Lakers/Thunder Game Recap
Kobe’s Still Got It.
by Graham Flashner
Someday, the Oklahoma City Thunder will look back on this series with newfound appreciation on what it takes to win a Playoff game. If you had told them before the game that Kevin Durant would score 32, the defense would block 17 shots, and they would have the lead with two-and-a-half minutes left, they would’ve felt pretty good about themselves.
And they should feel pretty good about themselves, because they played their hearts out last night. But it wasn’t enough. That’s the thing about beating the champs; you have to go above and beyond what, on most other nights, would’ve been good enough for a victory. In the end, the Lakers made the plays they had to make, the Thunder didn’t. Advantage L.A., a 2-0 series lead after a 95-92 win.
Arrived at Staples Center still on a high from my weekend at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival; three days of the world’s best indie rock in the middle of a polo field in the desert of Indio, CA. What does this have to do with Playoff basketball? Not much; this is likely a shameless attempt at gaining street cred, though I’ll probably lose that in a heartbeat once I confess I blew off Jay-Z for Public Image, Ltd.
But I digress. I arrive just in time to see the ribbon being cut on the new Chick Hearn statue on Star Plaza, and fans lining up to pose in an empty chair next to the 5000-pound, nearly 16-foot bronze-and-steel replica of the man who broadcast a record 3,338 consecutive Lakers games over a 36-year period.
The Lakers played one great quarter in Game 1, which is one more than the Thunder played, which is why the Lakers come into the game up 1-0. Not that anyone seems too happy about it, least of all Kobe Bryant, whose shot has deserted him alarmingly of late – 6-19 in Game 1, including an un-Mamba-like 5 of 12 missed free throws – and who bristles at the mention of his health being a factor.
But we all know it is. Fact is, Kobe shot 21-70 in the three games he played in April. This morning, a local beat columnist wondered if Bryant’s season-long rash of injuries have finally caught up with him. Whatever Kobe’s feeling, he’s not sharing much, leaving others to speculate.
OKC played like the post-season neophytes they are in Game 1, especially Durant, who needed 24 shots (he made only seven) to get his 24 points. Durant was hounded by Ron Artest, but he also looked like a wide-eyed 21 year-old in his first Playoff game, missing wide-open looks and not getting to spaces he wanted on the court. Ditto Jeff Green, coming off a 4-13 night.
In the OKC locker room, Green dismisses the notion that nerves played a part in the loss: “We weren’t overwhelmed. We just came out flat. Once the ball was tossed, it was just another basketball game.”
Green says the Thunder have to limit the Lakers to one shot. “We have to make an effort to box out, to stay in front of them on the boards,” he says. “It’s tough enough guarding Pau and Andrew.”
Durant’s not the same person I saw back in February against the Clippers. Then, he was gracious and content, almost carefree. Tonight, he just looks weary, frustrated by the way everyone’s magnified his off night in Game 1 as if the entire tone of the series has already been set. When I ask him about the stuff Phil Jackson said last week about him going to the foul line too much, it was not his favorite topic of conversation. (Later, in the press room, someone joked, “here the guy Durant wanted to take a swipe at.”)
What I was trying to ask was whether Durant realized that Jackson was trying to get in his head, and did he regret his response? You can see it here at about the 3:00 mark.
It’s a virtual media party in the Lakers locker room, but no players are available. Phil Jackson is. “Ideally, we’d like to take out at least one of their three scorers and hold them below their average,” he says noting that the Lakers did that with two of OKC’s scorers on Sunday, Durant and Green. Jackson is disappointed the Lakers didn’t pound the ball inside enough. “Oklahoma does a great job fronting the post and rotating,” he says. “But the essence of getting the ball inside is player movement.”
Part of the problem, he believes, is the attention Kobe gets on the floor. Jackson thinks his teammates concern themselves too much with where Bryant is as opposed to moving the ball inside. Jackson also said, tactfully, that given Kobe’s shooting woes of late, he needed to either shoot better or take fewer shots.
