By Jason Wojciechowski on April 27, 2010 at 11:30 PM
L.A. got dominated in Game 4. They came right back and dominated Game 5. Pretty much everything went right for them, as has to happen in a game you're leading by 28 with two minutes to play in the third (which is when I started this post -- it's time to go to bed soon, so I don't want to wait for the end), especially against a very good team like the Thunder. Migs told me today that I was overreacting with my worries about the Lakers and their low odds of winning. I grudgingly admitted that he was right. Tonight proved that. Tonight doesn't prove that L.A. will win Game 6, but it does prove that Game 4 didn't mean the end of this little 2007-2009 mini-dynasty. (Just like the Celtics aren't done, either.)
The first thing that went right for the Lakers: they took the ball inside. Kobe hardly shot the ball, instead playing the drive-and-dish game, with much of his dishing being of the interior variety. I pointed out in my last post that OKC has a couple of guys, particularly Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant, who like to get up in the air and block shots resoundingly. On many teams, these would be guys you'd exploit for fouls, but OKC seems to avoid interior fouls. The way to take advantage of this tendency, then, is to get guys to collapse on drivers, looking for blocks, and then dish to the now-open man, usually Bynum or Gasol. That's precisely what L.A. did tonight, with Kobe dishing to both Bynum and Gasol, and with Gasol showing some of that passing flair that makes him so fun to watch. Even Ron Artest got into the action on the receiving end of a Gasol pass.
Speaking of Ron Artest, he was on target tonight on a couple of threes and managed to put in a few shots at the rim as well, including one thunderous (relatively) one-handed dunk. I haven't seen that out of him all season. It came the possession after he got called for a foul on one of Kevin Durant's patented rake/rip move, so I think he was pretty motivated. The thing I noticed on his two threes is that they were catch-and-shoot corner jumpers with his feet set. He didn't dribble, didn't hesitate, didn't fade to the side. None of his usual foibles, in other words. The man did shoot a good percentage this year from three, and it's because when he sets his feet, he's a quality shooter. He did shoot one fading, off-balance jumper off the dribble, but it was in the middle of the third quarter, so it didn't really matter. Furthermore, he made it. (He did have a toe on the line, though. Again.)
On defense, the big change was putting Kobe on Westbrook. Fisher goes all-out, but he just doesn't have the physical tools to bother the OKC point guard. Kobe isn't as quick as he used to be, so it was questionable whether he could handle Westbrook, but the bigger question was expenditure of energy. With the series reduced to best-of-three, though, and a renewed commitment to working from the inside on offense, making the switch was the right call. Making it easier is that Thabo Sefolosha is one of the worst offensive players I've seen. His jump shots are awful, his handle is suspect, and he has no moves. You can put Derek Fisher on him without worrying about him taking advantage of the size and strength advantage he possesses over the smaller guard. (This was, of course, the theory in putting Kobe on him, too -- Kobe doesn't have to use any energy on defense and can just roam around and play center field.)
I also saw the Laker bigs show out hard on Westbrook on screens the way they've done all series on Durant. This shouldn't be necessary, for the same reason you shouldn't have to worry about Rajon Rondo, but (a) Westbrook has killed L.A. with jump shots this series; and (b) Westbrook, like Rondo, finds a way to work his way inside even when you're playing way off of him if you allow him to go whichever direction he wants. By pushing the big out on him, you don't so much cut off a dangerous jump shot as you do only give him one direction to dribble the ball. It's possible that I'm misremembering, but I don't think L.A. did this earlier in the series. And if I'm right and it is new, L.A.'s going to have to be very well prepared for the Game 6 adjustment that Scotty Brooks makes.
Of course, you can't write about the NBA, especially in the playoffs, without writing about the officials. Just like the Lakers didn't get blown out in Game 4 because of shaky officiating, neither did L.A. explode in Game 5 because of the refs. But in both games, it contributed. In OKC, the Thunder got to the line when they drove the lane, and L.A. didn't get any love for their big men down low. Tonight, that was reversed. OKC got whistled for a couple of those elbow touch fouls, the one "wait to see if the shot goes in before you blow the whistle situation" was in L.A.'s favor (on a Bynum shot), and the Laker bigs blocked shots with near impunity.
L.A. also got the Basketball Gods to smile on them, with a couple of crazy bouncing balls falling into their hands instead of OKC's. Further, whereas in Oklahoma, the bigs getting a hand on every offensive rebound just resulted in runouts with the bigs stuck under their own basket while Durant and Westbrook sped toward the other end, tonight L.A. actually ended up with the offensive boards. Coaches, as a matter of motivation and rhetoric, and announcers, because saying "luck" is boring, will always go to "effort" in situations like this. They'll say the Lakers looked more lively tonight, that they gave that extra n% that they didn't have in Game 4. I say bullshit. Everyone looks more lively when the shots are going in, when the calls are going your way, when you're up by 30. But I honestly did not see a different effort tonight, particularly from the bigs. What I saw was better execution of what needs to be the standard Laker gameplan: work inside-out, whether beginning with Kobe, Pau, Bynum, Odom, or even Artest, get back on defense, and hit the glass. The team is too skilled and talented to lose to anyone in the West if they do this consistently. Tonight, that's exactly what they did.
(This isn't to say that effort never comes in. I've seen, over the years, the Lakers put up some truly mediocre efforts. Shaq, as much as everyone loves him, took nights off from time to time. Kobe does too. Lamar Odom gets distracted. But I can't remember a single game in the playoffs where I could genuinely fault L.A.'s effort.)
Also, DJ Mbenga got some TV time in the fourth quarter. He had a blond 'do, a pink corudroy sports coat, and a red/white striped shirt on. DJ Mbenga is my freaking hero, guys.