On Wednesday night in game two of their series versus the Thunder, the Lakers handed away a victory. Gift wrapped, and ready to go. Oklahoma City was happy to take the gift though, earning it with one clutch play after another, while the Lakers seemingly did their best to forfeit the sure win. The result was a 77-75 win for the Thunder, an excruciating defeat difficult to endure for a Laker team, and their faithful. Laker players and coaches so much as acknowledged giving away a coveted road playoff victory, but also exuded confidence in their overall performance of the game, that went awry at worst of times. A loss of that nature doesn’t exactly breed confidence, that’s crazy talk. Their conviction, however, might not be so insane after all. If Laker fans can believe it, there are some silver linings for the Lakers, and Friday night’s game three couldn’t be bigger.
The Thunder are arguably the best team left in these playoffs. If head coach Mike Brown was told before that he would have a chance to win the game, with an open Steve Blake three-ball from the corner, at the buzzer, he would smile so big you’d forget he has a face, just teeth. Let’s just say he’d be pleased. But if you told him that his team gave up a seven point lead in just over two minutes, that led to that Blake three pointer, his stomach might turn inside out. An atom bomb to the heart.
First let’s recap the meltdown. Andrew Bynum made a left handed jump-hook with 2:08 to play, giving the Lakers a seven point lead, the largest margin for both teams that game. Those were their last points of the game. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks called a 20-second time out, but by then it looked like the game was already in the mangled hands of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. What ensued were a combination of Brooks’ adjustments and the Lakers sudden lack of urgency. After the Thunder time out, James Harden used all of nine seconds as he glided to the hoop for one of his (by now) signature layups, cutting the lead to five. On the next Lakers possession as a result of Brooks benching of Thabo Sefolosha in exchange for more offense, Kevin Durant had now switched to guarding Bryant. The 6’10 Durant did a terrific job moving his feet and disrupting Bryant with his length, forcing him to throw a lazy post-entry pass that looked spoon fed to Durant. The steal resulted in a one-man fast break for Durant as Bryant chased to no avail. An open Durant dunk, and in roughly 15 seconds, the Thunder chopped a seven point cushion to three.
The two teams then traded stops, and with a minute to go Kobe would have his next forgettable moment. Sixty seconds away, the Lakers needed quality possessions. What exactly that that entail in late games? Giving Kobe the ball and watching, which is usually a good idea. On defense James Harden had switched on Kobe, and Bryant looked to muscle the smaller, bearded Harden to the post. The result was a blocked Bryant jumper, with the Thunder then passing the ball ahead to a streaking Harden who beat three Laker defenders to the rim, scoring on his own personal fast break. The block-turned-to-bucket took four seconds, leaving 56 seconds to a rattled Laker squad who were then only up one,75-74.
The Lakers next possession, like the entire final two minutes, was another forgettable one for Bryant. The ball ended in Bryant’s hands once more, and usually there aren’t a more trustworthy set of mitts around. Intent on continually shooting jumpers, Bryant pulled up on a three pointer that missed, giving the Thunder a chance to take a lead they didn’t think could be returned to them. Through all the turbulence, not a single time-out came from Coach Brown, letting his veteran team play through their mistakes. It was only after Durant hit a short floater to give the Thunder a 76-75 edge, with 18 seconds left, when Brown called a full timeout.
The rest, as we know it, is history: Sefolosha commits a foul-to-give on Kobe with 5.5 seconds left, Bryant gets denied the ball on the sideline out-of-bounds play resulting in a timeout to avoid a five second violation, then Blake getting the open look in the corner on the next inbound attempt. Durant makes a meaningless free throw with less than a second to make it 77-75, and there you have it, blown game for the Lakers. Encouraging stuff for the purple and gold, I know. But there are some positives to take away from game two.
For one, the Thunder offense was being dictated by the Lakers tempo and physicality. They were held to 43% shooting from the field and scored just 77 points, a full twenty points less than their league-leading season average (97.2ppg). More importantly was their strategy against Durant and Westbrook. Metta World Peace’s defense doesn’t stuff stats, it just quiets his opponents instead as his impact is immeasurable. Durant did finish with 22 points, which is plenty when your team has 77. But World Peace made him uncomfortable on offense and forced him to commit several turnovers, finishing with four. Durant was never able to get his offense going, a tribute to World Peace’s defense and activity. Westbrook was hounded on offense as well, with Laker perimeter defenders challenging his jumpers, and the big’s not making the paint accessible. A lack of transition opportunities also denied Westbrook of open lanes and easy opportunities for himself, and teammates. The Lakers total effort resulted in Westbrook missing 12 of his 17 shots and 15 hard earned points.
The Thunder are still young and can sometimes get baited into taking errant shots, with Westbrook being the problem’s poster-child. Eagerness, the downside of their youth. The upside? A seven point deficit being halved to three in 15 seconds.
A poise, and patient confidence that comes with being tested. That’s the upside of being a veteran. The Lakers display it all the time, the calm and confident way they earn, give up, then steal back leads. Some call it arrogance, which then becomes a downside. Shooting 38% isn’t going to win you many games but credit the Thunder defense at the basket, tallying 16 blocks in games 1-2 combined. The Lakers though, still had them squirming in their grip.
The Lakers are like a child who’s IQ and test scores are qualified for Harvard Law School, but he drags his feet doing homework or doesn’t give his best effort all the time because of some type of A.D.D. These stretches of abandoned basketball sense and urgency will lead to the demise of the Lakers, and Wednesday night was a prime example. The Lakers showed that by putting a choke-hold on the Thunder in game two, and the fight looked to be over. Right before the Thunder looked about ready to tap out, the lack of Laker attention let them out of their submission. The Thunder then knocked them out. Thankfully for Laker supporters there are more rounds to fight. The Lakers are a franchise that expects to be great, confidence shouldn’t be a problem for Coach Brown and Co. Effective adjustments were made between the first two games, and the Lakers seemed to have an enlightening video session after game two, sounding comfortable afterward.
The Lakers began this series with the Thunder with a small margin for error. The Thunder are darn good. There’s a good reason the Thunder are undefeated thus far in these playoffs, and arguably the best team in them. Down 0-2, that margin is now paper thin for the Lakers, as they can’t afford to take any more steps backwards. In game two’s loss the Lakers took a few steps forward before moonwalking all the way back to defeat.
There are silver linings; however, in these clouds caused by the Thunder (if you were waiting for the pun, you can now celebrate). It’s up to the Lakers, whose battle now is even more uphill, to not take their collective eye off of the prize. If they can sustain their focus, their submission-hold on the Thunder will only get stronger. And if not? Then OKC will get up and knock them out, again.