Archives For April 2010

Los Angeles Lakers at Oklahoma City Thunder Western Conference first round playoff game 4

In situations like the one describing this Lakers/Thunder series, conventional wisdom would normally tell us that this should be a learning experience for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’re a team with a collection of young talent making their first playoff appearance against the defending World Champions, a team that has gone to the NBA Finals two consecutive years. However, for right now, it’s the Lakers who can learn a thing or two from the Thunder, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

Yes, the series is tied 2-2, but for the most part, the Thunder have outplayed the Lakers up to this point. The Lakers have won THREE quarters, that’s it, and the Thunder are outplaying the Lakers with the very defensive scheme that the Lakers should be using on them. I believe that we’ve all finally accepted that the Lakers are a horrendous three-point shooting team, but what the Lakers need to realize is that the Thunder (barely) had a worse shooting percentage from behind the arch than the Lakers did this season (Lakers shot 34.1%, the Thunder shot 34%). During this series, the Thunder are shooting only 30 percent from behind the three point line. So shouldn’t the Lakers adapt to the Thunder “crowd the paint and make them beat us from outside” philosophy? I certainly think so. Let’s take a look at how both teams are defending and see where the Lakers need to make an adjustment.

On this first sequence, we’ll see how OKC got their first basket in Game 3 after the Lakers got out to that 10-0 start. This first picture shows Kevin Durant holding the ball at the top of the key. Jeff Green had just cut through the middle of the key to run to the left corner. What I want to point out is the number of Lakers defenders in the painted area: zero. They’re too concerned with what might happen if the ball is caught behind the three-point line.


In this second picture, the ball has been moved from Thabo Sefolosha to Jeff Green in the left corner. We see Pau Gasol guarding him way out at the three point line (against a guy who had been struggling and a team that had yet to score) giving him baseline. Andrew Bynum is too high out guarding Nenad Krstic considering where the ball is and where a pass would have to be made – and still, not one Laker is completely in the paint (‘Drew is partially in the paint, but only because Krstic is there).


In this third picture, we see why not crowding the paint is hurting the Lakers. Jeff Green drove baseline and beat the slow-footed Andrew Bynum to the spot, got the bucket and the foul. Gasol is not quick enough to guard Green being so close to the three-point line, especially if he’s going to give him a definite lane. If Bynum wasn’t so high out on Krstic, he’s already at the spot, and Jeff Green is forced to take a short jumper or the same shot without the benefit of getting the call.


However, one of the main reasons I thought this clip in particular was so important was how it illustrate how the Lakers aren’t ending their defensive possessions when they can. Yeah, Green made the shot and got the foul, but if he didn’t, the Thunder were in excellent position to get the offensive rebound. Since Gasol was beat, Drew and Kobe had to rotate over, leaving Krstic and Westbrook free to rebound without a body on them. Bynum wouldn’t have been in the best rebounding position and Gasol wasn’t in position at all. Kobe would have had to work around the bigger Krstic to get that rebound.

This second sequence shows how the Thunder have played the Lakers and why they’ve been able to outplay the Lakers more often than they’ve been outplayed. This first picture is here just to give you a glimpse on how this possession started. Notice how the Thunder are playing. They’re focused on making it tough on Kobe (Durant playing on the weak side to help Sefolosha if it’s needed) and over crowding the strong side making help easier to give when the ball rotates to that side, because it can’t go anywhere else at this point save a Kobe dribble drive.

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On this second picture, the ball has moved to Derek Fisher. Again, notice where the Thunder defenders are. Everyone is shaded over to defending the strong side. As of right now, Derek Fisher has no where to go but to give the ball back to Kobe. There are no driving lanes, there are no interior passing lanes. Yes, the Lakers have awful spacing, but they’re disciplined in what they want to do no less. The defensive scheme is focused on preventing those things because they understand that the Lakers have struggled shooting the ball all season.

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In this picture, the ball has gone from Kobe and back to Fish in the corner. Look at the Thunder defenders now. As Fish looks to get the ball inside, everyone’s eyes are on where Fish wants to make the pass. Sefolosha has fallen off of Kobe, Green is inching closer to help on the backside to help a fronting Krstic, Durant has taken his focus off of a Artest who likely isn’t getting the ball from there and Russell Westbrook is applying great ball pressure. There are three guys with at least one foot in the paint at this point.

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On this last picture, we see that the Thunder have gotten what they wanted – a three point attempt. If they can’t turn the ball over, they want the Lakers to be shooting from as far away from the basket as possible, because if it’s a miss, it’s essentially creating a turnover for them. Long rebounds are gold for this team as they’re fast break starters. Most importantly, the Thunder have rebounding position for all five guys. Not one Laker has inside position over a Thunder defender, and for a young team, not giving up second chance opportunities is definitely key to winning basketball games. Yeah, Kobe made that shot, but they can live with that because it’s a team that shoots less than 35 percent from that range.

