The Lakers-Thunder series promised a showdown between two of the best defensive teams in the Western Conference and two of the best scorers in the league. When Durant and Kobe struggled on Sunday, the game became an ugly, grind-it out affair. On Tuesday night, both Durant and Kobe showed up. The result was one of the best first-round games so far.
Before the game, Phil Jackson talked about how he wanted to establish the Lakers’ inside game and had become concerned about Kobe Bryant’s number of shot attempts. Naturally, Kobe came out gunning, and the Lakers didn’t even make their first entry pass into the post until four minutes had gone by in the quarter.
Kobe made a contested jumper on the Lakers’ first possession of the game, and was clearly looking to get himself going early. He had mixed results in the first half, going 6-16 from the field, but his confidence ended up paying major dividends late.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant was out to remind the viewing public that he didn’t win the scoring title by accident. He made a big adjustment in his offensive game, getting his catches backing down Artest in the mid-post area and rising over him for 15-20 foot jumpers rather than relying on off-ball movement and screens to free him up with good looks on the perimeter. When I asked him about this after the game, Durant said that “I was trying to mix it up a little bit. Artest is so strong, it’s hard to post him up. But I was able to use my length a little bit to shoot over him. It’s about playing physical, and I think I did a better job of that on both ends of the ball tonight.
Durant still wasn’t able to have success at the rim in game two, going 2-6 on shots at the rim and only shooting six free throws all night. In fact, Durant had serious problems whenever he put the ball on the floor, as he turned it over eight times. Just by virtue of taking his mid-range shots closer to the basket and getting set up with some catch-and-shoot threes, Durant was able to drop 32 on the Lakers. If he can have this kind of success from the perimeter and find a way to get to the rim, he could explode.
Both the Thunder and the Lakers played great interior defensive. The Thunder only shot 10/22 from the paint, and the Lakers got blocked 17 times on their way to an 18/45 performance from inside the painted area. Seven Thunder players recorded a block on Tuesday, Kevin Durant had four, and rookie Serge Ibaka introduced himself to a national audience with seven blocks. And believe me, each of the seven were memorable. Ibaka’s been a fan favorite on Oklahoma City all year, and now a much wider audience has been introduced to Ibaka’s shot-blocking prowess.
The 17 blocks were somewhat of a two-edged sword for the Thunder. Thanks to the Lakers’ length advantage and the Thunder’s eagerness to go for the block, the Lakers absolutely dominated the Thunder on the boards. They had 19 offensive rebounds to the Thunder’s seven, and gave the Lakers second chances in crucial situations down the stretch.
There were other key mistakes by the Thunder that look bad in what turned out to be a one-possession game. Durant flubbed a wide-open fast-break slam in the first half. The Thunder turned it over with a chance to run out the clock at the end of Q1, allowing the Lakers to score. Russell Westbrook sent himself to the bench by tripping Derek Fisher with one second left on the shot clock and picking up his third foul. There were a few plays like throughout the game, all of which will likely cost Scott Brooks some sleep tonight.
As soon as Kobe Bryant came out to play the second half, he had that look in his eye. He started the quarter off with two deep, flat-footed threes from the left wing. He absolutely embarrassed Thabo Sefolosha with a gorgeous mid-post spin halfway through the quarter. When he re-entered the game with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter, he ripped off five points in 50 seconds to put the Lakers up four. Bryant ended up with 15 points in the fourth quarter. While Durant was holding his own trying to match Bryant’s production, the former MVP got the better of the 21-year old on Tuesday night.
After Bryant hit a contested jumper and a pair of free throws to push the Laker lead to four with 1:31 remaining, missed free throws by the Lakers left the door open for the Thunder. Shannon Brown split a pair, and Russell Westbrook came back down to draw a foul and make both free throws. After an OKC stop and a Jeff Green leaner in the lane, Kobe was intentionally fouled and split the pair to give the Thunder a chance to go for the tie or the win down two with 15 seconds to play. Scott Brooks elected to go for the win, and Durant missed a three-point attempt off a screen that would have given the Thunder the lead. After Pau Gasol split yet another pair of free throws, the Thunder had no timeouts and seven seconds to get a three. They set Jeff Green up with a good look behind a back-screen, but no dice. Lakers lead the series 2-0.
There are some problems with this Laker team. They can neglect to use their bigs and exploit their size advantage inside. Artest and Fisher will take things off the table offensively. The bench is paper-thin. Even Kobe isn’t quite as dominant on a night-in, night-out basis as he once was.
But this Laker team manages to find ways to win as well as any team I can ever remember seeing. When they miss a big shot, they come up with the offensive rebound. When they need a stop, they get one. Artest, Fisher, and even Odom aren’t great three-point shooters, but they’re all capable of delivering a dagger three at the worst possible time for their opponents. And Kobe Bryant is pretty good when the game is on the line. The Lakers aren’t a juggernaut like they were last year or the year before, but somehow they keep winning basketball games. They did it in the regular season, and now they’ve done it in the playoffs. Call it luck, call it experience, call it skill. Whatever it is, the Lakers need to do it fourteen more times to repeat as NBA champions.