Holding on by a thread is still holding on. And after being able to hold on just long enough, the Lakers now find themselves up 2-0 after beating the Thunder 95-92 on Tuesday night. Just like game 1, this second contest of the series wasn’t always pretty (in fact, the majority of this one was quite the opposite), but the job got done. But even in the ugliest of games, there is still beauty.
And now because I can’t coherently wrap my mind around all the facets of this game, here’s a break down bullet style:
*Early the game, I thought Kobe was truly seeking out and looking to have one of those games. He was very aggressive with his shot and it seemed like he was really trying to find the rhythm that has eluded him for some time. And while he started out well – making 4 of his first 8 shots – that success would not last. However, as Kobe is known to do, he found ways to score the ball. He went to the line 15 times and made 13. He shot the three ball fairly well making 2 of his 5 attempts. In the end, his 28 shots were likely too many but he scored 39 points on the night and the Lakers needed every single one of them to win. The argument could be made that if Kobe spreads the ball around more and other players (namely Gasol) gets more looks that the Lakers like have more of a cushion throughout the game – and I really don’t disagree with that. But, this is the player that Kobe is. He’s willful in his approach and there will be games where his mindset is to put his stamp on the game. And in those contests you need him to be at least as effective as he was tonight if the Lakers are going to win. Personally, I’m glad he had a game like this in him.
*Pau Gasol continues to amaze me. 8-14 from the filed 9-13 from the FT line for 25 points. 12 rebounds (5 offensive) and two assists. And while he missed a crunch time FT and wasn’t as active on defense as he’s been in past games, he really played a great game. It’s not that he did anything spectacularly, but just that he did so many things right. The way he moves around the paint on the offensive glass to get a tip in; how he positions himself after making the catch on the right block so he’s a threat to drive both baseline or middle and leaves himself options; the way he dives at the right time or finds open space to make a catch on the interior. He’s not the most physical presence, but the man is a basketball player and he’s consistently doing more things correctly than not. I appreciate that.
*The Thunder are an athletic and scrappy team. They just fight for every inch and play hard for every second. You see it in how they front the post, how the rotate on defense, and how they protect their basket. They had 17 blocks in this game. 17! Through sheer will and determination, they hustled back on defense, clogged the paint, and contested every shot taken. After the game when Scott Brooks spoke of being proud of his guys and praised them even in defeat, I understood exactly what he was saying – his guys battled, but they came up short. After games like this you don’t hold your head or get down on yourself. You use it as inspiration for the next game. The Lakers better be prepared for that when game 3 rolls around. Because the Thunder will play this same style, but they’ll have an amazing crowd pushing them to play even harder.
*The Lakers bench players (well, most of them) were solid for the second game in a row. Shannon and Farmar shot the ball well and played under control, they just didn’t see too many minutes (only 25 combined). I was especially impressed with Shannon as he showed a patience and maturity in his game that was lacking for long stretches during the regular season. He didn’t force shots, was decisive with the ball, and usually made the smart and fundamental play. For the second straight season he’s really raised his level of play when the post season arrived and that is the type of player you want on your side. The flip side of that coin is what the Lakers have been getting from Odom in the last couple of contests. You’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger supporter of LO than me. But my main lefty was 2-9 tonight and didn’t seem into the game but for only a few stretches. His other stats were serviceable (8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) but overall he can play better. On the road, I have a feeling that he’ll need to.
*Speaking of not playing as well, Bynum couldn’t replicate his strong play from game one – at least not on offense. Maybe Kobe’s shot seeking took ‘Drew out of his rhythm, but he only made 3 of his 9 FGA’s and had some turnovers when trying to operate in traffic. I was impressed by his defense and rebounding, though. I also liked a couple of the hard fouls that he gave. I’ve always said that if Bynum could rebound well and defend the paint consistently his offense would be a plus and we saw some of that tonight. But I do think we’ll need more than 6 points from ‘Drew if we’re going to have long term success.
*Kevin Durant deserves a lot of credit. Ron Artest’s defensive game plan didn’t change at all and by what I saw he was just as committed and focussed on D tonight as he was on Sunday. But Durant was worlds better. KD still may not have shot in a way that he’s capable of, but he looked much more relaxed and it showed in his success rate. 32 points on 26 shots for Durant and several smooth jumpers that were made to look way easier than they actually were. On one possession he posted up Ron on the right block from about 17 feet and then just turned and shot a fade away that was nothing but nylon as Ron was as close to him as humanly possible without fouling. I never got to see the Iceman do his thing live (only on old tapes and replays), but KD looked just like George Gervin in how effortless he makes it look at times.
The Lakers will need to play better than they did tonight if they expect to make a deep playoff run. That said, these are the playoffs and the Thunder are a very good team that is well put together and a worth opponent. And in understanding that these are the playoffs, the Lakers are not fighting towards a goal of the best record in the league or to win a #1 seed. They’re not battling 29 other teams across the association or 14 others in their conference. The only opponent is the one in front of them and the only goal is to win four games against this one team before they lose four. And since that is the case, I’ll take this win just like I’d take a 40 point blowout. The Lakers are now up 2-0 and the Thunder have to win 4 of the next 5 to dethrone the champs. Those are odds that, as a Lakers fan, I’ll happily accept.