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With this knowledge, I would hope that the Lakers can make the necessary adjustments, especially later in games when Russell Westbrook likes to get going. It’s no longer about stopping Kevin Durant, it’s about stopping a basketball team. They absolutely need to clog the lane and make the Thunder a collection of jump shooters instead of drivers. The Lakers are going to give up some fast break points, that’s a given, but they can’t continue to give up points in the paint in half court sets. They have too much size for it to be so easy for the Thunder.


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Many fans don’t want to hear about last year when referencing this year’s Lakers team.

Last year was different.

Last year the Lakers had big, signature wins in the regular season.

Last year Kobe was healthy and Pau was stepping up.

Last year the bench was better and Ariza was around.

And to a certain extent, I agree with these sentiments – every season is a new test.   And even though this team played well enough to earn the #1 seed in the West and win the first two games of this series, the Lakers have not been the team that many hoped they would be.  What, with inconsistency and flat play being all to frequent themes of this 2010 campaign.  That said, it’s easy to forget that despite every year being different, history tends to repeat itself; history shows us trends over time.  So, whether we’re talking the Lakers or talking about some other team the lessons of the past can be helpful in understanding where this team stands right now.

And with that in mind, I scoured the FB&G’s archives.  What I found was something that was written almost one year ago after the Lakers got blasted on the road in game 4 of their second round series against Houston:

1) In the first game of the 1985 NBA Finals (the first time it was called that, by the way), the Lakers got absolutely routed by Boston Celtics. Devastatingly crushed. Dominated in every aspect of the game. They lost 148-114, and the media dubbed it the Memorial Day Massacre. The Lakers won the series in six games.

2) 1972 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Knicks game one. From The Show: “Lucas scored 26 pts. an, Bradley hit 11-12 shots from the field as New York shot 53% from the floor. They used a nearly perfect first half to jump to a good lead and won much too easily, 114-92…. At he beginning of the first half the Forum crowd began filing out dejectedly. It looked like another LA fold in the Finals.” The Lakers beat the Knicks in five.

3) Game two of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Trailblazer ripped the Lakers, 106-77. The Lakers came back to win that series in a dramatic seventh game and go on the three-peat.

4) Last season the Boston Celtics were taken seven games by a more athletic but far less talented Atlanta Hawks team, then were taken seven games again by LeBron James and what there was of a surrounding cast last season. We all remember how that turned out. But after four games against the Cavs last year, Celtics message boards and fan reactions looked a lot like the Lakers this year.

There are simple lessons here. Don’t say this Lakers team cannot turn it around and win the NBA title. Don’t tell me Magic and the great Showtime teams never had letdowns, because they had them (regular season and playoffs). Don’t tell me game four against the Rockets is proof of ultimate doom. It is not. (Thanks to Gatinho for helping me compile this list.)

The title of that post was “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not good” and I can’t think of a better way to describe what is going on with the Lakers right now.  For many fans, the sky may not have fallen but it’s awfully close to our heads right now.


So now that the Lakers are at this point, the next question is what is there for them to lean on?  Despite things looking down right now, there are some positives:

1). This series is now a best of three, but two of those games are in Los Angeles at the Staples Center.  The Lakers fought as hard as they could for home court advantage in the western playoffs and it’s times like these that exemplify why they wanted it so badly.  It’s not so much that the Thunder are a worse team on the road (their road/home splits show great consistency – though their role players played much worse in games 1 & 2), but it’s that the Lakers role players are better at home.  For example, Shannon Brown scores more points, shoots better from the field (including 36% from three vs 29% on the road), doubles his assists per game, and fouls less.  Farmar also plays a bit better at home than on the road (all his stats are slightly up, except his shooting %’s which actually dip some at home).  These are two players that we rely upon to help this team win games.  Yes they’ve been inconsistent this season and that (along with injuries) has led to a decrease in our overall bench productivity.  But if the Lakers are to sustain solid play over the course of an entire game, these two players will need to do more.  And if I was to bet where they’d be able to do it, I’d put my money on the Staples Center.

2). Speaking of our bench, another positive was Lamar Odom’s play in the second half.  I’ve been on LO a lot in this series as he’s had little impact in the first 14 quarters of this series.  But in the second half of game 4 he woke up.  He rebounded better on defense, pushed the ball on offense, and then attacked the rim when in the half court.  This is the player that the Lakers need as an X-factor and impact player.  I know, I know – depending on Lamar isn’t quite like relying on the tax man or the grim reaper, but Lamar has been a player that has typically played better in the playoffs than the regular season over the course of his career.  Whether in Miami or in LA, Odom has usually found a way to put together consistent performances in the second season.  His reappearance on Saturday, I think, bodes well for the Lakers in these remaining games.

