Two years ago, when they won the title in 2010, the Lakers were the team that came back and won games like the one they lost Saturday. Back then it was the Lakers closing on a 25-7 run and getting the defensive stops. It was Kobe Bryant hitting the big shots. It was their opponents buckling under pressure and making bad passes or taking bad shots. Meanwhile Lakers role players stepped up and made plays.
Now, the script is flipped. The Thunder are the better team and in this series they have been the more poised at the end of games. The Thunder athletes are “gambling” according to the Lakers, but when it works we call that “making plays.” The Lakers were not. In Game 4 Kobe was 2-10 in the fourth quarter and took the offense out of rhythm too much, Pau Gasol made a horrific pass and the Lakers never adjusted to Andrew Bynum being fronted in the post.
The Lakers seem to be eroding, much as we saw against Dallas last year when the Lakers were swept out of the second round of the playoffs. Chemistry issues between Kobe and Pau Gasol are flaring up. Based on history, you expect that if the Thunder can get up by about 10 at some point in Game 5 they can run away with it.
Still, the Lakers could win Game 5. This series has been close. They know the formula — slow down the game and don’t let the Thunder get easy transition points. Los Angeles needs to not let Westbrook penetrate off the pick-and-roll and force the Thunder to their second options. Help on Kevin Durant but be smart about it.
And the Lakers need to use Gasol wisely on offense. Mike Brown has not really handled him well all season. As Andrew Bynum emerged and thanks to the Lakers lack of outside shooting Gasol became a floor-spacing facilitator not a guy who got his numbered called. Bynum got the rock on the block, Kobe just took touches wherever he wanted, and Gasol was left to fend for himself. Which never really works as he is passive in that situation by nature.
The Lakers need to run sets for him, get him going early, force the Thunder to adjust then take advantage of the mismatches. Gasol and Bynum need to own the glass. They need to be big forces on defense.
But after the last two series, do you really see the Lakers doing that for 48 minutes on the road? Exactly.
One last time we can thank the lockout for the joys of a condensed schedule — the Lakers and Thunder are going to play the rare playoff back-to-back the next two nights.
Which clearly favors the younger legs and better athletes of the Thunder. It’s going to be a lot harder for the Lakers to control the tempo and limit the Thunders transition points in Game 4.
With the Lakers already down 0-2, that makes Game 3 basically a must win.
Los Angeles feels it should have won Game 2, up 7 with two minutes left, but a Kobe Bryant turnover that led to a Kevin Durant dunk, a Steve Blake turnover, a Durant three and… it snowballed.
Thing is, the Lakers need to basically have the same game again and this time just close it out.
The Lakers did a great job dictating the tempo of Game 2. Big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol did a great job being aggressive on the pick-and-roll cutting off Russell Westbrook’s path to the basket. The result was an isolation heavy, disjointed Thunder offense. The second best offense in the NBA regular season (by points per possession) was held to 77 points.
Look for OKC to counter by just trying to get out and run, and to have better counters on their pick-and-roll. And I just have a feeling the answer will be more James Harden, their best playmaker.
Oklahoma City is the better team. History says that teams that start a series winning the first two win nearly 95 percent of the time. But expect a desperate Lakers team on Friday night. This is still a team with rings, a team with pride that believes they still can win it. Win it all. They are not going to roll over.
And they know this is must win.
There is very little Lakers fans can take away from Los Angeles’ seven-game series win over Denver that should make them think they have much of a shot against Oklahoma City.
Everything Denver did to the Lakers in transition OKC can do as well and with better athletes.
But Andrew Bynum thinks there is a chance. Here is what he told Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register.
Bynum vowed to stay focused on defense first, seeing at least four blocks each game from him as a key to advancing now and later….
“We’ll win this championship,” Bynum said, “if we commit to defense.”
First off, instead of “we” Bynum needed to say “I.” While the Lakers as a whole had some off defensive games against Denver that started with Bynum, particularly in transition defense where Denver big men — we’re looking at you, Kenneth Faried — just ran down the court faster than Bynum and got good looks because of it. We’ll get into the games where Bynum didn’t bother with defensive rotations in the half court another time (he was hit and miss in the series and Ty Lawson was the beneficiary).
The Lakers problem is that while OKC is right there with Denver in transition (the Nuggets shot 63 percent in transition last season, the Thunder 60.7 percent, according to MySynergySports.com) the Thunder are far better in the half court if the Lakers do slow it down. Oh, and the Thunder are a better defensive team, also. Los Angeles cannot take a game off and still win this series.
But Bynum is right in the sense that if the Lakers don’t focus and play better defense they don’t stand any chance in this series. He can worry about winning a ring after that.