I’m not sure there are many people that expect a Laker win tonight. They’re on the road, are coming off a meltdown loss that triggered some finger pointing comments, and it’s all under the backdrop of the Lakers performing poorly in these types of games (see game 4, Mavericks, 2011 playoffs). Add in several other variables – OKC’s talent and determination, this being their 3rd game in 4 nights – and the Lakers are facing long odds tonight.
That said, the game is happening and the Lakers have said they’ll be ready. Outside of closing games (an important factor, obviously) they’ve played extremely well since game 2 of this series and their blueprint for success is still in place. Will they conjure the effort and resolve needed to win is certainly the number one question but if they do, another game within reach is on the docket for tonight. On the whiteboard after game 4 the words “one game at a time” were written so here’s hoping they take that to heart.
A few keys for this evening:
*Pick and roll coverages remain critical. Down the stretch of game 4, the Lakers’ D came unraveled mostly due to the pressure Russell Westbrook placed in OKC’s P&R attack. He did more than probe, he propelled himself through the cracks and created good shots. We’ve been saying it since game 1 but bears repeating: the Lakers must step up high, contest the ball handler, and make the Thunder go to their secondary options. When the ball moves, the Lakers must rotate and do so with energy and precision. The Thunder want to move the ball around the perimeter to create good looks and this means the bigs must leave the paint to cover Thunder players moving around the wing. Doing this successfully is what makes the defense work.
*Ron needs help in isolation against Durant. Artest is a proud defender that still scraps hard and shows tremendous fight. And, in a lot of situations he’s doing a fine job of bothering Durant. However, one of those areas isn’t in 1-4 isolations where Durant has a live dribble. Durant’s ability to pull up from range is forcing Ron higher out on the floor and his improved handle is making it difficult for Ron to contain him off the dribble. Game 4’s dagger was the product of this exact situation as Ron sagged back playing the drive only to have KD put up a three pointer off the bounce. Ron must do a better job of keeping KD on one side of the floor but his help must be there when he uses his dribble to attack the paint. KD has shown he can be turnover prone when the second defender shows timely help but the issue is that the help isn’t always there. Ron’s been such a great defender during his time with the Lakers that it looks like the back line isn’t as aware when he’s working in isolation. Tonight, they’ll need to be as I expect Durant to attack early and often now that he’s back home.
*Pau Gasol must get a bit greedy, but not overly so. Pau’s been put through the ringer for his game 4 decision making and there’s merit to some of the criticism. For a player as cerebral as Pau, shoot-pass decisions are probably some of the more difficult ones he has to make on any given possession. And, seemingly, his unselfish nature skews more towards making the pass than taking the shot. There’s a reason Pau’s had so many lob assists to Andrew Bynum this season. However, the Lakers, as currently constructed, lack scoring punch. Pau is a versatile scorer and can aid the Lakers in their pursuit of more points. To score, he must turn down passing opportunities and look for his own chances. That said, as a key facilitator within the offense, he must also continue to seek out open teammates who can also boost the Lakers’ O. Pau has a difficult balance to strike tonight but it’s imperative he find it for the Lakers to win.
*Sessions needs more floor time and must do something with it. Games 3 and 4 showed that Sessions can be effective against the Thunder. He’s starting to find creases out of the P&R and he’s using his quickness off the ball to cut into the gaps when his teammates draw attention. He’s been a key player in the 1st half of the last two games but has faded down the stretch and been replaced by Blake in closing games. Well, in game 4 I thought the Lakers paid for keeping Blake on the floor as the Thunder guarded him a bit more closely and didn’t afford him the open shots he’d typically get. In turn, the Lakers had one less play maker on the floor (Sessions) in favor of a spot up shooter not given the room to do what he does best (Blake). I’d love to see Sessions get some extended run in this game and for him to take advantage of it by staying aggressive. I’ve mentioned the need for more points, Sessions can be someone that provides them.
*Hit the glass hard. The Thunder are strong rebounding team but they’re also a team that loves to help on paint touches. Ibaka and Perkins will both leave their men to slide into a contest position when the ball threatens the basket. The Lakers bigs must fight their way to the ball and get second shots. The Lakers haven’t been a very efficient offensive team this series but a way to counter that is to get extra possessions on the glass. Getting them tonight is imperative.
There are many more keys, obviously. Tempo, locking down role players, and avoiding fouls are all important. But none are more than what I mentioned at the top of this post: the Lakers must bring the requisite effort to win. They mustn’t get down on themselves in things don’t go their way. They mustn’t stop fighting if they get in an early hole. The Thunder will be ready to go from the opening whistle and the Lakers must understand that they’ll have to take a couple of shots on the chin and keep coming if they’re to win.
No one expects the Lakers but they must believe that they can. Here’s to both teams flying back to Los Angeles.