3).  Some of the little things are getting better.  Though the Lakers shot poorly from deep in game 4, Derek Fisher did not.  In fact, in Fisher’s last two games he’s 9-15 from the field including 7-11 from three point country.  And when looking at game 4, the Lakers were able to get the ball into the post much more consistently.  Kobe also shot better in game 4, though with not as many attempts (5-10 from the field).  My point in all of this?  We’re starting to see some of offensive factors that contribute to winning show up in these games, they just haven’t all clicked on the same night.  Aren’t the Lakers due for one of those nights where Kobe plays well, the ball is still able to go inside, Odom steps up, and at least one shooter makes some shots?  Am I reaching here?  The Lakers are a better team than what they’ve shown in the last two games (especially in game 4) and I see a game coming where it comes together for them.  Sure, there’s a lot of hope here, but based off history (and the quality of players we’re talking about) I don’t think I’m off base.

4).  The Lakers’ defense, though fouling too often, is still playing well.  The Thunder connect rate on field goals is still hovering around 40% and even though Durant is getting his points, he’s working extremely hard for them.  If the Lakers can start and finish defensive possessions better (through executing their transition defense and protecting their defensive glass more effectively), there’s a good chance the Lakers will be able to take and sustain a lead.  Obviously it’s easier than just saying it (not to mention it sounds funny reading that they need to start and end possessions better – what’s left?) but I mention it because these are small things that are having a major impact on the results of the games.   These are things that can be improved upon as the Lakers did them relatively well early in the series.  I think they’ll get back to them in the games that are left.

Winning Tuesday’s game will not be easy.  The Lakers can’t expect the Thunder to come out, roll over, and hand them the win.  The Lakers will need to execute the little things and can’t rely on the Thunder to not play well.   However, if there is a team that knows what needs to be done to still win this series wouldn’t it be the one led by Phil Jackson and captained by Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher?  Guys with 20 championships between them as players and coach?  History has proven that these guys know how to get it done.  But with every new season, new challenges appear, and the need to prove it again arises.  I think the Lakers have it in them.  Tuesday is when we all get to see if I’m right.

Los Angeles Lakers Gasol, Bynum and Odom sit on the bench in Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City

Just links this morning. I’ll have some analysis on how the Thunder are defending the Lakers for tomorrow morning. However, for now, enjoy these links.

From Silver Screen and Roll: Damn, that was an ugly loss. Now, let’s examine the reasons: Our bigs are freakin babies who let people 4 inches shorter outrebound them by double figures; our outside shooters have long since gouged out their eyes at the sight of Ammo; the refs are taking money from Clay Bennet; Kobe’s getting old and useless and should be traded for Darren Collison while we still have the chance; we shoulda shipped Drew’s injury-prone ass out for Kidd when we had the chance; Pau is a pussy, and we should have kept Marc and Kwame instead; Mitch Kupchak is an idiot; Phil is senile and should be replaced with Byron Scott ASAP; Lamar needs to go into candy rehab; our bench is the worst in NBA history; Voodoo Gods have cursed us with injuries; our team is older than the Celtics; we have lazy players; Kobe accidentally stepped on Brian Shaw’d two-thousand-dollar Armani loafers; etc, etc… Did I get everything (seriously, tell me if I missed something. I wouldn’t want to feel I wasn’t doing my job)?

From Land O’ Lakers: While there was certainly a sense the Lakers would be better off with the Thunder than, say, San Antonio, generally speaking, nobody thought L.A.’s first round matchup with the Oklahoma City would be easy. I, like a lot of media types, picked the Lakers in six. A healthy portion picked L.A. in seven. But nobody without an overdeveloped need for contrarian thinking or an Oklahoma City ZIP code actually picked the Thunder to win. Maybe those predictions are out there, but I couldn’t find them.

From Momma There Goes That Man: I can’t say enough about what Kevin Durant and Thunder are doing out there to Kobe and the Lakers. We knew this would be an exciting match up and we knew this young squad would tire out the Lakers a lil bit. But not many predicted that they could even win 1 against the defending champs much less tie up the series at 2 a piece. The Lakers are playing downright terrible basketball and Oklahoma is definitely capitalizing without a moment’s hesitation. Such is the benefit of having “nothing to lose.” Oh how exciting Game 5 will be!

From Laker Noise: If you’re expecting a fan — blind in love or blind in hate — to be anything other than a fanatic, you’re wasting your time. By definition, true fans surrender all perspective. They turn the streets of their community, like the streets of Green Bay, into Night Of The Living Cheeseheads. Zombies on the loose, they join the cult, surrendering time, money, heart, soul, their last shred of human decency, to the team. They are a marketing director’s wet dream, even if they can’t afford tickets to the actual game itself. They’ll buy the T-shirts, posters, videos, all the bullshit that comes with idol worship. Take 10,000 true fans and put them in an arena, and they can shout open the gates of hell.

