Archives For April 2010

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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.

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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.

For those of you who have been reading this site for a while, you’ve see the frequent post titled “Fast Break Thoughts,” a segment that Darius usually utilizes to get some random thoughts about the Lakers and other NBA related topics out for you guys to read. Today, however, I’m going to take a more literal sense out of the title, and demonstrate how the Lakers are losing points by not successfully completing fast breaks.

This is something that has bothered me all season and something that has continued into the post season. Below I have four examples of four terribly run fastbreaks with mistakes made by four different guards: Kobe, Fish, Brown and Farmar.

1. Kobe Bryant
This first fast break will begin a trend that you will see throughout all four examples. It begins with a Derek Fisher steal, who immediately advances the ball to Kobe with only Kevin Durant between Kobe/Fisher and the basket. This first picture shows how far away from the basket is when Derek Fisher makes the first pass. Ideally, you’d like to see the ball go right back to Fish to keep the single defender guessing, but as I already stated, this is the beginning of a trend that we’ll see throughout the post. Kobe is going to hold the ball too long, letting Durant only guard one instead of two.

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This second picture shows the very last second you want to hold the ball in this situation, but as you can see, Kobe isn’t even in a position to make the pass. He has his eyes on Fish, so you know that he’s going to make that pass, making the recovery for Westbook easier. Kobe’s pass ends up off mark, because he waited long enough for Durant’s long arms to have an affect on his passing lane. Westbrook recovers with his speed, forcing Fish to pump fake, allowing the rest of the Thunder to get back, alter the shot and get the defensive rebound (video of this fast break immediately follows the picture).
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2. Jordan Farmar
On this play, Lamar Odom comes up with a steal and makes a sloppy outlet pass to Jordan Farmar who catches the ball at the free throw line. The picture below shows Kobe ahead of him but neglects to show a Thabo Sefolosha who is already back on defense. Jordan Farmar needs to give this ball up early and fly down the wing on the opposite side and let someone else fill middle. This, of course, does not happen.

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This picture shows that Sefolosha has committed to not letting Kobe get the ball, forcing Farmar to score or make a decision — pretty much a brilliant play by Sefolosha.
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Here we see that Farmar has picked up his dribble at the free throw line at full speed. He needs to shoot or pass the ball at that point (this would have been a perfect time to throw a lob as Kobe has a great angle on the basket and can catch passes easier than coming from other angles). Instead, he continues his drive, gets caught in the air with Sefolosha all over him and is forced to give the ball up to Kobe (finally), but only now all of the Thunder defenders are back on defense.
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Here we see Kobe with the ball, with four Thunder defenders within three feet of him and his shot ends up getting blocked (again, video following the picture).
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3. Derek Fisher
This break begins with Artest knocking the ball out of Durant’s hands and making a brilliant save on the side line. Fish picks up the ball and immediately takes off on the break. I love this camera angle for this play only. We see Fish look at Kobe at the very last moment moment he should have passed it, but the picture below shows how early he should have passed. This time Westbrook hasn’t committed to any one yet, his back is turned to Kobe, so a pass here would have kept him guessing  — but continuing with our theme, Fish holds the ball too long.

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Here we see Fish throwing a lob to a Kobe who had began to slow down. Kobe makes an adjustment just to go up and get the pass, but has to come down with it, giving the rest of the Thunder defender time to recover. Their length bothers him and he misses another close one (video after the picture).
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4. Shannon Brown
On this final break, we see it begin by Artest poking another ball away from Durant. This time Brown picks  up the ball and streaks down the right sideline. This first picture shows that Gasol and Kobe had filled the lanes beautifully and were not even being looked at by Westbrook or Collison. Albeit difficult, a pass here to either the trailing Gasol or a pass near the rim to Kobe would have worked beautifully, but…

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Brown holds the ball all the way and gets fouled. I have less of a problem with this one because he got the two points, but if you watch Brown’s eyes from the second angle, you see that he’s not even looking to make the right play. His head is forward the whole way, sometimes looking down, completely unaware of what his options are — this is what I have a problem with. Not knowing your surroundings is what creates turnovers, and we saw far too many of those in Game 2 (video following picture).
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Hopefully, these guys can put together some decent enough fast breaks during Game 3 to get some easy points, which they’re definitely going to need on the road. I have some links that I want to share, and will a little later if work allows it. If not, share them amongst yourselves if you have any in the comment box.

