As it ended, on what was supposed to be the greatest day in the brief history of Staples Center, all the cheering gave way to a stunned hush. Fans were just coming to terms with the overwhelming likelihood that they had just seen the last home game of the 2011-12 campaign. The Lakers blew it.
They blew the game. They blew the series.
Yes, they blew the season.
There’s no shame losing in the Western Conference semifinals to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the greatest assemblage of young talent in basketball. Actually, the Lakers showed more than I thought they had. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t underachieve.
OKC has younger, fresher legs. The Lakers were supposed to have advantages in poise and postseason experience. But now they have outplayed the Thunder in three of the four games, and still find themselves down 3-1.
On Wednesday, they blew a seven-point lead with two minutes left. On Saturday, they blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead and lost 103-100. Therein lay another epiphany for the dumbfounded legions at Staples: Too much of a good thing is not always a good thing.
Take Kobe Bryant, for example. He was thrilling, scoring 38 points. He was majestic. But he also was 2 for 10 in the fourth quarter while being checked by the guy who beat him out for this season’s scoring title, Kevin Durant. The Thunder star, meanwhile, had 31 points with 13 rebounds, and hit the winner with 13.7 seconds left.
As you might expect, it’s now one-game-at-a-time time. As Bryant himself declared, “We don’t think about winning three in a row.”
Good thing, too, as the odds of winning three in a row, two in OKC, are so infinitesimal, they would strain the brain and only induce quicker capitulation. It was much easier to blame Pau Gasol. The guy had it coming.
Earlier, Saturday afternoon, Mike Brown spoke of the need for Gasol to be more aggressive, especially in looking for his shot. “He’s got to be a little bit more selfish,” his coach said.
That said, Gasol gave up what might have been the winning shot to pass the ball. Problem was, at least if you like the Lakers, he passed to Durant, who, at 23 years old, already has led the league in scoring three times. Durant quickly hit a 3-pointer that broke a tie, making the score 101-98.
“It’s one play, one mistake,” said Gasol, who had 10 points and five rebounds. “There was a lot of mistakes in that fourth quarter.”
“Pau’s got to be more assertive,” Bryant said. “When he catches the ball, he’s looking to pass. He’s got to drive the ball and go to the basket. … Fourth quarter, they’re surrounding me. They’re surrounding Andrew (Bynum). Simple as that.”
And that bad pass?
“Just a bad read,” Bryant said. “A bad read on Pau’s part. Try to get to the free-throw line.”
What he meant was, at least try to get to the free-throw line. It’s another way of calling someone, well, unaggressive.
They each have a point, Bryant and Gasol. Of the Lakers’ many fourth-quarter mistakes, the most egregious involved tempo. Durant’s 3 not only put the Thunder over the 100-point threshold, it also was a sign that the tempo finally had gotten away from the Lakers.
“They just ran us to death at the end,” Bynum said.
The Lakers needed a half-court game. They have two abundantly talented 7-footers, the biggest guys on the court. Still, Bynum and Gasol combined for a mere seven shots in the second half, three field goals and four rebounds. It’s worth noting that Bynum had a dominant first half: 14 points and seven boards.
But like most things with the Lakers, it gets back to Bryant. The game changed. Was it the Thunder fronting Bynum, as coach Brown said? Or was it Bryant’s desire to take over the game, as I am suggesting? The results were more clear than the cause.
In the second and third quarters, Bryant was as spectacular as he’s been all season. There was an impossible hanging shot over 7-footer Serge Ibaka, another one with James Harden in his face, and most memorable of all, two pump fakes and a long jumper over Russell Westbrook.
It left his hand milliseconds before the third-quarter buzzer. For a time, Bryant and Westbrook (37 points) were engaged in a spectacular highlight competition, going shot for shot.
But as the game wore on you could see that the Lakers abandon what made them so distinctive and dangerous. It’s not Bryant; he’s been there forever. It’s their big men. When Gasol and Bynum are in sync, they are unstoppable. They’re not just big. They rebound, they score and they pass as well as any such tandem ever has.
But you forgot about them, or perhaps, they forgot about themselves. They seemed content enough to let Bryant be Bryant, to defer and not decide.
So now it’s one game at a time for the Los Angeles Lakers.