Of course the Lakers jumped to an early 12-point lead. Of course they eventually lost it to an OKC run. Of course Kobe Bryant had a huge game. Of course the game came down to the last second. And of course Russell Westbrook and Metta World Peace got tangled up on the floor fighting over the ball and were issues double technicals. How could we expect any more or less than this after the season that the Lakers have had? They sure like to keep it interesting, don’t they?
After they gave away Game 2 to the Thunder due to a series of late-game foibles, the Lakers opened up tonight’s game with a seemingly greater sense of purpose. Halfway through the first quarter, they jumped to a 16-4 lead, and unlike the first two games, the ball movement was much more noticeable and, of course, much more helpful to the mission. After the first 12 minutes, the Lakers had handed out eight assists, with each of the starters passing out at least one dime. They also held OKC to just 15 points on 30% shooting.
As expected, however, the Thunder came rolling back in the second quarter, going off on an 18-9 run that gave them the lead. Except for the 12-point Laker lead in the first quarter, no lead rose above OKC’s seven-point advantage in the second half. It was a close game, with 10 lead changes and 10 ties; seven of those lead changes and eight of those ties all taking place in the final quarter.
The real sixth man that helped the Lakers in this game, was their near-perfect free throw shooting. Their final eight points all came from the charity stripe. When a game is this close, regardless of the free throw quantity, the ones attempted late in the game mean a whole great deal and the Lakers were able to convert and finish the night in their favor.
Kobe Bryant – If we can be sure of only one thing about this Lakers team, it’s that, win or lose, Kobe Bryant will always leave everything he’s got out on the hardwood. When that ball goes up, regardless of what gets in his way, he’s only got one mode, and that’s GO. Bad 9-25 kind of shooting night? No problem. Here’s 18-18 from the free throw line. Russell Westbrook keeps getting by? No sweat. Here are seven rebounds and two steals. OKC defense closing in? Please, here are six assists. What was that…too old? How about I drive right past you, young James Harden, and score on this layup? Asked after the game about having to play a back-to-back, Bryant simply said, “Put your big boy pants on, leave your diaper at home.” If there’s one thing Kobe’s learned from Phil Jackson, it’s mindfulness about the present; the circumstances of the “now” instead of the 4th personal foul that he can’t take back or the assurance of fatigue in the second game of a back-to-back that hasn’t even been played yet. Bryant’s calling card for greatness is his adaptability – in phases of his career, in phases of a playoff series, in phases of a single game. He led the game with 36 points tonight and helped carry this team to a hard-fought victory, not because he shot lights out, but because he never played the same possession, defensive or offensive, in the same way but he played each one with the same effort.
Playing the Point – Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake had a combined nine points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in Games 1 and 2. Yes, the Lakers have a Big Three who take on the bulk of the scoring load, but when the opposing defense is attempting (and successfully) to limit them, other players must step up and tonight, after such a disappointing performance in the series so far, Sessions and Blake took on the challenge. Ramon Sessions looked a lot more confident to start the game, scoring six points in the first quarter. He has looked frazzled and shaken at times against Russell Westbrook, and even Derek Fisher. His jumpers have gone south as has his mojo to finish at the rim. Tonight he looked a lot more comfortable in his game, contributing 12 points on 5-9 from the field and sending out four assists. Steve Blake hasn’t looked the same since that heroic 19-point game Game 7 against the Nuggets, but how about 12 points on 4-5 from the field, including 2-2 from downtown and eight rebounds?! With the Lakers down five points in the fourth quarter, it was Blake who hit a jumper followed by a three-pointer to give the Lakers a tie. If the team could depend on Sessions and Blake to contribute as much as they did tonight on a more consistent basis, they’d be in great shape.
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol – OKC has not made things easy for the Lakers’ big men, but they haven’t cut Bynum and Gasol completely out of the picture just yet. Yes, Bynum went just 2-13 from the field, but he still managed to get inside and was rewarded with 12 free throws, 11 of which he converted, for his 15 points. He also had 11 rebounds, sent out a pair of assists and blocked four shots, the last swat against Serge Ibaka’s final attempt to score with under two seconds left in the game.
After accepting the J. Walter Kennedy citizenship award for outstanding service & dedication to the community, Gasol only attempted eight shots and made half, but he was a perfect 4-4 from the free throw line for his 12 points, grabbed 11 boards as well, blocked two shots and, what the Lakers need more of from him, he also handed out six assists. Defenses will always try to eliminate the Lakers’ size advantage, but as long as Bynum and Gasol don’t allow themselves to be eliminated from all aspects of the game, they are still huge contributors.
Sharing the ball and sharing the load – The Lakers handed out 20 assists on 27 made field goals and six players scored in double figures, double the number of OKC players. It was a true team win from beginning to end.
Free throws – The Lakers got to the line 42 times and missed just a single free throw, with Bynum as the guilty one who went “just” 11-12. OKC did just as well, going 26-28. 70 total free throws attempted in this game and only a combined three attempts were not converted.
Losing big lead – The Lakers have done it habitually this past season – losing leads, moderate and large, and having to either scramble to rebuild it or come back from behind to get over it. Their attention span seems to shorten the larger the leads get. It’s maddening and, for them, against a team like the Thunder, it’s dangerous.
Too many turnovers – The Lakers had 15 turnovers that resulted in 23 OKC fast break points. Like the Denver Nuggets, the Thunder see a missed shot or a bad pass and start a-runnin’.
Board – The Lakers outrebounded the Thunder 44-37, but they also gave up 13 offensive rebounds that resulted in 16 second chance points. The Laker bigs need to dominate that area of the box score.
Matt Barnes – Is there no more hope for Matt Barnes to get over this funk? The post season has not been a kind one for him. His points per game are down from 7.8 ppg in the regular season, to just 4.3 ppg. Rebounds have gone from 5.5 rpg to 3.4 rpg. Field goal % has plummeted from 45% to a pitiful 29% and his minutes are down from 23 minutes to about 19. Maybe it is his sprained ankle that’s bothering him, which he continuously denies as an excuse. He has a few more chances to make good, hopefully sooner (as in tomorrow) than later.
I know we’re all thinking the same thing – it should’ve been 2-1 in the Lakers’ favor after tonight’s win. That Game 2 should’ve been a victory for the purple and gold. But, like Phil Jackson has always taught – we must be mindful of the present, not the past. The Lakers can’t do anything about losing Game 2, just like the Thunder can’t do anything about losing Game 3. A friend of mine put it this way – even if the Lakers had won Game 2, who’s to say OKC wouldn’t have taken either game in L.A.? If Denver can win at Staples, why can’t the Thunder? The Lakers just need to protect their home court with a win tomorrow and this series is still a go. No time for dawdling over Games 1-3. Right now, there’s only Game 4.