-Phillip

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Over the course of this season, one of things that all Lakers fans wanted to see was improved chemistry between Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. We hoped that our twin seven footers could develop into an improved version of Duncan/Robinson or Hakeem/Sampson to make our front court even more dominant than it already has been over the past two seasons (where, anchored by Gasol the Lakers’ big man rotation helped this team reach two straight Finals). However, what we’ve witnessed instead has been our two bigs not quite clicking when paired on the court together.  Whether it’s the overlapping skill set, the lack of shared court time – in games and practices – due to injuries, or the fact that they just haven’t been reading from the same script ‘Drew and Pau just haven’t been as good together as we would have hoped.  I mean, the regular season numbers don’t lie on this one.  It’s no coincidence that the Lakers’ best lineups this year have featured one of Bynum or Gasol at center with Odom playing power forward.

However, are we starting to see a shift in the chemistry between our twin towers?  Could it be that Bynum and Gasol are finally starting to click?  Commenter Chownoir wants to know if you’re seeing the same things that he is:

Anyone notice that in the two games so far Pau and Bynum seem to work well together? I’m not talking about them playing well against a undersized OKC frontline. But how their games seem to be meshing well together. It was a huge concern earlier in the year about their inability to mesh and how a big game from one would detract from the other. Their respective injuries also took time away from learning how to play with each other.  Last two games, they seem to know where the other guy was and how to make the play for each other. Last night Bynum’s shot wasn’t falling but his D and rebounding was still there. While Pau continued to put up his points.

It turns out that Chownoir is not alone because our own Phillip was seeing the same things, with a couple of examples from the first two games against OKC:

I was recognizing the same thing with Bynum and Pau working together. In game 1, Pau caught a couple of passes in the right corner and was able to make the entry pass over the raised hands (of his defender) to Bynum that Fish, Farmar and Brown weren’t able to make. In Game 2, early in the third quarter, Pau made a gorgeous pass to Bynum from the top of the key. Bynum missed, but everyone collapsed on him, freeing up Gasol for the putback. A possession or two later, Bynum made a fantastic pass to Gasol which led to the dunk. Both passes were inside of the paint. I’ve wondered if Bynum would have the interior passing ability of a Shaq or Gasol, and he’s shown glimpses of it this series.

We’ve always known that having both Bynum and Gasol on the court helped our defense and rebounding.  But if these two can find that togetherness on offense too, this team can reach another level of success altogether.

Granted, two playoff games isn’t the biggest sample size.  And even though this duo had some good games together before Andrew’s achilles injury, we can’t necessarily say that this team has turned the corner quite yet.  But, the signs are encouraging.  Every high-low hook up, every post feed from Pau to ‘Drew, every time they properly space the floor for each other is another positive step in the evolution of this tandem’s togetherness.  They are truly starting to show that their early struggles to have success together were just growing pains that finally seem to be subsiding.  We may be finally be at the point where the learning curve is almost complete.  And frankly, this improved play couldn’t be coming at a better time.  With the Lakers’ outside shooters still not finding any consistency, the play of the Lakers’ big men will only be more heavily relied upon if this team hopes to have a long playoff run.

And while there are still reasons to be skeptical (even though they’ve shown improved chemistry, they still don’t always play well in the same game), I’m optimistic that they will only get better together.  I think that because they’ll continue to be given the reps, these two will feel each other out and find the ways that they can work together to take both of their games to a higher level.  They’ll explore more options within this offense and discover more ways that they can cover for each other on defense.  And personally, I can’t wait to see it.

LAKERS

We’re witnessing the ostensible growth of a young team that is going to be VERY good in a few years. The seeds have been planted through draft picks, they’ve been fertilized with a 50-win regular season and are being watered with their inaugural playoff series as a unit and franchise. All we have to do is wait and watch it grow. For the Oklahoma City fans out there, you just have to be patient – patient like we were with Kobe and Shaq in their first two seasons together. No, I’m not saying that Oklahoma City will be home to the next three-peat, but it will be the home of something special.

Special like Kobe Bryant giving his fans in Los Angeles (and across the world) another great playoff performance. He scored 39 points, 15 of which came in the fourth quarter, on a night where his father watched him play live for the first time in five years. Bryant’s 15 in the fourth was the difference in this one, as the Lakers were able to pull out a three point victory in Game 2.

Pau Gasol also had a big night, scoring 25 points with 12 points, his second double-double in as many playoff games. Outside of Kobe and Gasol, no other Laker scored more than six points. Much of this can be attributed to the Thunder raising their collective defensive intensity, recording 17 blocks as a team and turning the Lakers over 16 times.

