Winning ugly is still winning, so in the case of the 87-79 Lakers victory, I’m very happy. The Lakers now have a 1-0 lead in their first round series against the Thunder and that bodes well for their future success in this match up. Phil Jackson has never lost a series (44-0) where his team has won the opening contest and the Lakers game one effort against the Thunder is now the 45th series in which Jackson’s team has pulled out an opening game win. Whether or not the Lakers can continue that streak remains to be seen, but if today’s game was any indication, it will be tough for the Thunder to win 4 times in the next 6 games. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves some as there is plenty to discuss about this first game.
This game truly was a defensive battle. Neither team reached 90 points and the Lakers’ 41% shooting was only a hair better than the Thunder’s 40.3% from the field. The Lakers held the Thunder to an offensive rating of 94.1 which is 15 points below their season average. And the key to all of this was Ron Artest’s defense on Kevin Durant. As the primary defender on KD, Artest helped to hold Durant to 24 points on 24 shot attempts with 4 turnovers. And when you separate out Ron’s defense from the other Lakers that got time on Durant, you see that KD only went 4-18 from the field for 9 points – excluding FT’s (per ESPN stats and information). That is a tremendous effort from Artest and should be applauded. When you can hold one of the most dynamic scorers in the NBA to 22% from the field that is saying something. But, I should also add that Durant did the Lakers a big favor by continuing to rely on long jumpers in isolation situations. Based off his regular season stats, Durant shot only 40% from the field in isolation situations but took a bit over 25% of his shots in those exact scenarios. Coming into this series, I mentioned that this would be a major factor in whether or not Durant would be successful and today that held true. If KD is going to be content with settling for long jumpers with Ron playing him in close proximity, I’m unsure as to whether he’ll play substantially better than he did today.
And while the Thunder struggled on offense, the Lakers numbers weren’t much better (offensive efficiency of 103.6). Just like Durant, the Lakers main perimeter threat also struggled with the solid one on one and team defense that he encountered. Kobe needed 19 shots to score his 21 points, missed 5 of his 12 free throw attempts, and never really found his groove with his outside shot. If not for him nailing 2 of his 5 three point attempts (one of them a dagger around the 6 minute mark), his 43.2% true shooting mark would have been even worse. However unlike Durant, Kobe did move away from shooting the long jumper and found ways to get better shots and be effective on offense. Kobe worked the post and attacked the basket and ended up taking 8 of his 19 shots from within 12 feet (making half of those attempts). Taking advantage of his time against James Harden in post up situations, Kobe made a couple of nice turn around jumpers, drove hard to the paint to take short bank shots, and did not settle as often as we’ve seen him in the past. So while Kobe didn’t necessarily have an advantage, he squeezed every ounce out of his match ups that he could and persevered to be as effective as he was in this game.
But, just as both teams superstars had their struggles, both teams’ secondary players did have good games. For the Thunder that meant Russell Westbrook. After missing his first 2 shots, Russ found his effectiveness rather quickly and got into the paint to make his next six. Westbrook terrorized the Lakers in the open court by racing through their transition D and using his superior athleticism to get defenders on their heels and finish at the rim. Aided by the Lakers’ poor offensive balance and missed long jumpshots, Westbrook was able break free and not allow the Lakers to “build the wall” in transition that would limit his driving lanes. Overall, Russ scored 23 points on 16 shots and 64.8% true shooting. He was (literally) the driving force behind this game being as close as it was from the Thunder’s perspective. If the Lakers want to make life easier on themselves in the upcoming games, they’ll need to do a better job of transitioning from offense to defense and getting secondary defenders back to help in cutting off his angles to the rim.
As for the Lakers, their offensive and defensive success was built on the shoulders of Gasol and Bynum. The two Lakers bigs played very well inside and combined to put up 32 points, grab 25 rebounds, and block 7 shots (while contesting many others). The return of Bynum was especially significant as he was the catalyst on the interior. On multiple possessions he established deep post position and made himself a good target for post entries. He finished in the lane with authority and on one play in particular got the crowd (and the Lakers’ bench) off their feet with a powerful dunk executed off a fantastic seal of his defender and then a strong drop step to the middle. And Bynum’s presence allowed Gasol more freedom on offense. While Pau was not as dominant as hoped in the post against Green, the big Spaniard did continue stroking his silky mid range jumper and was able to score on the block with enough consistency that OKC never really had an answer for him. The Lakers will need to find a way to get Pau more post touches and incorporate more actions within the Triangle to combat the Thunder’s fronting tendencies, but that’s what the game film is for. But when it comes right down to it, with Pau making his jumper and drawing help on his post ups and Bynum occupying space and collapsing the defense on the other low block, the Lakers set the foundation for their success on offense. And with both of them patrolling the paint on defense, the Thunder only grabbed 9 offensive rebounds (on 43 missed shots) and missed good interior looks because of those long outstretched arms.
In the end, was this a pretty game? No. The Lakers didn’t shoot well and had some defensive lapses that will need to be improved upon. But, in a game like this, it’s nit picking to try and find too much fault in the Lakers’ performance. The Lakers made Kevin Durant work for all of his points and made every member of the Thunder (save Westbrook) play against their strengths. Offensively, the Lakers will need to improve on getting the ball inside with more consistency, but (as I mentioned) some time in the film room should help that considerably. So even though there are adjustments to be made, having to make them while possessing the lead in the series is a much better position to be in than vice versa. And having Phil Jackson being the mind behind making the adjustments helps too. His record speaks for itself there. So now, we wait for game two. But in the meantime, enjoy this first game. The Lakers earned a win have taken the series lead. And being able to say that never gets old.