Lakers/Thunder Game Recap
by Todd Spehr
Unlike most youthful teams making their initial foray into Playoff basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder isn’t merely happy to be here. Rightly or wrongly, they feel their place alongside the Western Conference’s elite is thoroughly deserved; that pushing the defending champion Lakers on their home floor twice wasn’t coincidental or accidental. Youth, apparently, isn’t an excuse.
On paper, it’s a matchup of most uneven proportions: Phil Jackson, owner of ten rings as a coach, pitted against Scotty Brooks, owner of zero Playoff wins; Kobe Bryant, with four rings, two scoring titles and one MVP, against Kevin Durant, just 21 with a scoring title to his name and currently at a place where Kobe once was – the possibilities out in front of him; even the cities, Los Angeles with ten titles of their own and Oklahoma City hosting its very first Playoff game, couldn’t be further divided.
In many ways it was Brooks’ night. Named NBA coach of the year just one day earlier, his pregame address to the media was insightful, revealing that his work ethic and drive was inherited from a mother who raised seven kids on her own and never made excuses. Asked to deliver something of a mantra, Brooks said, “Work hard, be humble, and give credit where credit is due.” When he left the interview room, Phil Jackson was waiting in the hallway. They shook hands. While Jackson’s hands may be full of rings, there is a bond with Brooks, for their coaching careers began the hard way: for Jackson it was with Albany in the CBA, for Brooks with Los Angeles of the ABA, where both were required to engage in the menial tasks, whether it be washing uniforms or driving the team van, as well as coaching. It’s a long road. When David Stern presented Brooks the award prior to the tip, there was a deafening roar, and all Thunder players rushed to embrace their coach at mid-court. It was a nice touch.
The mood in the Oklahoma City locker room before the game was rather laid back. Jeff Green was flicking through a copy of SLAM that featured him on the cover, confessing that when he was younger he used to go straight to the back of the magazine to check out the new shoes first before anything else. Russell Westbrook had his feet up, digesting Game 2 on film, while also listening to a light-hearted promise by a writer that next time he’d get a cover of SLAM all to himself (Note: He might have to settle for a Slamadamonth). Durant was in front of his stall in the corner, swarmed by a dozen writers; with Playoff games comes Playoff scrutiny, and with the pre-series Phil Jackson exchange and constant questions regarding Ron Artest’s physical (and somewhat effective) defense, a minute measure of KD’s innocence has been stripped in the past week by a national media contingent seemingly searching for a chink in the armor. There was some relief, however, as he talked about how happy he was for Brooks, and about the bond he shares with a group of teammates who mimic his love of the game and work ethic. Talking about topics other than himself makes Durant happy.
It was the first Playoff game ever in Oklahoma City and the crowd acted like it. By not knowing how to act, that is. Brooks expressed slight concern before the game that his team might be “too amped” by proceedings; sure enough, the methodical Lakers played the opening two minutes as if the Ford Center was empty, jumping out 10-0, while the Thunder played as if there were one million on hand.
If there’s a disturbing trend in the series it’s that Durant seems, at times, uncomfortable. There have even been instances where he’s forced shots, which is most unusual. Of scoring champs in the post-Jordan era, Durant took the lowest percentage (25.1) of his team’s shots this season, which indicates he operates within an offense and not in a system where it operates around him. Yet, in the first two games of the series Durant has taken 50 shots to get 54 points. Artest bothered Durant early again tonight, by reaching around, bodying up; his technique appearing almost to be haphazard yet time and again winning the battle for position. Durant missed his first seven shots.
The crowd did little to deter Los Angeles, they’ve been here before. Bryant wasn’t particularly efficient offensively in the first half, but every time OKC made a semblance of a rally, one that got the crowd to raise itself, he seemed to hit a shot that quieted them. Defense for Bryant was merely time to roam; his treatment of Thabo Sefolosha, as in, playing off him to a ridiculous degree, came without consequence. The Lakers were playing like the older team, the wiser team. One play symbolized the difference: Westbrook dunked in the first half and his team celebrated, while LA took the ball out of the net and got a layup.