From If I had to guess, I would think that it is nights like Game 5 of the Lakers-Thunder series is the reason Zach Harper spends the regular season blogging about the Sacramento Kings and the Toronto Raptors. As a writer, it’s hard to be taken seriously if you can’t display some sort of objectivity, and when you’ve been emotionally invested in one team for so long, it becomes hard to write about that team without biases flowing from your finger tips, and it becomes harder when that team you love so much is playing terribly. But the terrible play probably isn’t what gets to Zach, it’s the Timberwolves, he’s used to that – but perhaps it becomes a lack of effort. A lack of effort from the front office. A lack of effort from the coaching staff. A lack of effort from the collective fan base. Or in the Lakers’ case in Game 5, a lack of effort from the players.

From the Los Angeles Times: Kobe Bryant strolled into the interview room, pulled his sunglasses off and adjusted his eyes to the bright lights. He spoke in even tones, neither mad nor happy, about the Lakers having been defeated by 21 points, 110-89, by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night in Game 4 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at the Ford Center. The Lakers lost both games here, trailing by 29 at one point in Game 4. The best-of-seven series is now tied, 2-2. Game 5 is Tuesday night at Staples Center. That was the only good news for the Lakers.

From the Los Angeles Times: The Lakers’ performances against the Oklahoma City Thunder creates a level of thinking in two camps, one that believes the Lakers’ armor continues to crack and it’s only a matter of time before things go really sour and the other believes this is all just a overreaction and everything will work out just fine. Nonetheless, the Lakers have been down this path before, as recently as last season when Houston challenged them to a seven-game Western Conference series before the Lakers advanced. I cringe when people bring up this series as evidence that current concerns about the Lakers are overblown, because I think it only raises an even more indicting question. Does the fact that the Lakers played with fire yet didn’t get burned really deserve such praise? I don’t think it does, but for better or worse, the Lakers have been down this path before, and have managed to get out of it.

From the OC Register: The way it’s going right now, Oklahoma City’s young, exciting, fearless flyers could easily grab some skateboards and add a few half-pipes while soaring past ground-bound Lakers veterans for rebounds and baskets. The Lakers thought this was the first round of the NBA playoffs, but the X Games have broken out. And for all Derek Fisher knows, Russell Westbrook is in fact riding a motocross bike as he roars by him.

From the OC Register: Ten shots in the fourth quarter of Game 3. No shots in the first quarter of Game 4. Was Kobe Bryant facilitating again? Pouting again? Saving his energy for the playoffs again? Wait a second. These are the playoffs, even if the Lakers’ last five quarters have looked more like the preseason. Whatever it was Saturday it certainly was another loss for the defending champions, who are discovering quickly in this postseason that no one — least of all this oddly dangerous No. 8 seed — fears them. This final was 110-89 … and it wasn’t even that close.

From Something stunk even worse than the Lakers’ play Saturday. Kobe Bryant lit up a cigar that was far from the victory variety as he made his way from his postgame news conference to the team bus down an empty hallway at the Ford Center, walking with a slight limp as he chatted with Nike executive Lynn Merritt in between puffs. It’s a habit Bryant revealed in the first round of last postseason, smoking a stogie after a clunker in Utah before bouncing back with dominant games to close out the series, but as the thick smoke hung in the air it seemed to personify the cloud of doubt that suddenly hangs over the Los Angeles Lakers rather than a cleansing ritual.

From Both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder did what every team is supposed to do in a seven game series — defend the home court. However, the Thunder’s home-court defense over the defending champion Lakers has certainly raised eyebrows. First, a come-from-behind, 101-96 victory in Game 3, in which they spotted the Lakers 10 points before even getting on the board. Then Game 4’s absolute dismantling of the ’09 Western Conference champions. From start to finish, they held the Lakers in lopsided check.


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In what can only be described as a first class butt kicking, the Lakers fell to the Thunder 110-89 in game 4.  OKC out-hustled, out-muscled…really out-everything’d the Lakers in this game.  So instead of attempting to pen some exquisite recap of the carnage, I think I’ll just relay some simple numbers from this game that (hopefully) tell most of the story.

24-2. This was the Thunder’s advantage in fast break points over the Lakers.  The Thunder successfully pushed the ball at every opportunity and got easy buckets on the break.  One one play in particular (and this basket may not even count in this stat), Kobe hit one of his pretty patented fade away jumpers from the right baseline over Thabo Sefolosha and then fell to the ground afterwards.  When the ball was inbounded, Russell Westbrook raced the ball up court and proceeded to get a lay up at the other end.  But it wasn’t just the Thunder’s athleticism that fueled their fast break chances, it was also the Lakers’ general lack of awareness and fundamentals in transitioning from offense to defense that aided OKC’s attack in the open court.  On two possessions early in the game, Pau got caught with his back turned to a quickly advancing ball handler.  On one possession, Durant got a dunk.  On the other, Westbrook missed a lay up, but the Thunder got the offensive rebound (though they missed the putback).  Since both of these plays happened in the first quarter, I was hoping that this would not be a trend throughout the game.  It was.

