The Lakers were up 7 points with 2 minutes to go. And lost.
And by lost, I mean lost any real chance at the series. Do you really think the Lakers can win four of the next five games? The Thunder are the better team, the Lakers could not afford to give away a game, they could not afford any mental lapses.
But “mental lapse” pretty much defines the Lakers final two minutes. However, one of those mistakes was not Metta World Peace’s pass to Steve Blake for an open three with the game on the line. That was smart basketball. The mistakes were a whole host of decisions in the minutes before that — including a number of poor choices by Kobe Bryant. That final play itself was a desperation play design with 5.9 seconds left which would not have led to a better shot than the one Blake took.
It was a lot of bad choices. Andrew Bynum summed it up best, via Lakers reporter Mike Trudell.
“Man that was crazy. We’re better than Santa Claus, we like giving out gifts. We give out games, contracts and rings.”
This used to be how the Lakers would win games — staging improbable comebacks with a combination of luck, brains and good shot making. Now that’s the Thunder.
Lakers fans and media seem to be focusing on the final play, when down 1 with 5.7 seconds left Blake took an open corner three rather than the team forcing the ball to Kobe with a pass over the top of an athletic defense.
But that’s not where they lost it. That’s just where they didn’t hang on.
The Lakers lost it when they shot 25 percent in the fourth quarter overall and scored just 12 points. They lost it by straying from going to Bynum in the last couple minutes. The Lakers lost it with turnovers. They lost it with bad shots. The Lakers lost it in the minutes leading up to Blake’s shot, not on the shot itself.
Fans saying Kobe didn’t get the chance to make the heroic final shot miss the point that the Lakers would not have needed to if Kobe had played better in the couple minutes prior to that. Kobe made one terrible pass for a turnover to Durant that led to a dunk. He had another pass — a poorly timed one by Blake — go off his hands. Kobe rushed and airballed a three pointer with six seconds left on the shot clock after a play became scrambled, when he had time to get a better look.
Then there was the Lakers and Kobe’s biggest strategic mistake. Kevin Durant hit what would be the game winner with 18.6 seconds left on the clock. The Lakers called a timeout and what should have been discussed in that huddle was that the Thunder had a foul to give.
Instead, the Lakers came out and (after another timeout) threw the ball to Kobe who dribbled it out and made his isolation move with 7 seconds left and then got fouled by Thabo Sefolosha, stopping the clock with 5.7.
Kobe had to go earlier. Draw that foul earlier. Or, get a better shot earlier with the ball in his hands. It is a simple truth — you would rather have the lead and defend a last second shot than have to make one against pressure defense. The Lakers had Kobe dribbling the ball out for nearly 11 seconds rather than using that time for a play that could have gotten them a better look. So what if they had to defend a Durant hero ball shot after that? It’s always better to have the lead. It’s always better to have to defend a last shot.
So let’s talk about that final play — the Lakers have run it before and it’s not pretty. (Follow that link to see it fail against New Orleans.) The play has Kobe coming off a flare screen and going to the corner of the court opposite where Metta World Peace was inbounding to catch a risky pass over the top of the defense. Mike Brown said after the game Kobe was open, but he was not yet. That pass would have been dangerous at best.
Even when it goes well this play calls for a 30-foot pass over the top of an athletic defense so that Kobe can take a 20+ foot shot fading away from the basket. That’s the play that’s going to win you a game?
The look that Blake got was a good one — an open shot with his feet set that is better than some 25-foot off-balance Kobe leaner. Yes, Blake was cold, but Kobe wasn’t exactly hot in the final minutes. Blake has to take that, and we can’t blame World Peace for making that pass, he made the right basketball play. The shot just didn’t fall.
We can discuss how there seemed to be no thought to getting either of the Lakers good passing 7-footers the ball in that spot. But the final shot was a good look.
The Lakers came in to Thursday night with a better defensive plan, they ground down the pace, they hedged on Durant’s curls and forced the issue with both him and Russell Westbrook. The Thunders stars and scoring machines were passing a lot. Mike Brown made some good moves.
But he can’t escape some blame for those final minutes. Neither can Kobe. Neither can any of the Lakers players. This was a team loss in the final two minutes.
Those minutes cost them any real shot at the series.