Last night the Lakers won a game at the FT line and that seems to have sparked some controversy about the nature of the calls, the refereeing, and what that meant about the game. So, before I get into anything about game 4, let me say this…
When it comes to the refereeing, I’ve always taken the same stance: players can’t control how the game is called, they must adjust to it and go from there. When I’m frustrated with the refs it’s normally because they make it difficult for the players to adjust by not calling fouls consistently on both sides of the floor or from possession to possession; that a foul on one end, isn’t a foul on the other. Last night, I didn’t think that was the case. However, what I did think was that much more contact was allowed in the paint than on the perimeter. Thus, any contact around the rim was met with a shrug while guys on the wing earned whistles for slight grabs and holds – especially when they were receiving passes or making their initial move to the rim.
For the players, I’m sure that’s frustrating but they must adjust to that and play on. Ultimately, in a 3 point game, the contest was there for either team to win. Plenty of plays could have been made by either side to claim the victory. The FT’s obviously mattered a lot. Saying otherwise would be disingenuous. But many other plays mattered too. Ignoring those would also be disingenuous. Whether the officiating evens out in the end is rarely my concern because that can’t be controlled. Complaining about it may make you feel better but it doesn’t change anything. I say this when the Lakers win or when they lose.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…
The quick turnaround between games means that there’s really no time to dwell on last night’s events. In a way, that favors the Thunder with their frustration fueling them and their younger legs able to carry them. They’ll surely be ready to play tonight; with their youth, they’d probably have been ready to play a double-header last night. This isn’t to say they won’t have any fatigue, but I anticipate it being more mental than physical. These close, hard fought playoff games blunt the brain and that takes time to recover -time neither team will have.
From the Lakers side, they’ll have both mental and physical fatigue to battle. They too have been through the ringer mentally. Only a few days ago they literally gave away a game and last night pulled out a similar contest. The roller coaster ride of those events would be taxing on any team, even a veteran one like the Lakers. Physically, they’ll have to deal with heavy legs. They’re trying to play a power game that requires the battling for position on every possession. That war for real estate is one of attrition that grinds players down. Being the aged team doesn’t aid them here and bouncing back to provide the same effort tonight will prove difficult.
It’s necessary, however. For the Lakers to win, they must continue to ugly up the game. The Thunder continue to be the favorite as the deeper, younger team. But if the series remains a slugfest, the gap lessens between both squads. A back alley brawl favors the bigger, more physical team. And as Mike Brown has said, he wants his group to carry that label. If the Lakers can force this type of action on the Thunder, they can get the them to play on their turf both figuratively and literally tonight.
That said, expect more adjustments from the Thunder tonight to counter L.A.’s gameplan. The Lakers are daring the Thunder big men to beat them, gambling more and more as these games (and possessions) progress. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are leaving their men with reckless abandon to help on screen actions. Off the ball they’re stepping out – sometimes as far as the three point line – to help with ball denials to obstruct passing angles. Sooner or later the Thunder are going to recognize this and simply pass the ball to their big men who are setting screens and test the Lakers rotations underneath. I mean, if Kevin Durant is going to draw his man and the man guarding the screener, that screen man is the one that’s open. If the Lakers weak side rotations (especially the backside big) isn’t quick to rotate, this action will start to produce layups. They must be ready to help the helper and thwart these counters.
The Thunder also showed a nice offensive wrinkle where they ran Durant off a pin-down screen and then used him as a screener on the ball in the P&R for Westbrook. Durant darting to the top of the circle got Ron trailing and in poor position to help on the ball handler as he turned the corner off KD’s screen. This action freed Westbrook on at least two occasions and set him up with clean mid-range jumpers at the foul line. This is a creative play and the Lakers must be ready for it, and other actions that involve a man coming off a screen only to set another. These types of actions can work with any of OKC’s three main perimeter threats handling the ball or setting the screen so the Lakers must be ready to help – especially the back line bigs who become primary rotators when the perimeter D breaks down.
Offensively, the Lakers must simply do what they’ve done the past two games. Last night Andrew Bynum didn’t shoot well but he got the exact looks the team wants him to get. When he battled for position he was able to work 10 feet and in, where a power dribble set him up for any one of his hooks or counters. He was visibly frustrated that some of these shots weren’t falling but his perseverance led to him earning FT’s while also contributing to the overall gameplan of bully ball through power post ups. This is the approach that he needs to take again tonight, with the hope that some of those bunnies he missed start to fall.
Kobe too must build on his approach from last night. As I mentioned in the preview and Jeff Van Gundy mentioned during the telecast, Kobe’s economy of dribbles and quick strike attack are what will work best against this team. One dribble pull up jumpers, two dribble attacks to the rim, and movement off the ball that gets him paint touches are how he can score best. Sefolosha is one of the better defenders around but even he can have trouble dealing with a decisive Kobe who isn’t looking to fake his way into baskets.
Ultimately, though, the two players who really need to bring their ‘A’ offensive games are Ramon Sessions and Pau Gasol. Sessions’ first half was a sight for sore eyes, as he worked well on and off the ball attacking the seams of the defense to either score or set up teammates. Tonight he’ll likely need to take and make a couple of jumpers to keep the defense honest but it’s his overall mindset needs to carry over from last night. He must be assertive and inject himself into the action, the Lakers are a much better offensive team when this happens.
As for Pau, he must move from supporting actor to lead role tonight. Last night’s game gave him the opportunity to mostly facilitate and work the glass but he’ll need to be more aggressive looking for his own shots in game 4. He can shoot his jumper over Ibaka when given space but, like Kobe, can make quick drives to the rim when he’s crowded on the perimeter. Last night he tried to create off the dribble but settled for pull up jumpers but tonight he must try to get all the way to the rim to get baskets and/or earn trips to the foul line. Also, he must find a way to beat the fronting defense he faces when matched up with Nick Collison. He must continue to try and root Collison up the the lane line, something his teammates must recognize and then throw the ball over the top off ball reversals and high-low actions.
The difference between a 2-2 series and 3-1 series is huge. If tonight ends with the latter, the Lakers may be able to fight off OKC (much like Denver did the Lakers last round) for a game or two more but the inevitability of ultimate defeat will loom large. However if it’s the former, the Lakers are right back in the series with both teams needing to take 2 of 3 to advance. Even as an underdog, that’s where the Lakers would like to be. Tonight will require all their fortitude, discipline, and guile. But the plan is in place for them to follow. They just have to go get it.