42-48, 87.5%; 17-28, 60.7%. These were the free throw numbers for the Thunder and Lakers respectively.  That’s right, the Thunder shot nearly fifty free throws and connected on an absurd percentage of them.  Meanwhile, the Lakers shot their share of freebies, but were quite bad at converting.  If you’re looking for a difference in this game, look here first.  After the game, Phil Jackson said quite simply that before this game got away if the Lakers would “have made (our) free throws, like professionals are supposed to, (we) would have trailed by 5-7 points and been in this game”.  Instead, the Lakers bricked away while the Thunder got to the line and made all of theirs.  If there was one sequence that summed up the free throw shooting story it was on some of the opening possessions for each team to start the second half.  On the Thunder’s first play, Sefolosha received a kick out pass and shot a three pointer in which Kobe fouled him on a late close out.  Thabo proceeded to make all three from the line.  A few possessions later, Derek Fisher went to the foul line after drawing a foul and missed both his attempts.  After another couple of misses from the field by both sides, Kevin Durant got fouled and made one of his two FT attempts (he missed!) to push the Thunder lead to 14.  At that point, the game was essentially over (though we wouldn’t quite know that yet).  Many will make a lot out of the number of FT attempts that the Thunder got, and I share the frustration in watching a team have a parade to the foul line.  That said, I do think that the Thunder’s ability to get out in transition and break down the Lakers off the dribble in the half court is playing a part in the number of FT’s that they’re taking.  I also think that the Lakers aren’t doing as good a job of earning trips to the foul line.  Are there missed calls that go against the Lakers?  Are there plays where the whistle seems a little quick when LA is on defense?  Sure.  But those happen every game for and against the Lakers.  I don’t think that had too much to do with what we saw tonight.

5-10. These were Kobe Bryant’s shooting statistics in this game.  There will be plenty of fans and other folks in the media that look at Kobe’s number of field goal attempts and talk about/write the easy “payback” story.  You know, where people attempt to read Kobe’s mind and then say that he purposely did not shoot the ball as some sort of backlash against the criticism that he’s been shooting too much.  The ultimate proof will be that he didn’t take a single shot in the opening period.  I can understand that, it’s the easy angle.  However, what I saw was Kobe playing a controlled game where he was looking to get his teammates involved.  When Kobe did look to be aggressive, he was doing so with the dribble by getting into the paint.  However, when he got there he found himself surrounded by  defenders with open passing lanes to his teammates.  And rather than forcing jumpers (something that we all would like to see Kobe avoid), he made the right reads and passed the ball.  This may not be what people want to talk about (it’s not nearly as sexy as the alternative), but it’s what I saw.  If anything, Kobe’s FGA’s say more about his comfort level with his shooting at this point in the season than with any preconceived plan or hidden agenda.  Kobe’s no dummy.  He knows that even in his game 2 explosion that he didn’t shoot that well from the field and got one third of his points from the FT line.  He also knows that the game plan is to exploit the team’s advantages inside and that establishing the post is this team’s number one priority.  After the game, Kobe said that he was “controlling the game the way that he wanted to in the beginning”, but that the game “got away from them, with the run outs and transition baskets for them”.  Again, this may not be the sexy story, but that makes much more sense to me than Kobe tanking a game by not shooting just to prove a point.  We’re in the playoffs, you know.

18.2%. This is the Lakers field goal percentage on three point shots as they went 4-22 on the evening.  Pure ugliness from behind the arc.  Earlier I mentioned that Kobe was distributing the ball well in this game and really setting up his mates with good shots.  Well, when he passed to open teammates behind the arc, those teammates didn’t make the Thunder pay with made baskets.  Missing these shots is doubly painful because often times the long rebounds triggered the Thunder fast break chances (as we’ve seen all series).  On one possession in particular, the Lakers had a fast (if you want to call it that) break of their own when Ron got a run out and the Lakers were on a three on two.  Ron was dribbling up the sideline but didn’t have an angle to attack so he settled for a three point shot.  Normally, this is an okay shot that I can live with because he was literally wide open and there was no advantage anywhere else on the court.  He missed.  It was just one of those nights for our “shooters” and especially for Ron (who was pretty bad again from the field going 2-9 including 0-4 from three).

50-43. This was the Thunder’s rebounding edge over the Lakers.  Personally, I can live with getting out rebounded by a few boards in any given game.  But, it was how the Lakers were out rebounded that was concerning.  The Lakers gave up another 13 offensive rebounds while only grabbing 10 of their own.  Commenter Snoopy2006 really said it best in the comments, so I’ll let him take it from here:

“How many times did Russell Westbrook beat our players to long offensive boards? Sometimes, the ball actually hit the floor before it was rebounded. I realize Westbrook is explosive, but he just had a hunger and nose for the ball that our players did not show. Westbrook was chasing down loose balls and long rebounds like his life depended on it.”

