Coming into this game I thought the Lakers would have a very good chance to win. I thought that if they showed poise in the face of a raucous crowd and displayed enough discipline to exploit their advantages that they’d be in this game until the end and could earn the ‘W’. Well, I was proven right on a lot of levels as the Lakers were a very good team for stretches of this game but they just didn’t do enough right for long enough to hold on to win as the Thunder took this contest 101-96. The Lakers still lead the series, but the Thunder now have a win under their belt and a home crowd that is ready to help pull them to the finish line. However, at the beginning of this game, you would have had a hard time convincing me that this would have been the outcome.
Because when this game actually got started, you would have thought that the Lakers had just read an instruction manual on how to pull out a game on the road against the Thunder. It’s like they had a check list in front of them and were just scrolling down and marking off each key to victory with a ‘complete’. Go inside to Bynum and Gasol? Check. Make outside shots? Check. Get an early lead? Take the Thunder crowd out of the game? Slow down Kevin Durant? Check, check, check. Really, the Lakers couldn’t have started any better, going up 10-0 on OKC and completely taking control of the contest. Fueled by the inside-outside game that we’ve all been wanting the see, everything was going right. Gasol and Bynum were the recipients of good entry passes and were scoring down low. When they didn’t have the shots, they’d kick the ball back out, the ball would rotate, and our shooters were knocking down jumpers. The game plan was being executed perfectly.
But even with Artest and Fisher making shots, Bynum gathering in alley oops, and even Kobe finding his outside shot (at one point in the first half making 3 straight long balls), there was still the feeling that the Thunder were not going away. Sure Durant was cold (missing 7 of his first 8 shots), but other players for OKC were stepping up and filling in the gaps. In the preview for this game I wrote:
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.
Well, it turns out that I was right when it came to these two guys. Especially OKC’s rookie, James Harden. In the first two games, Harden was a complete non factor. Tonight, he was one of the big difference makers for the Thunder. Harden was aggressive from the moment he stepped foot on the floor and flashed the full scope of his offensive game to inflict damage on the Lakers. He made outside shots, got into the paint, and showed off his ball handling and savvy to earn trips to the FT line. Harden ended the night with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals in his 32 minutes of action. And he did it all on only 7 shots from the field – making 3 three pointers and 7 of his 8 free throw attempts. Just a stellar and impact filled night from Harden.
But, this game wouldn’t be about Harden (or any of the other secondary players), it would be about the stars of each team and how they closed the game. As I mentioned earlier, Kobe was having a pretty good shooting night for most of this game and Durant was really struggling to find his stroke. Well, in the fourth quarter, that would all change. With the game close in the final period and both stars trying to put their imprint on this game, it was Durant that made the bigger mark – on both offense and defense. OKC’s young superstar was just amazing, to say the least. He made jumper after jumper and drew foul after foul, putting points up on the scoreboard in a way that he was (seemingly) born to do. And on the defensive end, he drew the assignment of checking Kobe and didn’t back down an inch. Using his length and good lateral quickness, KD shut down driving angles and contested shots superbly. Everywhere that Kobe went he had the long arms of Durant obstructing his view and making it difficult for him to get a clean look at the basket. Kobe would end the fourth quarter shooting only 2 for 9, ultimately forced to change his game up from scorer to facilitator due to the fact that he just couldn’t get a good look at the rim.
In the end this was a great win for the Thunder and, considering their start to the game, a disappointing loss for the Lakers. OKC deserves a lot of credit as they never gave up and in the face of real adversity they fought and persevered to earn a win. The Thunder still trail the series 2-1 but have real life going into game 4 on Saturday. As for the Lakers, it’s time to reevaluate what they need to do to win the game and get it in their heads that they must stick to the plan for longer if they hope to pull out wins on the road. They had this game in their clutches for long stretches but didn’t execute in the manner needed to win. It seems even championship teams need reminders about what it takes to win on the road on the playoffs.
A couple of other notes on this game:
*The Lakers shot 31 three pointers in this game, making only 10. One or two more makes means that the Lakers come much closer to winning this game, but I don’t think that matters one bit. That is way too many threes to shoot against the Thunder. Every Laker understands that long rebounds fuel OKC’s run outs, yet they proceeded to try and shoot the long ball to sustain their offense. The Lakers should be shooting 18-20 threes a game tops and those should be off of post ups and kick outs where shooters are wide open. The don’t need to shoot threes just because the initial post entry isn’t there or because they see a sliver of day light before a defender closes out on them. Discipline needs to be practiced and tonight the Lakers didn’t have it.
*The Lakers were out rebounded 53-39 by the Thunder. LA allowed 14 offensive rebounds and only secured 7 themselves. On 48 missed shots, the Lakers only grabbed 7 of their own misses?! Again, I think the three point shooting played into that as a lot of those long jumpers generated long rebounds or rebounds where the Lakers bigs were not in position to crash the boards.
*A lot will be made of the free throw discrepancy in this game and many will be quick to place some of the blame for the Lakers’ loss on the refereeing. Personally, I’ve always felt the same way that Kurt did when it came to the refs and whether or not they decided a game – if you allow a game to be close enough for the refs to be an impact, you live with the consequences. The Lakers led this game 10-0 at the beginning and had leads of 8-10 points at several different points of the game. The fact that the Thunder were shooting more FT’s didn’t matter then and shouldn’t matter because the discrepancy held up at the end of the game. The Lakers had plenty of chances to win this game and they didn’t. Instead, the Thunder fought, made a run, kept the game close, and then finished off the Lakers at the end. They earned this win and the refs had little to do with that.
*This is three straight games now where Lamar Odom has not had an impact on the game. At this point, I’m starting to believe that there is something in this match up that doesn’t agree with LO. Maybe the mobility and defensive ability of Green and Ibaka bother Odom. Maybe his shoulder is bothering him more than he’s letting on. Maybe he’s having a harder time adjusting to coming off the bench than anticipated. I’m not sure what it is, but something is wrong. I know Odom’s not the most consistent player, but he’s also not as bad as he’s shown in this series. We all know that this team is a different sort of beast when LO is on his game. It’d be nice if that guy made an appearance in this series at some point.