Lakers: It’s Complicated
The Oklahoma City Thunder took a commanding 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers with a win Saturday night at STAPLES Center. Despite a fourth-quarter, nine-point lead, the Lakers once again stumbled to execute down the stretch, affirming that their Game 2 meltdown was more the norm than the aberration.
From one perspective, the Lakers are inches away from being up 3-1.
In truth the Thunder, so far, have been the better team. Small margins just don’t count.
Now the Lakers need to win three-straight (Monday, Wednesday and Sunday) if they can last that long and history says it’s very, very rare for a team to come back from that kind of hole in the playoffs.
The game Sunday turned in the fourth when Kobe Bryant entered the game after a Laker run led by Metta World Peace held off the charging Thunder.
Immediately ball and player movement stopped and Bryant took a number of well-contested, difficult shots.
After the game, Bryant would call out Pau Gasol, whose lazy pass was ultimately the final mistake in the loss. Gasol had a chance to either take the ball to the basket or shoot a relatively unguarded jump shot but he didn’t show the kind of aggression the Lakers need in their third option.
That set up Kevin Durant for his well-earned heroics.
Coach Mike Brown acknowledged that the ball died on the Lakers but wouldn’t really elaborate on why it went stagnant until he had a look at the film.
“What they did,” said Bryant, “was front Andrew [Bynum], so when they front Andrew in the fourth quarter, they crowd me. The other guys have got to be more aggressive. Simple as that.”
Brown, who doesn’t like calling out his players to the media, took a more politically-correct route. He said the team didn’t reverse the ball despite his pleading.
Coach Phil Jackson, formerly with the Lakers, used to say the same thing. If it’s difficult to get the ball inside, it needs to be swung from the strong side to the weak side. The big men need to cut across the paint and get themselves to where they can catch the ball.
Last year Jackson couldn’t get the Lakers to do it either and it’s something LA floundered on late in the fourth on Saturday.
Certainly coaching and system matter. Jackson is one of the best coaches, if not the best, of all time. Brown is still finding his way in the league but can boast a solid resume.
At some point it comes down to the players, their skills and how badly they want it. In three straight games the Lakers did a lot right to get a win. In two they just couldn’t close
When Kobe is on the floor, his teammates naturally defer. In a vacuum, he’s going to take on that role and he’s prone to doing too much. That’s his DNA. At times it has worked (see five championships) but over recent years it has not (Dallas, Thunder, etc.).
Against the Denver Nuggets in Game 7, Bryant played one of the most mature games of his career, moving the ball out of hard doubles and trusting his teammates.
Here Kobe would get the ball with about 10 seconds left on the clock after his teammates played hot potato instead of trying to execute.
From there Bryant tried to score on an isolation. How much of that is his fault? How much of it is his teammates? How much is Mike Brown?
It’s complicated . . .
Ultimately the burden must fall on Bryant’s teammates, the less Kobe has to do . . . the more he can do.
Kobe promised that Pau will be far more aggressive through the rest of the series but that’s a check Bryant may not be able to cash. Down 3-1, even a near-perfect Lakers may not be able to get three straight.
Gasol had a poor postseason last year and now through 11 playoff games he’s averaging just 12.4 points a game on 44.2% shooting. That’s not enough. He’s allowing Bryant and Bynum to be game-planned out by the Thunder defense.
At times the Lakers have found a winning formula but against a team like the Thunder with three dynamic scorers, youthful legs and a cohesive defensive concept?
Additionally Ramon Sessions, who has improved over the past two games, just isn’t a reliable outside threat. His 16.7% from three allows teams to collapse further on the Laker post-players. This is Sessions first postseason and he’s not strong enough defensively to make up for his offensive shortcomings.
This postseason, Steve Blake is the team’s best shooter (in the rotation) from the arc at 42.9% (not including Gasol’s 2-4). While he’s helped the team in many different ways, Peace is shooting just 32.7% from the field and 38.2% from three. Matt Barnes has been a no-show, be it ankle-injury related or not, averaging 3.5 points per game on 27.1% shooting.
Devin Ebanks, after a very strong regular season game against the Thunder, hasn’t gotten much of an opportunity this series. Against the Nuggets Ebanks started strong but quickly faded into the background. If there was one unexplored opportunity by Brown, perhaps Devin was just that . . .
Ultimately lack of depth and Poor outside shooting has been devastating and still they’ve almost beaten the Thunder.
Given the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and the supertax on the horizon, it remains to be seen if the Lakers can keep Gasol as a third option for $19 million.
The Lakers are tall but the Bynum/Gasol combination is comparatively slow and lumbering.
Perhaps LA can come up with some shrewd moves over the summer regardless of the financial restraints and improve upon the existing core but it’s looking more and more like Gasol will be the odd man out.
In the meantime, the Lakers have a crack at the Thunder on Monday with the season in the balance.
NBA Playoff Power Rankings Week Four
5/21/12 – The San Antonio Spurs look like the best team in the NBA but was playing an under-manned Utah Jazz and injured Los Angeles Clippers squad enough of a test? The Oklahoma City Thunder have taken out the Dallas Mavericks and are on the verge of overtaking the Los Angeles Lakers. The Spurs may find the Western Conference Finals more of a challenge. Meanwhile both series are tied up in the East. The NBA playoffs, four weeks in . . .
|2||8-0||San Antonio is a machine.|
|1||7-1||The Thunder close and that’s immensely valuable in the postseason.|
|3||6-3||The HEAT are trying to find their way without Chris Bosh . . . and may not.|
|4||6-4||The Celtics are banged up but gritty.|
|7||6-3||The Pacers are young, which works against them but they are doing a lot right.|
|8||6-4||The Sixers were awful for a long stretch late in the season but now they believe they can win.|
|5||5-6||For the second-straight year the Lakers give away a pair of games in the second round . . . costly games.|
|6||4-7||The Clippers weren’t going to get the Spurs healthy but then with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both hobbled?|