28.2 vs. 23. These are the average ages for the 9 rotation players for the Lakers and Thunder, respectively.  If you take away Collision (29) and Krstic (26) the Thunder players’ average age drops even further.  Tonight, those younger legs were the difference.  You’ve seen the numbers for fast break points.  You’re still shaking your head at the FT disparity.  You just read what Snoopy said about Westbrook.  Nearly every 50/50 ball went to OKC and it wasn’t just the bounce of the ball or luck.  The Thunder got to those balls quicker and they forced the issue off the dribble with their younger and fresher legs.  They beat the Lakers in transition and beat their rotations.  They raced by them every chance they could and earned the advantages that come with those quickness and speed advantages.

I really don’t need to say it again, but the Lakers got their butts kicked and their hats handed to them in this game.  And now, the series is tied 2-2 going back to LA with the series now sitting as a best of three between two evenly matched teams.  We’ll have more on the series in the upcoming days but in the same way that the Lakers are on a long flight home, us fans have a long wait until Tuesday.

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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.

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Following game 1, we talked a lot about adjustments.  How would Kevin Durant and the Thunder solve the riddle of Ron Artest’s defense?  How could the Lakers beat a fronting OKC defense?  What could the Lakers do to slow down Russell Westbrook’s onslaught of the paint?  Etc, etc, etc.  Well, I’m still waiting for answers to these questions.  On one sideline we have a 10 time NBA champion and on the other we have the freshly minted Coach of the Year (needless to say, two pretty smart guys) and I’m still seeing each team struggle with cracking the other team’s codes.  Durant, while getting his numbers is still shooting an awful percentage from the field (27-74 FGA’s, 5-20 from three), the Lakers still can’t consistently get the ball inside (31 threes attempted in game 2), and Westbrook is still getting to the rim quite frequently (sorry LO).  My point in all this?  It still comes down to executing the game plan on the court.  It’s naive to think that the coaches aren’t installing schemes to counteract what the other team is doing against them, but it’s still on the players to go out and do it.  In game 2 how many times did the Lakers look to the post, get discouraged from not seeing an opening, and then proceed to just pass the ball around – burning precious seconds off the shot clock – and then fire up a long jumper?  I’m pretty sure that’s not how it was drawn up in practice.  Again, it’s on the players to make the right reads and decisions that lead to success.  The coaches can only repeat what they want; they can’t suit up and play the game too.  But, that doesn’t mean that they coaches don’t keep tinkering.  So with that in mind, we look at more adjustments…

Last night, we saw the Thunder make a line up adjustment down the stretch.  In the first two games, Scott Brooks was searching for that one player that he could play next to Durant, Westbrook, Collison, and Ibaka that could score the ball.  He tried Thabo.  He tried Harden.  He tried Green.  None of them worked.  However, last night he went back to Harden (not a difficult choice considering the game he was having) and found that other offensive weapon that could be relied upon.  However, the consequence of playing Harden was that the Thunder really didn’t have a great option to guard Kobe.  Both Harden and Green have had limited success on Mr. Bean in this series so going back to them would have only been asking for trouble.  So, Brooks went with Durant.  At this point, I must give commenter Aaron some credit because he was touting Durant’s defensive ability before this series started (essentially saying the better player is typically better at everything) and I essentially said that Thabo was still the better defender.  And while last night didn’t necessarily change my mind, Durant did flash some very good defensive ability against Kobe.  But, I think where the Lakers got in trouble was in how they decided to attack the freakishly long Durantula.  Essentially, the Lakers went into an isolation heavy attack and asked Kobe to create against a long and quick defender.  Umm, that hasn’t worked for the majority of this season (think Batum, Thabo, Matt Barnes, etc).  Even when Kobe was able to get a half step on Durant, the Thunder’s bigs were in full help mode and quickly showed Kobe the second defender (this is one of the reasons that Kobe was settling for pull up jumpers against KD).  What I would have preferred the Lakers do was go into an attack where Kobe played off the ball and could make his catches coming off screens and flashes rather than in isolation on the wing against a locked in defense.  If we see this match up in the next game, I have a feeling this is exactly what we’ll see.

