The Lakers enter game three as desperate as they could be. Wednesday’s game two offered a roadmap to victory but the Lakers veered of course before their destination, driving off a cliff to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Tonight they’ll need to be better for longer or risk having the final nail put in their coffin by going down 3-0.
As stated though, the roadmap does exist. The Lakers found some promising defensive adjustments in game 2 that they should be able to refine and carry forward this evening. They’ll need to continue to play the P&R higher to better cut off driving lanes and contest pull up jumpers. They’ll also need to continue to play off ball actions better by clogging the paint to encourage the Thunder to kick the ball out or be forced to shoot over a helping defender. Kobe will also need to be as effective as a roamer as he was in game 2 when he consistently left Sefolosha to dig down in the paint and help on Durant and Westbrook when they came close to the paint. This tactic muddied up the FT line area that the Thunder were so effective in attacking in game 1 while also forcing some bad passes.
That said, the Lakers can’t rest on their laurels and simply go out and do the same things defensively with impression the Thunder won’t make some adjustments of their own. In game 2 the Thunder bigs (especially Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed) overpassed and didn’t look for their shots immediately even when wide open. These are the players the Lakers respect least on defense (along with Sefolosha), but I can imagine Scott Brooks letting them know that they’ll be open and that they should attack when given room. The Lakers must also be aware of back door actions and quick counters to the overplays that were successful. The Thunder can use slip screen actions, weak side cuts, and quick ball movement to disable a defense that jumps at their main scorers, so being prepared for those counters is imperative.
What’s also imperative is the Lakers finding some reliable offense. When we look at game two, we’ve mostly focused on how the Lakers held the Thunder to only 77 points but the Lakers only scored 75 of their own. Unless this team finds more reliable offense, they’ll continue to be in games where the Thunder’s superior scoring efficiency comes back to bite them. They must create a larger cushion and/or find ways to get good looks when OKC’s defense tightens.
First and foremost, this means getting Kobe on track. He’s shooting 37.2% so far this series, mostly on highly contested jumpers that are easily challenged. He must find ways to crack the code of Sefolosha’s defense and I think there are a couple of ways it can happen. First is that if Kobe’s going to do a lot of work in isolation, he needs to compact his game. What I mean is that he needs to make his moves quicker and avoid using so many fakes to try and get his man out of position. In game 2 he had a fair amount of success taking one or two dribbles and elevating quickly to shoot his jumper or taking an extra dribble to get all the way to the rim. But when he had to make his catch on the dribble and try to shake his man or if he went into a headfake clinic to try and get his man in the air, neither Thabo nor Harden were taking the bait. Kobe needs to refine his game while also getting more help from his teammates in the form of better screens and quicker passes when he breaks open on his cuts.
The bigs must also continue to grind away. Andrew Bynum has proven he can beat single coverage consistently and needs to continue to do so. If he can work to get moderately deep post position he should be able to get off his lefty jumphook and then counter off that with his step through where he goes under the rim to finish on the other side of the basket. In game 2 he showed how effective this arsenal could be as long as he could beat the fronting D to establish the block. Gasol can also work in the post but will need to continue to show variety. He worked well driving to his left hand and finishing with that sweeping lefty hook. If he can continue to make that move he can work in counters to that where he pivots and then finishes strong with his right hand as well. He’ll also need to continue to hit his jumper so that his man has to play him close enough to open up that drive.
Tonight’s also a game where the Lakers role players need to find their stride. Playing at home should help some, but they must be active and assertive in order to seize a strong performance. Barnes and Blake must look to maximize their strengths by hitting spot up jumpers (Blake) and slashing to the rim and getting out in the open court (Barnes). Jordan Hill must also continue his fine work on the glass while also getting some garbage baskets when his big man partner draws attention. He was great at that in game 2, he must carry it over.
And, finally, Ramon Sessions must find a way to make a difference. I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that his play has been disappointing and while I’d attribute a lot of his shortcomings to the style of game he’s being asked to play and the general offensive scheme in place, there are ways he can be better. He must shoot when he’s open and do so with confidence. He must also take more command off possessions and run more actions that get him in position to hurt the defense. Primary sets may be for Kobe and the bigs but there’s a stretch in every 2nd and 4th quarter where he shares the floor with Pau as the only offensive threat but he’s still not aggressive enough. When they share the floor he can call more P&R’s and isolations for himself and no one would be mad. Also, whenever he’s being guarded by a player besides Westbrook, he should look to attack first and create something positive. That doesn’t have to be a shot for himself – a drive and kick to a shooter or draw and dish to a big can do wonders for this offense.
The Lakers are in a deep hole. Tonight they either start to climb out or get buried alive. Game 2 offered a moral victory but those count even less in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. Tangible success in the form of a victory needs to come for this team and it must start tonight. It won’t be easy as the Thunder offer the stiffest challenge of any opponent since the 2008 Celtics but that doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t continue to fight. If they need inspiration, they only need to look back a round at the team they vanquished. This series reminds me of that one in that after getting blown out in game 1, the Nuggets fought back in game 2 but still came up short. When they got home, they carried over that success to win the next
two games game and two of the next three. The Lakers can do the same thing, but they must believe and then go do it. It starts tonight.