down.
I'm not buying it yet. This is still battered Utah. This is still a Laker team that is 1-2 on the playoff road with the only win coming on a last-second shot. Andrew Bynum needs to survive another month on a torn knee, Derek Fisher needs to survive against more great point guards, Kobe Bryant needs to somehow stay young.
I'm not buying it yet. But a Staples Center crowd that roared with a renewed emotion even when the Lakers trailed early here Tuesday seemed to be buying it. More important, a Laker team that joyfully seemed to feed off each other's energy for one of the first times this postseason seemed to be buying it.
Bynum, in his second game since his knee tear was diagnosed, was lunging everywhere. Ron Artest, despite writhing on the ground with pain in his injured shoulder after taking a hard fall early, was swatting everywhere. Pau Gasol was so consistently effective that at one point, fans serenaded one of his foul-line appearances with "M-V-P, M-V-P!"
Then there's this: The last time the Lakers won four consecutive playoff games, they were four wins that spurred them to a championship, last season, at the end of the Western Conference finals against Denver and the beginning of the Finals against Orlando.
The game was typified late in the third quarter, with the Lakers leading by nine, the crowd screaming more encouragement when Shannon Brown threw up an open three-point attempt -- and missed into the hands of the Jazz.
But the cheers never stopped and the Lakers were like, so what? At the other end of the court, Bryant blocked Wes Matthews' shot and threw it back down to Brown, who finished with one of his trademark long-jump dunks to keep the building lit.
The Jazz threatened late, pulling as close as four with five minutes remaining, but Bryant loudly closed them out in the final minutes with a three pointer at the 24-second buzzer, a driving dunk, and an arena-wide glare.
"It's my responsibility when things get tight to make plays," said Bryant afterward.
For once, everyone on the Lakers seemed to share that responsibility, beginning with the folks who run the game activities.
Believe it or not, the Lakers released their old-fashioned brass band from their rafter hideaway and allowed them to play the national anthem. It was their first anthem this season. It was the best anthem I've heard this spring.
Then the Laker bedsheet dropped with a message that the Lakers needed to hear: "Together we are one."
Then one of basketball's hottest potential free agents showed up, guy by the name of Chris Bosh, walking around the floor just long enough for the Buss family to get a good look at him.
Then the game started, and it got better, the Lakers tugging and tossing each other as much as they shoved the Jazz.
When Bryant began arguing with referee Sean Corbin early, the only man in the building who can control him -- teammate Derek Fisher -- pulled him away. Later, there was more college-like teamwork when Lamar Odom blocked Carlos Boozer's shot, then Gasol blocked Boozer's shot, then, with the crowd roaring, Odom thumped Gasol in the chest.
Even Jack Nicholson, who has been quiet this spring, finally got involved, screaming at the officials late in the second quarter, cursing them out from the sidelines. While one would hope Nicholson would watch his mouth, his swagger becomes the fans swagger, which has helped the Lakers become almost unbeatable here in the postseason.
During the break after the first quarter, even with his team leading by four, Laker Coach Phil Jackson implored his team with, "You have a fight on your hands."
The Lakers then hit the Utah Jazz with their best shots of the spring. The championship fight has begun.