In old school basketball circles, the saying goes that “a playoff series doesn’t really start until the home team loses”. Well tonight the Lakers get their first chance at snaring a road win and truly “starting” this series. And if they’re successful they’ll essentially start and end this series in the same night. After the Lakers took a 2-0 series lead, winning 4 of the next 5 games was going to be next to impossible for OKC. But if the home team loses tonight, winning 4 in a row will not happen. And even though some of the quotes coming out of the Thunder locker room are more focussed on winning one game (rather than winning the series), the Lakers would be best served not resting on the laurels of their series lead and letting a winnable game slip away. And, despite what others will tell you, tonight is a winnable game. Yes, the Thunder crowd will be excited beyond belief and the Thunder’s players will surely feed off this energy and bring an effort level consistent with a wounded animal fighting for survival. But, the Lakers are the better team (even if the disparity is not as large as in a typical #1 vs. #8 match up) and there are steps they can take to win this game.
As, Andy K. over at Land O’ Lakers pointed out, if the visiting team hopes to win they’ll need to control the tempo. That doesn’t mean that the Lakers can’t get out and run, but it does mean that they’ll need to be selective with their choices and not just indiscriminately take the first good shot that is available. It’s been made abundantly clear that the Lakers offense works best when starting on the inside, so slowing the game down and looking to the post first should be the first option. That said, the Lakers can’t just try to force feed our big men. I’ve said this many times before, but the Lakers run a read and react system and should not have predetermined options for possessions drawn up in their heads. Sure, they can run specific options or call out a certain action to initiate their sets. But if that option is taken away, they can not force it – they must move on in their progression/reads and go from there. This is what will lead to offensive success tonight and will hopefully create more opportunities for our post game. As Phil Jackson said himself,
“Well, the idea is not to over-focus on (passing to the post) so it takes the rhythm out of your offense. Take the opportunities when they come, and if the ball is moved and the players move right, we’ll find those passes.”
Carrying that same thought to its next progression, I would not mind seeing aggressive Kobe again tonight. There were many that bemoaned the volume of shots that Kobe took in game 2, but I was not one of them. After reviewing every one of Kobe’s FGA’s through Synergy Sports amazing video scouting service that they’ve made available to fans, I saw that Kobe took mostly good shots within the flow of the offense. I also saw that some of the shots that he did miss were of the wide open variety that I’d have no issue him taking 100 times a game if he was given them. I understand that it can be frustrating looking at a boxscore where Kobe’s FGA’s are more than Gasol and Bynum’s combined. However, that will sometimes be the case in an offense where the defense dictates what shots are available to be taken. I do hope that we move the ball enough where our advantage inside can be exploited more frequently, but the other side of that coin is what I mentioned above – forcing the ball into teammates that aren’t open isn’t the answer. So, as always, I hope that patience prevails and that the Lakers move the ball and take the shots that are open to be taken. If that means that Kobe is shooting a lot, so be it. Kobe is also one of the players that can single handedly turn a raucous home crowd into a public library, so if he’s on his game I think it can go a long way towards limiting what will certainly serve as a source of inspiration for the home team.
And speaking of the home team, if there is one thing the Lakers need to be aware of it’s that role players often play better at home. In the first two games the Lakers have treated Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha, and James Harden as complete non-threats. Tonight, these players will need to be given a bit more respect when they are on offense. I not only expect these players to be more aggressive, but I expect them to be a bit more successful in those efforts to score the ball. I’d especially be concerned with Green and Harden as they are good offensive players that just haven’t found their groove on offense to this point in the series; they are better than what they’ve shown. So, if the Lakers are to win this game they will need to pay closer attention to the other Thunder and not just rely on slowing down Westbrook and Durant.
In the end, the keys to winning this game will be no different than the ones used to win the first two. As always, it will come down to execution and for the road team to sustain its energy and focus through what will be an amped up crowd and home team. If the Lakers can take one possession at a time and exploit the match ups that are in their favor, this game will be there for the taking in the closing minutes. Will they have the discipline? Will they treat this game the way they’ve treated the first two? In a way, this game – more than the games at Staples – will show me where the mental sharpness is for this Lakers team. Last season, against every playoff opponent, the Lakers won a road game. They’ll have that chance tonight, lets hope they take advantage of it.