“He can still play exactly the way he’s playing right now, but he has to limit the amount of shots he takes,” said Jackson. “Obviously he can’t shoot 30-something percent and have us be successful. I think that he’s well aware of it. He’s a little befuddled by it but coming to terms with this, he’s looking for a break-out game, that moment when he gets hot and stays hot,” That moment would come just when the Lakers needed it, late in the fourth quarter, the doubters being silenced yet again.
“After 13 years, you’d think they’d know better,” Bryant would say afterwards.
Why won’t the Lakers pound the ball down low, where they have an obvious size advantage? That’s too easy for this group. They tend to feed off Andrew Bynum when he gets off the block quickly, but that doesn’t happen tonight.
The first quarter’s a bur of deflected passes, bad transitions, and the Lakers unable to finish fast breaks. Once they start finding Gasol, they get some separation, leading to a 26-18 advantage after one.
Two quick fouls on Russell Westbrook send him to the bench, and now the Thunder must make do without their best playmaker. But the second quarter turns out to be OKC’s best of the series. Hustling and scrapping, they hold the Lakers to 7-21 shooting, while Durant sliding off screens and shooting over Artest, finishes the half at 9-15 and 21 points. The Thunder have erased an 11-point deficit and lead by two, 47-45. I’m taking some credit for Durant’s barrage. I think I warmed him up pre-game.
Bryant starts to heat up in the third, scoring 10 of his game-high 39 points. It probably doesn’t hurt that Dad Joe is sitting courtside by the Lakers bench.
But OKC’s relentless defensive pressure keeps the Lakers from going on one of their patented runs. The Thunder can’t take much advantage, however, because they’re not a very potent offensive team, and there’s another problem: the Lakers are getting far too many second and third shots. The worst statistic for OKC to ponder for Game 3 is this: out-rebounded on the offensive glass, 19-7.
Between quarters, a 29 year-old fan from Compton hits a halfcourt shot, winning $235,000 in the Mirage Big Shot Jackpot promotion. Reportedly, the Clippers are trying to get in touch with him.
The fourth quarter is reserved for Bryant, and he doesn’t disappoint. He scores 15, including a huge pull-up jumper at the two-minute mark that gives L.A. the lead for good, 90-88. Then it’s the defense’s turn. Durant goes scoreless over the final 4:28, but it’s not just Artest hounding and bumping him; Gasol, rotating over to help, draws an offensive foul and causes two critical turnovers.
Thanks to missed free throws by Bryant and Gasol, the Lakers gave the Thunder ample opportunity to win or send the game into OT, but pressure defense forced both Durant and Green into difficult shots in the final seconds that weren’t close. I can’t say the Thunder looked very confident on those final possessions; they almost looked as if they were waiting for the Lakers come up with the big play, which is why it’s so very tough for young teams to win on the road come Playoff time.
After, OKC coach Scott Brooks summed it up perfectly: “That was about as well as we can play and we came up a little short.”
Brooks also conceded that his team’s zeal for blocks may have put them out of position, leading to all those Laker offensive boards. As for his team’s play in the final minutes, Brooks says: “Inexperience had nothing to do with our two losses. They’re the defending champions for a reason. Our effort was terrific.”
On the Lakers’ side, Pau Gasol said: “I tried to help Ron as much as I could with Durant- with active hands, and anything I could do to keep him off-balance.” Gasol added that the Lakers would have to play “harder and smarter” as the series shifts to Oklahoma City.
As much as Bryant bailed out his team again, he didn’t have a great shooting night, going 12-28, and taking four more shots than Gasol and Bynum combined. At some point, that inequality will cost the Lakers. The Thunder could’ve easily won; they had the Lakers looking old at times, and they were hurt by Westbrook’s first-half foul trouble.
The Thunder know they can stay with the Lakers; and I look for them to run L.A. ragged in Game 3, sparked by what should be a frenzied home crowd. The Lakers will simply flip the switch again when they have to.