But freeing up Kobe is only one aspect of more successful offense.  At this point, I think it’s obvious that the Thunder have a knack for denying the Lakers direct post entries.  You can blame the bigs’ lack of fighting for position or the guards’ general lack of patience, but the Thunder’s defense deserves the bulk of the blame (from LA’s perspective).  The Thunder are either effectively fronting or just plain moving our bigs off the block to disrupt the spacing that makes feeding the post easier.  So, rather than calling for a high-low game that has been absent for most of the season or for the Lakers to use a pass to the corner that they don’t seem comfortable making (lest it initiate our scissor cut/sideline P&R action) like I did after game 1, what I’m now looking for is better timing on the flashes from our weakside big/wing.  On several occasions last night, the Lakers were in their Triangle set on the strong side and when the post entry wasn’t there, the ball handler then looked for the weakside big or guard to flash and that player was no where to be found.  There was even a sequence where Kobe (as the top side guard on the strong side) had picked up his dribble, was pressured into turning his back, and then in desperation just through the ball away as neither the weakside guard nor big flashed to make themselves available to receive the pass.  On the following possession, Kobe hit one of his three consecutive three pointers (with a sly grin for Harden after), but that is beside the point.  If the Lakers are to actually open up passing angles to the post, they have to reverse the ball (a point Doug Collins made repeatedly during the telecast).  But, if the Lakers are to swing the ball, they need for their weakside players to flash in rhythm and with timing to create the passing opportunity.  Without that action, the Lakers are not going to be any more effective than they currently are.

And this leads me to Lamar Odom.  Odom is our best flashing big man and our second best passing big.  He’s a player that has a good feel for angles, spacing, and timing.  However, few of those traits have been on display in the first three games.  If stating that Lamar needs to play better was a reasonable adjustment, I’d leave it at that.  However, things aren’t that simple (that’s like saying Fisher, Ron make shots).  In order to get Odom going, I’m hoping to see a couple of different options.  One is a greater emphasis on the two man game between Odom and Pau.  Whatever issues that Odom has had in the past, he’s often been excellent when paired with Gasol on the weakside.  And one play in particular is the weakside screen and roll action that is used primarily to get Pau a post up look.  As you can see in this breakdown from NBA Playbook, LO and Pau run this set to get Pau an easy catch on the mid block.  After the catch, Pau goes to work against his defender and gets an easy lay up.  However, this is a set in which Odom can also thrive as a cutter due to Pau’s ability to score on the block.  As Pau holds the ball, the instinct of the player that is guarding Odom is to help down on Gasol, and it’s when that defender helps that Odom can take advantage by cutting/slashing to the basket or into open space.  Second is to get Odom on the move more and coming to the ball on offense.  Similar to what I’ve described for Kobe above, those same sets can work for LO.  Have him curl into the paint for easy jump hooks.  Have him screen on the weakside and then open up to the ball handler to receive passes.  These are all tiny adjustments that can be used to get LO more active and more into the flow of the game.

We’re now at the point where adjustments and counters are going to be even more important.  Brooks’ adjustment to ride Harden’s hot hand and then switch Durant on to Kobe probably won the Thunder the game.  If Phil or the Lakers can make similar adjustments (in the form of the few I mentioned or others) the Lakers can take game 4 and be in command of the series.  However, if the Thunder are the ones that can make the changes that lead to more sustained success, they’ll have a great chance of returning to Staples with the series tied.  Which coach can do the better job and which players can follow through on the court is something that will determine the winner of game 4.  I’m hoping that Phil is the one that has the Thunder second guessing after the next game.

Los Angeles Lakers at Oklahoma City Thunder

This Lakers team can be so frustrating to watch. I honestly couldn’t believe how well they came out of the gate, starting with that 10-0 run which was extended to a 15-3 run. They had the opportunity to really run this team out of their own building by stepping on their collective throats – instead, they went away from what got them the lead to begin with. Out of their first six shots, only two of them were taken outside of 15 feet. Simple math tells us that the Lakers were shooting only 33 percent of their shots outside of 15 feet. For the course of the rest of the first half, the Lakers would take 24 of their next 38 from 15 feet and beyond, including 19 three pointers. 19. That’s 63.2 percent of their shots from 15 feet and beyond plus they were on pace to shoot 38 three pointers on the game. Just to put that in perspective, Orlando shot the most three-pointers by far this season, and they averaged just over 27 attempts per game. It goes without saying that the Lakers took 19 in a half is WAY. TOO. MANY. And this led to one of the main reasons the Lakers lost the game. As Darius told it in his recap:

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 Thunder had guys like James Harden and Jeff Green who were able to get going early because of all of those long rebounds. One of the easiest ways for guys to come out of slumps is for them to get easy buckets, and the Lakers shooting from the outside allows that to happen. Plus, it gave Russell Westbrook the opportunity to put down a couple of game changing dunks. While the Thunder were slumping in the first quarter, the play that really got them and their crowd into the game was that fast break dunk that he had coming from the left wing (a fast break that was beautifully executed, by the way). And there was also that VICIOUS dunk Westbrook that he dropped on Lamar Odom’s head with about 5:30 left in the second quarter.

Another huge reason the Thunder were able to pull out the win was because of Kevin Durant. You have to respect what he was able to do last night. Ron Artest did a great job of making all of his shots tough (he shot eight for 24), but even in shooting 33 percent, Durant had 29 points because he was much more aggressive than he was in both of the previous games getting to the line 13 times. He also made an impact of the game without scoring. From my game recap on, I said that he had “an extremely quiet 29 points.” When he was shooting free throws for his 26th and 27th points, I was legitimately shocked that he had that many. He was active on the boards, he was active on the defensive end, especially in the fourth, playing very good defense on Kobe.

