Lakers/Thunder Game Recap
The champs bite back.
by Graham Flashner
It happened after a team video session on Monday afternoon. Kobe Bryant went to Phil Jackson and said, “I want to take Westbrook.” Jackson approved. You know the rest. The Lakers dominated the Thunder from the opening tap. Hell, they may have had them during the National Anthem. They gave a master class in every phase of the game, and the Thunder were reduced to impressionable students.
If the last two years has shown anything, it’s that this Lakers team doesn’t anger easily, but when they do, it’s lights out. The Thunder definitely captured their attention with their blowout win in Game 4, and the Lakers paid them back with some old-school whoop-ass. How bad did things get? Lakers fans chanted Adam Morrison’s name and did the Wave in the fourth quarter. That’s right — the Wave. Thought they only did that at baseball games. The final was 111-87, in a game the Lakers never trailed.
Before the game, panic was the order of the day, from talk radio to the local papers. The Lakers were old and slow. Their inability to close this out in 4 or 5 seemed indicative of some fatal character flaw. Folks — it’s a Playoff series, and even if it’s a No. 1 seed vs. No. 8, in this case, only seven games separated the teams during the regular season. In other words, this isn’t Cavaliers-Bulls, to be wrapped up in some neat, tidy package. (See Rockets-Lakers, West Semi-Finals, 2009). Oh, and I’d like to remind all that I predicted L.A. in 6 in my Series Preview. Hold your applause till later, please.
Advice came from all corners. The Lakers needed to get aggressive and knock down Westbrook in the lane. They needed better shot selection, and they needed to knock down those shots (gee- really?) Former Laker Ron Harper even called out Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Jordan Farmer to shape up.
The Lakers were chatting as well. Pau Gasol said the Thunder had won their last game. Andrew Bynum wished the Staples crowd could get as fired up as their t-shirt wearing brethren in Oklahoma City. Kobe Bryant insisted the Lakers’ back were not against the wall, not in a 2-2 series with two of three in L.A.
Bynum and Gasol called Game 5 a must-win game, but in his pregame presser, Phil Jackson disagreed. Maybe that’s his way of playing mind games, but there’s no way the Lakers could afford to go to OKC down 3-2.
“They’ve done nothing to surprise these last two games,” Jackson said of the OKC in his pregame presser. He described his own team’s mood as “somber and determined.” Jackson discloses that he’s asked Artest to limit his three-point shots, particularly from the corner, where he’s been less effective than from the arc. “He’ll take one anyway tonight, but that’s Ron,” Jackson says with a smile. Jackson looks relaxed; he’s cracking jokes and wearing the bemused smile of a man who knows something.
He mentions an “incident” with a concerned fan at a gas station and says he’s just trying to “lighten the mood” around here. Asked how he avoided getting fined by David Stern after criticizing refs for not sending Bryant to the free throw line in Game 3, Jackson said “I’m not going to answer that – I’m tempering my irresponsible tongue.” He did, however, say Bryant “overdid it” with his attempt to get everyone involved offensively in Game 4.
The Lakers locker room is largely empty, most guys disappearing into the trainers room, except Shannon Brown who was available for this brief interview:
On the OKC side, the locker room hums with players, and they certainly don’t look like lambs being led to the slaughter. Russell Westbrook talks easily about growing up in L.A. and attending his first Lakers game, his favorite being Magic Johnson. “I was never a crazed Kobe fan” he says matter-of-factly, no disrespect intended, but and Eric Maynor and Serge Ibaka try to start trouble, calling Westbrook a Kobe-hater, which he laughingly and quickly denies.
Last to speak is a humble Durant, whose pregame interview can be seen below.
The game starts, and even though the Lakers throw the ball away on two of their first three possessions, it’s obvious the Thunder are in trouble. Bynum scores on two perfect lob passes, the Lakers sprint to a 10-0 lead, and the Thunder miss their first 13 shots. By the time they make one, at the 5:48 mark, they’re down 16-3. Hard to believe, but they never get closer. It’s reminiscent of the Lakers’ Game 7 win over the Rockets a year ago; the blitz at the beginning, and no letup.
What’s fascinating is that Bryant is doing all his work on the defensive end. About that knee injury? Yeah, right. Picking up Westbrook from the opening tip, he’s with him step-for-step, able to stop the penetration that was so effective in OKC. Westbrook may be faster than Bryant, but Bryant’s four inches taller than Derek Fisher, and that extra vertical length gives Westbrook fits.
Jackson had promised that Bryant would come out shooting tonight, but he hasn’t. But he’s setting up his big men so effectively that this game may well go down as Bryant’s best 13-point game ever. With Gasol and Bynum at last able to find space inside – Bynum hits his first five shots, many on opportunities created by Gasol – the game becomes the half-court game L.A. wants. And with the Lakers dropping 66 percent of their shots (14-21) in the first quarter, the Thunder can’t get their vaunted fast break going. After pummeling the Lakers in transition 24-2 Sunday, the Thunder score zero fast break points in the first. For the game, they wind up with a paltry 7, to the Lakers’ 12.
When Westbrook does try to push it, Bryant runs him into a big man, Gasol or Bynum jumping out to harass him. That, or he creates turnovers, Westbrook looking so uncertain, he throws away passes or, in one signature moment, has the ball picked from behind by Fisher. With their facilitator unable to facilitate, OKC’s flow is completely disrupted. Durant shoots 2-7 and Westbrook 1-5 as the Lakers take a 15-point first quarter lead. The game is pretty much over after this.
The second quarter is more of the same. The Lakers D continues to be freak-diculous, and the Thunder can’t make a shot. This is a professional basketball team, and they Can’t. Make. A. Shot. A 6-23 first quarter is followed at up with a 5-19 second. That’s 26 percent shooting for the half, or about what Artest has been shooting from downtown, except for tonight. Tonight, the Lakers welcome back three players who’ve been M.I.A.: Artest (3-5, 7 pts at the half) Derek Fisher (3-4/6) and Odom (3-4/7).
Before the game (as seen in the video above), Durant and Westbrook were favorably compared by a reporter to great Laker duos of the past. It was a compliment Durant politely shrugged off as undeserving. Tonight, at least, the dynamic Thunder twosome is a non-factor: 9-27 combined for the game, and 32 barely noticeable points.
The Lakers lead zooms to 30 in the third quarter, leading to some extended garbage time in the fourth. Dustin Hoffman gets laughs on the Kiss Cam, fans chant for free tacos, and all is right in LakerLand.
Afterwards, OKC coach Scott Brooks says “We all got our butts kicked, but this team has always found a way to come back.” He has nothing but praise for Bryant. “He did his job; we didn’t do our job,” says Brooks. “He won the game with his toughness.”
Jackson credits the Lakers’ ball movement with freeing up Gasol and Bynum (17-24 combined shooting) and promises that Bryant will start Game 6 on Westbrook.
Basketball is a game of adjustments, and the Thunder will no doubt be ready with their own for Game 6. The Lakers know that translating tonight’s energy to a hostile road situation on Friday will be difficult. The Thunder will shrug off this loss and will look for ways to re-jigger their running game. But if the Thunder can’t solve this new defensive wrinkle, the series should end Friday night.
What did the players say? Here’s a couple of postgame interviews, in case you missed them.
And Kobe Bryant, though audio is a bit on the low side: