Not only did the Oklahoma City Thunder thoroughly embarrass the Los Angeles Lakers 110-89 to even the series at 2, the defending champs thoroughly embarrassed themselves. On the heels of OKC’s hard-fought win in Game 3, the Lakers absolutely needed to make major adjustments in several critical areas. Their inability to make these adjustments leaves them without any real resources as the series moves back to Los Angeles. This has to be a frightening prospect for what was supposed to be a cruise for the best team in the West.
Here are the difficulties that the Lakers tried to resolve in Game 4 and must absolutely get a handle on Tuesday: Getting the ball into the low post
The Lakers added a few teaks to their offense with this in mind. Like setting cross-picks for Pau Gasol. Like quickly clearing out the weak side when either Gasol or Andrew Bynum were fronted to prevent help defenders from showing up in time to steal lob passes. Like setting up high-low situations wherein one big man could make over-the-top entry passes to the other. Like setting up a triangle, then swiftly reversing the ball while one of the bigs stationed along the baseline on the weak side ducked into the paint and assumed the proper position.
Some of these adjustments worked, but only to a limited degree — Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom totaled 17 points on pivotal moves.
Otherwise, the Thunder are well aware that Bynum is uncomfortable when he’s forced to put the ball on the floor in a crowd. So, as the defense gathered around him, two of Bynum’s interior shots were blocked, and he also missed a pair of slightly complicated layups.
On one sequence, Gasol managed to gain optimum position on the right block but he couldn’t latch on to a hard, fast and wild entry pass from Derek Fisher. On another play, Gasol caught the ball with his back to the basket, but Nick Collison’s relentless defense had him off balance, so Gasol kicked the ball back out to Fisher and then reposted himself in a much more optimal position. But Fisher never looked back inside, choosing instead to launch a long 3-ball — that missed.
Also, when Gasol was doubled from the top, two of his kick-back passes were deflected and then stolen.
Overall, whatever adjustments the Lakers made here were foiled by the Thunder’s quickness and determination — and by their own ineptness.
It’s hard to imagine that two days of practice will improve this particular dire situation.
Nothing the Lakers tried in this department was successful for several reasons:
• Both Gasol and Bynum repeatedly neglected to box out.
• Collison, Serge Ibaka and even Nenad Krstic were quicker to the ball.
• When both Gasol and Bynum moved away from the shadow of the basket to try to challenge ball penetration, they left at least one of the home team’s bigs unattended and in great position to capture any missed shots. The solution to this particular dilemma is for either Gasol or Bynum to rotate to the ball — not both of them.
• A significant dance was repeated nearly every time OKC shot a free throw and Gasol had the inside position with Collison situated to his right along the foul lane. Even when the shot was made, Collison found a way to either fight his way through or spin around Gasol’s attempts to box him out. • On two occasions, Russell Westbrook came flying to the rim and tipped either a teammate’s (or his own) missed shot to Krstic, who then dropped in an unopposed layup.
• Credit the Thunder’s hustle, alertness, and attention to detail when crashing the boards.
• Discredit the Lakers’ lack of hustle, scattered focus, and penchant for taking too much for granted.
Keeping Westbrook out of the paint
As soon as Westbrook’s tricky handle created a driving lane, one of the Lakers’ big men stepped up to block his path. Also, Westbrook’s defender played him loosely, thereby allowing him to cover more ground from side-to-side and cut Westbrook’s drives off at the pass.
But Westbrook trashed this strategy by knocking down three of his five jumpers, and also by getting to the hoop on fast breaks and in early offense situations. Even worse, Westbrook was still able to use his mercurial crossover moves to flash his way to the rim and leave the Lakers big man in his dust.
Actually, the Lakers defense couldn’t keep anybody out of the paint.
Getting Kobe Bryant to the stripe by having him attack the basket
This tactic was an abject failure simply because Kobe was pouting all game long. Obviously reacting to Phil Jackson’s public statement that he was taking too many bad shots, Kobe decided not to shoot at all until 9:09 of the second quarter. He wound up taking a mere 10 shots in all and missed one of his only two free throws.
When Jackson was questioned on camera after the opening quarter about Kobe’s disinclination to shoot, he smiled tightly and said that Bryant was focusing on getting his teammates involved.
What Kobe was really focusing on was to stick it to his coach for questioning his shot-selection with the whole world watching. In fact, Kid Kobe’s done this same sad act on several previous occasions.
Get Odom going
This was the only successful adjustment that the Lakers accomplished. But only if shooting 6-for-12 and scoring a meager 12 points can be considered getting him going.
Oklahoma City’s incredible effort aside, the Lakers are paying their dues for waltzing through the last few weeks of the regular season in their arrogant belief that whomever they faced in the opening series would go belly-up as soon as the defending champions stepped on to the court.
Instead of being intimidated, however, the youngest team in the NBA was too quick, too unselfish, too deep, too resourceful and too committed to playing earnest defense to give the Lakers any chance of winning Game 4.
And by sweeping both games on their home court, the Thunder just might have become too confident for the Lakers to beat.