Lakers/Thunder Game Recap
Take a bow, Russell Westbrook.
by Todd Spehr
Just what exactly is logic anymore? The League’s youngest team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, has taken two games from the defending champs, the Los Angeles Lakers, and tied a 1-versus-8 series many thought would be over rather quickly.
If Game 1 belonged to Ron Artest’s defense, Game 2 to Kobe Bryant’s closing ability, and Game 3 to Kevin Durant and his I-can-do-other-things potential, then Game 4 was dedicated to Russell Westbrook’s maturation as a point guard.
You had to look closely Saturday night, but it was there. Westbrook may have had 18 points, but he took only 11 shots – he controlled the game not with field goal attempts or points scored but with command, with Kidd-like tempo, with Nash-like reads. He’s 21. There were the 8 rebounds, the 6 assists, the zero turnovers, and the free entry into the paint whenever he chose. The kid who they sent to summer league despite a terrific rookie season just so he could further learn the point guard position, who they hired the great Maurice Cheeks for, who has a “positive swagger” his coach loves, the game was his.
Westbrook’s decision-making was a topic of discussion for head coach Scott Brooks pregame. He spoke of Westbrook striving for consistency; as Brooks explained it, consistency is what separates the good from the great. Brooks, who was, oh, about 180-degrees removed as a point guard from Westbrook when he played, talked about how Westbrook has a confidence that isn’t remotely close to cockiness, how he saw The Look in his young point guard’s eyes in Game 3 (just his third Playoff game), and how he excited he is that there’s still plenty of room for Westbrook to improve.
Unlike Game 3, the Thunder didn’t start Game 4 slow. They jumped out early. Durant, opting for the socks pulled up, got his rhythm by getting easy looks and hit his first three shots. Phil Jackson’s pregame observation that teams look to run when his team goes big proved prophetic – the Thunder were running out at every opportunity. The Lakers, simply, couldn’t keep ‘em out of the paint; if Westbrook wanted to get below the foul line, then Derek Fisher didn’t have a say in the matter. (Weird stat of the day: Fisher has played 180 career Playoff games while Westbrook has played 168 total games.)
The Lakers did make a conscious effort of trying to force feed the post, but in the process Bryant perhaps misread that as an opportunity for shot-withdrawal mode – he didn’t launch until the third minute of the second quarter, and by that time his team was down double-digits. Jackson and Bryant had watched tape of the fourth quarter of Game 3 together, and Jackson had said there were two or three shots he wasn’t overly pleased about, how Bryant didn’t, to use Jackson-speak, “activate the game.” In Game 4, Bryant deactivated his shot.
One underrated factor to OKC’s success has been its terrific bench. Serge Ibaka, who has a heap of Theo Ratliff in him, provides an immeasurable spark and effort; James Harden, who was M.I.A. in L.A., is alive and well in OKC; Nick Collison sets the best screens in the League; and Eric Maynor, who is clearly benefiting from the presence of not only Cheeks but backup Kevin Ollie, is stable and wise and, believe it or not, a rookie. In the second quarter, this contingent took a twelve point lead and extended it sixteen. They are the team in this series with real depth.
The second half got out of hand quickly. Westbrook was probing, rebounding, finding open guys and hitting his patented foul line jumper. The 13-point halftime lead suddenly blew out to 23, and a delirious crowd was too pumped to be shocked. Durant was hitting at an efficient clip, Jeff Green was rediscovering his confidence, and Harden was doing a little of everything. The Thunder ran away with it, 110-89.
Brooks later admitted looking at the scoreboard in the fourth and thinking, “Wow, we are up by 29.” He also provided more insight into what makes this Thunder team go: The only pressure he puts on his players is to play hard and play for each other; that real toughness isn’t flexing muscles, but instead, making the right play every play; and that he never looks at his team as a young team, as if to say that if he did that it would be a ready-made excuse. Brooks isn’t one for excuses.
Then, to prove Brooks wasn’t just spitting cute quotes, his two best players, Durant and Westbrook, sat at the podium and neither cracked a smile. Neither appeared in a celebratory mood. Neither appeared particularly satisfied. They may have rolled the reigning champs on national TV and defied all by tying the series, but what does that mean?
“We’ve still got work to do,” said Westbrook.
“It’s all on us,” said Durant.