Despite the Lakers leading for most of the half, there were encouraging signs: Oklahoma City was controlling the boards, and perhaps most importantly, keeping LA off the offensive glass. They were also getting to the free throw line. Later, Brooks described it as “winning basketball.” He was right, they couldn’t hit a shot, but they were playing tough, they were playing Playoff basketball. James Harden, whose first two Playoff games were forgettable, somehow needed only his first shot to go down to set the tone for the rest of the night. He kept the Thunder afloat in the first half with 15 points at a time when they were shooting less than 33 percent from the field.
Through the early portion of the second half, the Lakers held OKC, and the crowd, at arms length, and they were comfortable with that. But then it changed. Westbrook penetrated to his left – which he was doing at will all game, all series – and rose over Lamar Odom to slam. The Thunder’s team slogan is “Rise Together,” well, Westbrook and Odom rose together. Westbrook went higher. Delirium. Then Harden hit a three. Delirium. Then Durant hit a three. Delirium. Harden claimed he’d never heard the Ford Center, or anything for that matter, louder. An 8-point Laker lead erased in three possessions. A somewhat docile crowd for short stretches were waiting for an excuse to get crazy, Westbrook gave them one, and they didn’t sit the rest of the way.
History might tell us one day that we lost count of dominant Playoff stretches for Durant, but for now, this was his first one. For three quarters the difference between he and Bryant was degree of difficulty in shots taken: KD couldn’t seem to get that space he needed, both on the perimeter and in traffic, but Bryant knew exactly how to get that space. Yet, in the fourth quarter, based on the idea of OKC assistant coach Ron Adams that came to fruition at an unlikely time, Durant found himself guarding Kobe. He forced a Bryant turnover, then a bad three-pointer, then blocked a baseline jumper and everyone in the building knew something special was happening. He held Bryant to 2-10 from the field in the quarter, and as the crowd got louder, suddenly everything became easier. For one quarter the space on offense was there, and Artest was irrelevant – KD had four field goals in the fourth including a gorgeous floater that gave the Thunder a six-point lead with five minutes left.
Westbrook, who keyed the whole thing, hit an elbow jumper off the dribble (a shot that drew a smile from Mo Cheeks for they had worked on it prior to the game), then answered a Derek Fisher three-pointer with one of his own, and finally hit a pull-up from the foul line to make it 95-90 with two minutes to go. He finished with 27 points and was the dominant guard on the floor in the fourth. Durant, after a 0-7 start (or a 4-19 start, whichever way you look) and first half foul trouble, showed mettle, and slapped a 29-point, 19-rebound performance on the defending champs, but it was his fourth quarter defense on Kobe that changed the game. Afterward, he estimated he’d played “about ten possessions total” of defense on Kobe in the regular season. Didn’t look that way. Perhaps the most symbolic moment of the night was with 58 seconds to go, when Sefolosha came in to the game. He pointed towards Bryant as he came in, but KD shook his head, said no, and continued to defend Bryant.
Jackson told the media it was the Thunder’s aggressiveness that was the difference. “34 to nine,” was the key factor, he said, pointing to the free throw disparity, while quickly adding it had nothing to do with the referees but instead with OKC’s mindset. Brooks pointed to making winning plays, to Durant “doing the other things” to help his team, to the contributions of many. Durant called Harden and Westbrook “the reason” the Thunder won, and saw his defensive assignment on Kobe “as a chance to get better.” Usually guys wait until the summer to get better, not in the fourth quarter under the bright lights of their first ever home Playoff game against the game’s best closer.
And so a day dubbed by the Oklahoman as the biggest sports day in the city’s history (throw in the NFL Draft) ended with a 101-96 Thunder win, while Durant and Westbrook had their official national coming-out party. Unsatisfied with just being here, the Thunder are delivering on a promise. Rise Together.