Looking ahead, we know that the Lakers, if they play the right way, can run this team off the floor, but it’s about discipline at this point. Can the Lakers dedicate themselves to getting more touches inside? Can the Lakers rededicate themselves to rebounding the ball? Can the Lakers dedicate themselves to playing 48 minutes of defense? The answers are yes, yes, yes and yes. It’s just a matter of doing, which, as we all know, is much easier said than done.

From Silver Screen and Roll: The Oklahoma City Thunder can score on the Los Angeles Lakers. That wasn’t at all certain before tonight’s contest, a 101 to 96 Thunder victory in Game Three of the first-round series, but OKC now has a strong offensive effort it can point to as evidence that it can indeed lay a glove on the Laker D. It helps to have 34 free-throw attempts, apparently, but it can be done. About those free-throw attempts, and in particular the ginormous gulf separating the Thunder’s FTA total and that of the Lakers, who shot only 12. It’s hard to win when your opponent is shooting from the line so much more often than you are.

From Before the game started, TNT gave us a glimpse of the Thunder locker room where the 2010 coach of the year told his team that Serge Ibaka sent him a text that said that he didn’t need a motivational speech for the night’s game. Hearing something like that as a teammate of a guy who had to find his way to the NBA via The Republic of Congo and has had to learn English as a second language – that’s all the motivation that I need, and it was all the Thunder needed.

From the Daily Thunder: I really don’t know where to start. I’m sitting here, staring at a blank screen trying to will some letters to come out of my fingers. But I don’t feel like I can accurately sum up what tonight’s game was like. I guess loud would at least be a start.With thunderstorms rolling into Oklahoma City right around tip-off, I thought this might be the sign. It kind of felt like destiny. I think people in Dallas could feel the energy pulsating from the Ford Center, even 30 minutes before the game started. Fifteen minutes before tip, everyone in the place was on their feet. And they stayed there until the first bucket dropped.

From Land O’ Lakers: For most of the first three quarters of Game 3 at Ford Center, the Lakers were able to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder at arms length. L.A. started strong, scoring the game’s first 10 points, and were up 15-3 three-and-a-half minutes in. The Thunder scratched and clawed their way back- Would you expect anything else? but whenever it seemed OKC would bust through, the Lakers pushed back. In the second quarter, it was Kobe Bryant hitting a series of three-pointers. In the third, he knocked down a couple more jumpers while Pau Gasol exerted influence.

From the Daily Dime: These are the moments we wait for in sports, why we wade through protracted contract negotiations and lockout talk and super-long television timeouts. All of a sudden none of that matters and the only thing filling your field of vision is Russell Westbrook soaring for a dunk over Lamar Odom, followed by an otherworldly noise filling your ears. “That was the loudest I’ve ever heard a crowd,” the Thunder’s James Harden said. The decibel levels got jacked up even higher when Harden hit a 3-pointer, then Kevin Durant followed that with another 3 and the Oklahoma City Thunder, after playing from behind all night, had finally tied the score against the Lakers.

From The Los Angeles Times Lakers Blog: The roaring crowd stood on their feet Thursday at Ford Center, and all eyes locked in on Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant squaring off at the top of the key. The Thunder had just been nearly six minutes removed from taking the lead for the first time all night, but the following sequence in the fourth quarter provided even more of a trickling affect. Bryant drove left, dribbled behind his back and slashed right toward the free-throw line. Durant slid back, Bryant dribbled the ball between his legs and drove left since Durant gave him space. After cutting past the left elbow, Bryant pulled up for a jumper outside of the paint, but Durant swatted the ball away, raising the crowd’s decibel level to deafening proportions.

From the Los Angeles Times: Amid a prairie-rumbling roar, the eternal Lakers debate raged. Good Kobe or bad Kobe? With his team surrounded by the young energy of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the screeching hopes of their newbie fans, would Kobe Bryant’s addiction to the ball and the dramatic lift the Lakers or doom them? Good Kobe or bad Kobe? With the Lakers needing a lift to close out Game 3 and essentially clinch this first-round series Thursday, would his renowned postseason pops save the day, or ruin it?

From the OC Register: Jerry Buss didn’t make the trip to Orlando for the Lakers to win the NBA championship in their final 2009 road playoff game. He did make the trip to Oklahoma City to see them lose their first 2010 road playoff game. If Buss was second-guessing that decision Thursday night from his seat upstairs at the Ford Center, he might’ve also been wondering about that new contract he generously gave Lamar Odom. Odom has been unable to adjust his mentality to being back as a bench player so far in the postseason, but Buss’ investment in Odom was already validated in the regular season by more injuries to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

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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.