The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday, 112-106.
In five years, that’s all that will remain from this game, in searched box scores. Those are the facts. But what happened is such a bigger story.
I’ve been sitting here struggling to find a way to accurately portray this game. Can you deny that the Lakers played a fantastic round of basketball down the stretch, with Kobe Bryant putting in a virtuoso performance even for him? You can’t. Can you ignore the fact that the Lakers not only took out the Thunder’s third best player, but a player who specifically would have helped the Thunder hold on to an 18 point lead late in the game by not committing turnovers and creating offense, as is his role? You can’t. Can you ignore the work of Jordan Hill? You can’t. Can you ignore that MWP’s actions handicapped the Thunder and the Lakers still needed double-overtime, a terrible night from Durant, and an “Oh My God”-awful night from Westbrook to survive? You can’t.
It’s all these things. This is the NBA. It’s complicated, it’s dramatic, and it’s intense. It’s playoff season.
Ron Artest’s elbow to the head of James Harden was part of why the Lakers won. It wasn’t the entirety. Let’s do bullet-points, because honestly, my brain’s fried from that thriller.
- Again, Kobe Bryant played one of his best games of the season. He went into hero mode, to be certain. There were bad shots. But for the most part, he worked Thabo Sefolosha down and cranked it over him at the elbow or wing. They weren’t hoist-em-up 40-footers. He also posted and re-posted Gasol and found Steve Blake. He shut down Russell Westbrook by forcing him to the worst spots on the floor. When Bryant plays like that, the Lakers are nearly unstoppable.
- James Harden’s primary contributions are running an efficient offense and thereby limiting turnovers, creating open looks, and being able to score. Down the stretch, the Thunder needed cohesive offense and a few more scores to win in regulation, or overtime. Or double overtime. Harden wouldn’t have stopped Kobe Bryant. A nuclear weapon wasn’t stopping Kobe Bryant Sunday. But he might have given the Thunder a lift in their biggest area of concern, offense.
- Jordan Hill’s performance speaks volumes. His rebound rate was exceptional. He gave the effort the Lakes needed and did not get from Andrew Bynum. Hill was a toss-in for the Fisher trade and yet made a massive contribution in a key game for the Lakers.
- Pau Gasol’s mid-range game was highly effective over Serge Ibaka, while attempts to go inside failed.
- Kevin Durant was off today. He got good looks, took some bad shots, but like Kobe, they’re shots he can hit. 11-34 from the field, the most shots he has ever taken.
- Russell Westbrook was also off. Bryant did a great job on him defensively, but the pull-up jumpers off the pick and roll are a shot that he’s going to hit at a higher clip than 3-22. The Thunder could have really used another option down the stretch. Like a talented shooting guard who can run an offense, score, distribute, and make plays. Someone with a beard who… oh, right.
- Steve Blake was massive for the Lakers. When he hits those corner threes, the Lakers’ offense is a different animal.
So to review: The Lakers got a monster win that clinched no-worse-than-4th for them in the West. With Harden, without Harden, it was a win. That’s what matters.
As for a playoff series? If we’re to use Sunday’s game as a model, the Lakers just need to make sure Durant and Westbrook shoot 14-56, that Stave Blake hits monster threes, that Jordan Hill gives a huge performance, that Devin Ebanks makes critical plays, that Kobe Bryant goes off at an even higher than normal level, and that James Harden is knocked out by an illegal elbow shot to the head.
Like everything in the NBA, it’s complicated.
The playoffs start in five days.