Should the Lakers find themselves fortunate enough to get past the next three rounds victorious, they can thank the Oklahoma City Thunder for pushing them to their limits. In the tough Western Conference, seeding is but a technicality. Top seeds don’t prey on the bottom seeds as easily as they used to. The post-season brings out a greater ferocity from teams lucky enough to get there, and home court is an arbitrary advantage if you can’t defend it (see: Dallas and Denver, seeded 2 and 3 respectively and now both eliminated).
The Lakers did have home court advantage and they certainly defended it, but if a team cannot win on the road in the playoffs, how capable and dominating could they possibly be in attaining a title?
Last season’s Championship team had the best road record in the regular season and closed two playoff series away from the comforts of Staples Center. This season’s team was not as successful on the road and were blown out of the Ford Center in Games 3 and 4. Tonight’s predictions were divided and rightfully so, but the Lakers knew they had a chance to finish the series the right way, and to do it the first chance that they got.
For the second game in a row, the Lakers’ defense was key in getting past the quick, transition-dependent Thunder. Leading the way defensively, as he has been all series long, was Ron Artest. Despite having to wear a compression pad, Ron did not let a sore shoulder impede his ability to shut down Thunder phenom, Kevin Durant. Durant rarely had space to maneuver his shot attempts and every which way he turned, there was a purple uniform to greet him. He was 0-7 to start before hitting a three-pointer in the second quarter. Having just shot 5-23 from the field, he earned most of his 26 points from the free throw line where he made 14-15.
Continuing to take on the monumental challenge of keeping Russell Westbrook out of his offensive comfort zone was Kobe Bryant. Quick and resourceful the young guard is, so it took more than Kobe to stop the second leading scorer of the Thunder from getting his way. Unable to score efficiently himself, however, he chose to facilitate to the tune of nine assists, a game high. He finished with 21 points, but needed 20 attempts to get it.
Despite having to play extensive defense on Russell Westbrook, Kobe was active on the offensive end as well. The difference in his attack this time around, was the quality of his attempts. He didn’t just settle for outside jumpers, though he did convert 3-4 from downtown. He penetrated for higher percentage shots and managed to draw fouls, making 5 of his 7 free throws.
Kobe’s jaw jutted out for a few moments in the second half. His mission tonight was crystal clear — close by any means necessary, and tonight the Lakers needed all of his 32 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Providing support at the perfect time was the Lakers bench. Every reserve who hit the hardwood contributed. Josh Powell, coming in late in the second quarter so Lamar Odom could avoid his third foul, dove for a loose ball and then drew contact for two free throws. Luke Walton, still trying to get back in game shape, hit a timely three, which he followed with a step back fade-away. Shannon Brown, still nursing a thumb injury, chipped in 11 points. Jordan Farmar scored just three points but had four assists. And Lamar, who has not had a dominating series, possibly due to a sore shoulder, had a good all-around game with nine points, seven rebounds, two assists and three blocks.
Together the BenchMob was responsible for 30 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists.
The Laker bigs, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, got the brunt of the Thunder’s defense. After having gone off for a combined 46 points in Game 5, Andrew and Pau were met with a Thunder each time they got within six feet of the basket. Andrew was reported to have hyper-extended his knee, but more details of the injury are pending. Pau shot an uncharacteristic 4-11 from the field, but he also collected 18 rebounds and is credited for the game-winning shot.
As expected, the Thunder did not fold over in this game. They, in fact, made numerous runs to stay with the Lakers, and used every bit of what was left in their arsenal. Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook found some momentum in spots during the second half, and in the fourth quarter, the Thunder had a 94-93 lead with less than a minute in regulation and every fan at the Ford Center cheering.
With about 16 seconds left, Kobe dribbled, staring at the clock to time the release of his final dagger. He shot the ball, but it hit nothing but iron. Fortunately, Pau was all too ready to get a quick offensive rebound to tip the ball in. Lakers 95, Thunder 94. Game over, Lakers advance.
Young Kevin Durant reflected from the podium, “We’re one of the hardest working teams in the league… We play the game the right way. We respect our opponents. The better days are ahead of us.” With a predictably long and successful career ahead of him, Kevin possesses more maturity and professionalism than his age provides. Having taken the defending champions to six games, the Thunder may have given the Lakers exactly what they needed to prepare for a successful playoff run — a competitive series met sooner than later.
It was a nail-biter from beginning to end, with the veteran Lakers expecting and preparing for nothing less than a maximum effort from a young but respectable opponent.
The next round begins in a day and a half against a familiar nemesis, the Utah Jazz. Round 2 on the road to repeat.
Pre-game Thoughts: Which Laker team will show up tonight? Game 4’s or Game 5’s?
Half-time Thoughts: It’s been a close game so far. Oklahoma City may only be shooting 33%, but they’ve been helping themselves on the charity stripe.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Another pass, because every player who hit the floor, on both teams, played with urgency, which made for a very exciting game.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: The defending champs — who never let up no matter the number of runs the home team made. They acted and played like the veterans that they are.