It’s funny how a loss can plant seeds of doubt into the minds of fans and media. In game three, the Lakers pretty much controlled the game until the closing minutes of the third quarter when they allowed a run that made the game a dog fight for final 12 minutes. In that closing period, the Lakers still fought hard, but a very good OKC team made the key plays and were carried to the finish line by the momentum that comes from a fantastic home crowd. By no means am I trying to discount the Thunder as a team or knock their credibility as a worthy foe. But, if the first three games have shown me anything it’s that the Lakers are the superior team that just needs to play with discipline and smarts for longer stretches of the game. The Thunder players have that youthful exuberance and the athleticism that comes with it, but the Lakers themselves are no slouches physically and if they’re able to establish a consistent focus they can find themselves one step closer to clinching this series after tonight. The question as always is will they do what they know is necessary to take home a win or will they only do what’s needed for stretches?
And the Lakers know what they need to do. From the beginning of this series we’ve talked about adjustments and after game 3 we revisited the topic. The X’s and O’s of this series couldn’t be more clear, it’s the dedication to and execution of them that needs to be better woven into the minds of the Lakers. And really, that’s what this series has turned into. The Thunder are a team that will not quit. They won’t get down on themselves because the score board doesn’t show them in the lead and they won’t roll over because the outcome of the game is in doubt. If anything, these circumstances only make them fight harder and push further to try and turn the game in their favor. As I mentioned above, the Lakers have all the physical talent that they’ll need, it’s the mental aspects of the game that will need to be called upon if they are to prevail. In a sense, they need to be as strong mentally in sticking to their plan as the Thunder have been when trying to dig themselves out of holes. If the Lakers can sustain focus and not go away from what works, Thunder runs will be squelched and control of the game will remain in LA’s favor. But, if the Lakers don’t do this, they’ll again find themselves in a close games at the end that can swing in the other team’s direction.
Even though I’ve been focussing mostly on the mental side of the game and have said that the X’s and O’s of this series are already clearly defined, there are still specific things that I’m looking for from the Lakers to trigger their success. The first is controlling the paint on defense. In game 3 the Lakers gave up 14 offensive rebounds. And even though those second chances didn’t produce a lot of points, not finishing off possessions meant that the Lakers could not go the other way and work to wear down OKC (or, based off the trends of the game, shoot another three pointer). So, I’m really looking for the Lakers to take better control of their defensive backboards. The other key to controlling the paint is to block and alter shots. In game 1, the Lakers had 9 blocks. In game’s 2 and 3 they had 7 combined. I’d also like to see a couple of hard fouls if the Thunder continue their assault on the paint. I’m not looking for dirty play, but I’d like to see Westbrook and Durant have teammates running over to help them up off the ground after some of their forays to the rim. The second thing I’m looking for are better/harder screens set off the ball on offense. If the Lakers want to get players open coming from the weak to the strong side, they need to start laying some bodies on people and freeing each other up. Gasol, Kobe, Artest, and Odom could all use some help getting open and the best way to do it is by using the screen actions built into this offense. I want to see more curls on the weak side and our wings coming the top of the key with more space because of the pin down actions were properly executed. Again, better execution derived from a more consistent focus.
A Lakers’ win tonight is the difference between having 3 games to win 1 or playing a best of three series against a game opponent that will have all the confidence in the world. Which side sounds more appealing to you? I can guarantee that your answer mirrors those of the Lakers’ players and coaches. It’s an obvious point, but the deeper a series goes the more important each game becomes (though each game does have importance in its own way). So, game 4 is now the key to this series potentially going 7 or having a good chance of ending in 5. Let’s see if the Lakers take note and execute in the manner they need to and ensure that the latter is accomplished.
Where you can watch: This is an ESPN game tonight with a 6:30pm start in the west. For those folks that only have an internet connection, you can check out the game on ESPN3 here. Also on ESPN Radio 710am. Enjoy.