Kobe Bryant drove into the lane, hopped high above the crowd in the paint and heaved the ball with both hands to an open Derek Fisher for three — SWISH! Running backwards in transition, Derek turned his head over his right shoulder and pointed at Kobe. Their eyes still locked, Kobe lowered his head and pointed right back. That exchange of non-verbal communication from the Laker captains was as telling as the new Championship ring that Phil Jackson gets to sport this post-season. Those few seconds of interaction between Kobe and Fish say, “sometimes it will be easy, and sometimes it certainly won’t. But no matter what stands in our way, we will lead you there.”
For all the doubts and fears that the Lakers instilled in their loyal supporters this past season, it’s nice to be reminded of who is running the helm, and when Kobe and Derek play with as much energy and fervor as they did today, the rest of the team could only follow suit.
There have been many storylines surrounding this Lakers-Thunder series — from Phil’s supposed mind games, to the young ingénue versus the accomplished veteran, to finally being able to measure Ron Artest’s worth to this team — the largest elephant in the room was the effectiveness, or possible lack thereof, of Andrew Bynum who was, yet again, returning from injury.
In his post-game interview, Andrew was asked if he considered himself a veteran. He answered, “I don’t feel like a veteran yet. I’m trying to earn that title. That comes from more experience, it comes from being more of a leader out there, being more vocal. It comes from earning trust in these playoffs.”
With a double-double in his first game back since injuring his achilles, Andrew is well on his way to earning that veteran status. Against an Oklahoma City team who has no one to match against him, Andrew scored on patient post-moves that earned him easy dunks, one over Collison who pales in comparison to his abilities. Andrew also ran back in transition and positioned himself in prime spots to receive passes in the paint for high percentage shots. He collected four blocks, grabbed 12 rebounds (9 defensive) and in the end, he looked like someone who has been here before.
Alongside Andrew in the Lakers’ first win was the ever effective, ever intelligent, Pau Gasol. The potential for domination in the hands of the two 7-footers has been like a test all season long. One always seemed to be injured, or one seemed to have an excellent game at the expense of the other. Today, however, Pau and Andrew showed that the playoffs are as good a times as any to get their collective efforts going.
Neither got in the other’s way and Pau reminded the nation that he is more than layups and dunks (though he did have one beautiful dunk from a split-second lob pass from Lamar Odom). If he doesn’t score from the paint, he can take a few steps back and hit face-up jumpers as efficiently as Kobe. Pau actually channeled his inner Kobe when he jerked a shot after being fouled and turned in a 3-point play. With 10 rebounds and three blocks to end the afternoon, Pau, again, did not disappoint.
The key to this Lakers’ win, however, was their defense. They only shot 41% themselves, but they also held the Thunder to just 40% shooting. With Ron Artest leading the defensive charge primarily against Kevin Durant, who shot just 7-24 from the field, this victory was certainly not won on the offensive end, as excellent as it was in the first quarter. Ron swarmed the NBA leading scorer all afternoon, using all but his last foul to stay in the game. Kobe even ran back in transition to block one of his shots. The Thunder suffered three shot-clock violations and there were airballs aplenty for the young team.
Short on offensive sources named Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City let Russell Westbrook loose and he took every open lane the Lakers gave him, scoring on drives and jumpers. He was the reason the Thunder stayed in the game as long as they could. The young guard from Long Beach finished with 23 points and eight assists.
Kobe did not have one of his most efficient games, shooting just 6-19 and going an uncharacteristic 7-12 from the free throw line. But, like many of his teammates, he scored when they needed him and his defense was there, earning him two steals.
Each time the Thunder cut away at the lead, a Laker three would follow — from Jordan Farmar, Ron Artest, Kobe, Derek, and Lamar. Maybe it would have been nice for that 17-point lead to stick all the way through. Maybe they could have shot better than 41% from the field. The free throws certainly could have used more work (15-22). But Kobe once said in a post-game interview after a difficult win, that the road to a championship isn’t always the prettiest. Sometimes, he said, you have to grind it out even when the game gets ugly. Today, it started to get ugly, but the Lakers grinded and we are 15 wins away from another title.
Pre-game Thoughts: Round 1 — FIGHT!
Half-time Thoughts: 39-47, Lakers — The Thunder were down 17 points but managed to get within 8 by letting Russell Westbrook take over. Let’s see what adjustments the Lakers can make in the second half.
Most Thoughtless Player(s) of the Game: Every player put in a whole season’s worth of energy and effort today. We’ll let this category slide.
Most Thought-filled Player(s) of the Game: Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, who combined for 32 points, 25 rebounds, 7 blocks and 4 assists! Let’s hope that stat about the Lakers winning 76% of their games when Pau and Andrew are both playing holds true throughout these playoffs.