Lakers/Thunder: Down The Stretch, OKC Seized The Win

Darius Soriano —  April 10, 2011

For the first time since the 2006-07 season, the Lakers are losers of 5 straight. The Thunder came to Staples and pulled out the win by the count of 120-106, pulling away down the stretch while the Lakers faltered. A pretty frustrating way to end the night considering the tenor of the game at the start of the final frame. To pour salt in the wounds, this loss puts the Lakers’ seeding into further flux as they’re now tied with the Mavs in the loss column and only sit one game ahead of the surging Thunder.

Below are a few positives and negatives from this game. Since the Lakers were on the wrong side of the result, we’ll get the negatives out of the way first…

Negatives:

*The Lakers didn’t do a very good job guarding the Thunder in this game. OKC shot 55.6% from the field, including a blistering 8-17 from the three point arc. And while I don’t expect the Thunder to shoot that well from the field consistently (Durant and Westbrook hit some tremendous shots – shots they’re capable of hitting – but some of them were well challenged), it’s not a stretch for NBA players to hit the shots that are wide open. And the Thunder had too many of those for the Lakers’ liking. On several possessions the Lakers left Daequan Cook wide open and he made them pay with 2 made three pointers. Serge Ibaka (a better mid-range shooter than given credit for) was also left open too often and he too made the Lakers pay with made jumpers. The Lakers also surrendered too many driving lanes to every OKC ball handler, but Durant was especially active off the bounce as Ron too often allowed him to escape dribble to his right hand and then get into the paint for runners and all the way to the rim for finishes at the hoop.

*Continuing on the defense theme, the Lakers also ushered the Thunder to the foul line for 35 FT attempts – 33 of which were knocked down. Too many times the Lakers reached in on the wing or got beat and just delivered a dumb foul that sent the Thunder to the line. James Harden was particularly appreciative of the Lakers want to grab and reach in as he took 10 FT’s himself, sinking 9 of them. The Lakers’ inability to play defense without fouling or at least their inability to play specific possessions without fouling really was one of the major keys to this game that won’t be remembered a week from now. I mean we’ll all remember some of the spectacular shots that Durant & Westbrook made, but those 33 points that OKC got at the line were killers.

*What also killed the Lakers was their penchant  for turning the ball over in the 4th quarter. The Lakers coughed up the ball 9 times and most of them were of the careless variety. Players dribbling off their own feet or simply losing their handle when trying to drive. Players diving for the ball (good stuff there) but then throwing the ball away rather than calling a timeout or just settling for the jump ball. Being lax against the trap and throwing a cross court pass that gets picked off. Kobe was one of the main offenders here but he didn’t commit all these turnovers on his own. The entire team was just too casual with the ball and it allowed OKC to build a lead and hold onto as the Lakers couldn’t possess the ball long enough to even get up shots.

*The bench players not named Steve Blake left a lot to be desired tonight. Offensively this group couldn’t find a rhythm and struggled to score for most of their time on the floor. Their first half stint coincided with a big OKC push that the starters then had to try and dig their way out of when they came back into the game. Shannon Brown, sadly, deserves special recognition for his poor play in the first half as he found himself unable to contain James Harden on D (ultimately getting pulled for Luke Walton with Matt Barnes then sliding over to guard Harden), and did little of note on offense to make up for it. But Shannon wasn’t alone. Lamar also had a rare off night doing little in the way of scoring or rebounding and Matt Barnes didn’t record a basket even though he had a few good looks at the rim. In the end, just a poor night from most of the reserves in a game where an effective game from them would have gone a long way.

Positives:

*Pau Gasol was fantastic tonight. He played aggressive, smart basketball and took it to the Thunder on nearly every play. Better yet, he seemed to have a plan on every possession. Rather than hold the ball and wait for something to develop, he acted quickly and decisively to exploit the Thunder D. Considering the Thunder’s size upgrade (and the insertion of Serge Ibaka into their starting line up) has been noted as a reason for optimism in  match up with the Lakers, tonight that wasn’t relevant to their win at all. Gasol had his way with Ibaka for most of the night and had him hesitating on D late in the game after showing him different aspects of his arsenal for most of the contest. In the future Pau may not have as easy a time as he did tonight, but this game is certainly something that Gasol can build on if these teams face off again in the playoffs.

*Kobe was also pretty efficient on the night and had a good game against Thabo Sefolosha. Early on Kobe struggled in getting his jumper off cleanly, but over the course of the game he found his rhythm and quickly found gaps in the defense to attack the paint to get to the rim. This aggression got Kobe 10 FT attempts on the night and overall his ability to operate 15 feet and down was a great sight to see considering how often he’s been relying on his jumper of late.

*Overall, on offense, the Lakers had a bit of a bounce back game. They shot well from three point range (7-15) and had a lot of good sequences in this contest. Once they started to go inside with consistency they found their groove and I don’t think that was a coincidence. They had 23 assists on their 38 made baskets and also had a very good night at the FT line by going 23-28 from the stripe. If they would have stuck with their inside game for longer (and gone to it earlier) I think they would have had a better chance in this game, but considering how poorly they played on offense in the previous 4 losses this game was a definite step in the right direction.

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In the end, I don’t like the fact that the Lakers lost and I have a few concerns about this team moving forward (most notably the bench play). But I also see some positives in this game that shouldn’t be completely dismissed just because the team lost. As mentioned, the offense was better tonight and even though the defense was sub-standard, OKC hit a lot of shots that I just tip my cap to them for knocking down (none more so than Thabo’s 3 pointer that gave them the lead down the stretch). There are surely things to clean up, but I’m more encouraged after this game than I was after the Warriors and Blazers losses for sure. This game looked nothing like those games in that the Lakers actually played well but ran into a team that played better. In the previous losses the Lakers played very poorly and with little energy and were ran out of the gym. Even though the Blazer game was a single digit loss and this game was a 14 point defeat, it’s clear which game was actually closer and which game the Lakers actually played better in. And while I understand the seeding implications that this loss now puts into play, the Lakers still control their fate in securing the #2 seed. At this point, that’s all I can ask for and I won’t worry about slipping into a lower slot until it actually happens and we see what all the seedings look like for all the teams. So as crazy as I’m sure this sounds, I feel better about this team than I did yesterday. We’ll see if that feeling is warranted on Tuesday when the Lakers play the Spurs.

Darius Soriano

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