If you missed this game, I feel sorry for you and envy you at the same time.
The Lakers played hard tonight. Coming off a back to back game, I feared for how their legs would hold up. I feared how a young, talented, and vengeful Thunder team would take it to them mercilessly. I knew that the Lakers had a plan that worked but worried if they’d have the gas in their tank to execute it.
Early in this game, my fears and worries seemed to be misplaced. The Lakers looked to be the fresher team. They played a quicker tempo than expected and took advantage of their transition opportunities. After a rough start defensively, they found their stride on that side of the floor, getting up on screen actions and contesting shots. They pressured ball handlers and controlled the back boards. They played well.
Kobe Bryant was in full attack mode. He flashed his trademarked footwork but did his work quickly and decisively. He’d swing through, take two dribbles, and explode to the rim. He’d dribble once, slow, and then explode out of a hesitation move. He worked the post, turn and face, and then take a quick first dribble before elevating for his jumper. He drew fouls every which way imaginable. He was brilliant. Until he wasn’t. But we’ll get to that later.
Bynum, too, brought his ‘A’ game. He controlled the post offensively and had his entire arsenal going. On one possession he’d hit a middle jump hook. On another a turnaround jumper. Then, a couple possessions later, he’d sprint the floor for a dunk. After that he’d step through and draw a foul and earn FT’s.
Others also did well. Jordan Hill made an impact on the glass – especially on the offensive end. Ron hit some big three pointers and played hard nosed D, getting his hand on loose balls and helping to force turnovers. Sessions was again very good in getting into the paint and creating for others while Blake was also solid even though he had a rough shooting night.
Things were going well and this is why if you missed this part of the game, I feel for you. The Lakers were holding a lead in the 7 to 10 point range for most of the night and while they weren’t cruising, they were mostly in control.
Only thing is, with a team as good and as explosive as the Thunder, control is fleeting. And this is why if you went and saw the Avengers tonight or had a nice dinner with a loved one or if you simply got caught in traffic, I envy you. Because you wouldn’t have watched the Lakers surrender another lead down the stretch; you wouldn’t have had your heart broken for the 2nd time since Wednesday.
The Lakers led by 13 with 8:02 left in this game. When you lead by that much but then lose by 3 it’s a slow death; it’s stepping in a pit of quicksand. And when you lose that type of lead, it doesn’t happen because of a single play.
The Lakers played poorly on both ends. Things started to pile up and they didn’t have any answers for what the Thunder were doing to them. Defensively, they couldn’t slow Russell Westbrook. He was magical, creating shots out of nothing by sliding through the cracks of the Laker D and masterfully using every inch he was given. If the Lakers didn’t step out high enough on the P&R, he’d hit a pull up jumper. If they came out high and thwarted his first attempt to attack, he’d pull back and then attack again to find the crease he sought. He truly was something special tonight.
Offensively, the Lakers simply couldn’t regain their formula for success. OKC started to front the post w/ Perkins taking away easy entry passes to Bynum. Gasol was also fronted when he tried to post but he then countered by moving to the elbow area and shallow wing. With their bigs disrupted, the ball stayed on the perimeter but no one was moving or screening and the ball stuck to a single side of the floor but with few options for release. When this happens, Kobe normally ends up with the ball and he’s going to shoot it. We’ve seen this for years – it’s not a Mike Brown problem, the same thing happened under Phil Jackson. I’m not necessarily even going to blame Kobe here either. He’s on the perimeter and guys are looking for outlets. He’s a pretty aggressive guy in making himself available for the ball and doesn’t mind shooting. Maybe he could have done more to get everyone going. Maybe not.
In the end, Kobe’s play is just one piece of the puzzle though. Again, the bigs couldn’t carve out space. When Pau caught the ball (which, to be fair wasn’t even that often) he wasn’t assertive looking for his shot. The same could be said for Blake. When Ron caught the ball he had no problem shooting but due to his earlier success, he was being guarded more closely and was not afforded the type of open looks he’d already proven he could knock down.
And with all this going wrong, the Lakers gave up their lead. The Thunder chipped away, the Lakers continued to stumble and that was that. Pau’s errant pass and Durant’s dagger three were just the final bright neon signs that fancily displayed what had already been occurring for a full seven and a half minutes. I know those two plays will get the headlines – they were major plays in the final minute of a close game – but let’s be real here. Those plays aren’t even part of the equation if the full collapse wasn’t already on. They may have been the proverbial straw the broke the camel’s back but it’s really the million other straws that break it, no?
After a thousand words of this recap, though, I only have one last thing to say. There’s a way of viewing this that the Lakers have been the better team this series. They’ve only won a single game but have been mostly fantastic in two others with a tragic inability to close out what looked to be sure victories. To that, I say, that’s a nice story but the better team – the team that’s been favored to win – is the one that’s leading 3-1 in this series. Back when the Lakers were winning championships they were the team that would win this game in the way the Thunder did. No lead was ever safe; no game was ever really out of reach. And when the Lakers would win those games – under circumstances very similar to the ones that led to the Thunder winning this one – we’d all say that the Lakers were the better team. We’d say that they found a way to win. Well, give the Thunder credit because in game 4 they found a way to win, they were the better team.