What this game boiled down to the execution down the stretch – something that Darius (with the help of Kurt) touched on a few days ago:

Second is the fact that the Thunder aren’t the best executing team in crunch time and have had trouble this season closing out the tightly contested games.  The Thunder are 7-11 in games that are decided by three points or less and are 1-4 in overtime games.  As Kurt told me:

When games tighten up and defenses get tougher at the end of games, the Thunder tend to tighten up as well. Durant is still Durant, but he gets less help and their offense becomes more about isolation, and with that they often become stagnant and they go through dry spells. It’s a learning thing, they won’t do that in a couple of years.

Last night we saw the same lack of execution and tightness that Darius and Kurt talked about. With about 4:30 left in the game, Ron Artest was called for a foul which put the Lakers over the limit. At that point, you would expect it to be Kevin Durant time and for him to attack the basket relentlessly knowing that he’s getting free throws every time he’s fouled, but the opposite happened. He took a contested 18-footer, and after being called for a charge, didn’t take another shot until that three he took with 15 seconds left. In the same amount of time, we saw Kobe do what he does best: close out the game. He scored seven points and shot six free throws after the Artest foul.

The difference between the Lakers and the Thunder last night was definitely the experience. With time, Durant is going to learn how to take advantage of the situation, but for now, he should spend this series learning from the guy who’s been doing it for over a decade.

With the win, the Lakers go up 2-0 in their first round series and are now just 14 games away from the ultimate goal. Here are some of the best links on last night’s game:

From Silver Screen and Roll: I’m not sure what to write regarding Game 2 of the 1st round series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the OKC Thunder.  The Lakers won the game in a tight contest 95-92, and the game will be remembered one of two ways, depending on how this series (and any subsequent Lakers playoff series) goes.  Winston Churchill once said “History is written by the victors”, and I can’t help but think the way this game will be remembered is based entirely on how the Lakers perform in the rest of this postseason.  The reason for that is because there are two significant, and completely opposite, truths one can take from this game.  The 1st is that Kobe Bryant is absolutely still capable of willing his team to a victory if the situation calls for it.  The 2nd is that the Lakers, as a team, Kobe included, look old and tired right now.

From Yahoo! Sports: The locker-room doors swung open, and Kobe Bryant marched down the Staples Center corridor wearing big shades and bigger defiance. He ingested the relentless proclamations that his battered body had cut too deeply into his greatness, that his fragile state demanded that for the good of the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship chase he turn them over to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Everything balled up inside Bryant and ultimately uncoiled in Game 2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. “After 13 years,” Bryant would tell Yahoo! Sports on his walk to the interview room, “you’d think [bleepers] would know better by now.”’

From Hardwood Paroxysm: You could say the Oklahoma City Thunder made progress with the three-point loss to the Lakers on Tuesday night. They took what was for the most part a frustratingly mediocre game in the first part of this series and turned it into a two-point game with a Kevin Durant three-point attempt for a series tie heading back to Oklahoma. He didn’t make it. He clanged off the iron and eventually the Thunder had to settle for a missed Jeff Green three-pointer to try and send this game into overtime.

From NBA Fan House: No one was talking. Not even the talking heads. Jeff Green slowly put his bright blue tie in place on top of his matching shirt at his locker. Thabo Sefolosha softly slapped cologne on his neck nearby. In the corner of the dispirited Oklahoma City locker room late Tuesday night at the Staples Center — where the Lakers outlasted the Thunder 95-92 — veteran Kevin Ollie consoled James Harden in hushed tones.

From SLAMOnline: Someday, the Oklahoma City Thunder will look back on this series with newfound appreciation on what it takes to win a Playoff game. If you had told them before the game that Kevin Durant would score 32, the defense would block 17 shots, and they would have the lead with two-and-a-half minutes left, they would’ve felt pretty good about themselves. And they should feel pretty good about themselves, because they played their hearts out last night. But it wasn’t enough. That’s the thing about beating the champs; you have to go above and beyond what, on most other nights, would’ve been good enough for a victory. In the end, the Lakers made the plays they had to make, the Thunder didn’t. Advantage L.A., a 2-0 series lead after a 95-92 win.

From The Daily Dime: It always seems personal for Kobe Bryant, a continuous quest to test himself against the sport like a golfer taking on the course. A year after he realized his vision of winning a championship without Shaquille O’Neal, he suddenly had to prove himself all over again, to demonstrate that he can still steer the Lakers to a single playoff victory even with more than 37,000 NBA minutes on his odometer.

This is a fantastic look at how the Lakers defended the Thunder final three point attempt from NBA Playbook (With pictures and video): After a Kobe jumper, the Thunder were down two points with two minutes left in the 4th quarter.  Now Scott Brooks’ late game playcalling has been a source of much discussion around these parts, so I was real interested to see what Brooks would do in the playoffs needing a bucket. This is what Brooks came up with:

-Phillip