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Friday, March 30, 2012

A Rivalry Brewing, Lakers vs. Thunder (3.29.12)

Kobe Bryant has always maintained that rivalries are born in the playoffs. If so, this coming postseason is going to be great if the Los Angeles Lakers meet the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last night's game against the Thunder continued the hard fought battles of past matchups. Although the Lakers lost 102-93, the game was for the taking down to the final minutes. After barely squeezing by the up and coming Thunder in the 2010 playoffs, the Lakers have had some trouble fending off the troublesome threesome of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. While this rivalry is still in its early stage, a meeting this postseason will transform the matchup into must see action every time they meet for the next couple of years. Every second will be hard fought. There will be star matchups. There will be hard fouls. There will be trash talk. There will be huge shots. Most of all, this brand of basketball will be a prime example of tough, exciting basketball for both basketball purists and casual viewers.

While the possible playoff matchup looks promising, last night highlighted some Laker deficiencies that may come to haunt them later on. The Lakers struggled with their pick and roll defense and Russell Westbrook absolutely demolished them in the second half due to this shortcoming. The Thunder are intent on avenging their prior playoff loss, and although they started slow, they eventually wore the Lakers down and won the game. The Lakers came out hot, with beautiful ball movement, nice cuts, and great finishes at the rim. The Lakers were very efficient in the first quarter, shooting 14-26 with 9 assists on the 14 made baskets. This ball movement and early activity allowed the Lakers to stretch the lead to led 30-18. The Lakers ended the quarter on a 22-7 run and looked great. The Thunder's big 3 shot a combined 4-17 in the opening quarter. The Lakers forced some tough shots and had active hands to tip passes and bother shots.

The second quarter was a different story though. Derek Fisher came in and gave the Thunder a nice spark off of the bench, scoring 9 points during his five minutes of action. The Lakers started the quarter 0-8 and didn't score until a Matt Barnes layup four minutes into the quarter. The Lakers ended up 1-10 until Kobe came back in with 7:39 to play. The Thunder were able to cut the deficit to just 6 points in this stretch, making the score 26-32. The Lakers closed out well, shooting 6-10 for 17 of the 19 points they scored in the entire quarter. However, the Thunder matched their productivity during this span and finished the quarter with a buzzer beating jumper at the top of the key by Ibaka. The Thunder won the quarter 26-19 and they only trailed by 5 to enter the half. The Thunder got some easy buckets off of 11 offensive rebounds during the second quarter.

Bryant and Sefolosha exchange words.
(Courtesy TNT/ NBA)
Throughout the first half there was a lot of talk going on. One notable instance was between Kobe Bryant and Thabo Sefolosha. With 20 seconds left in the half, Kobe was at the top of the key and he crossed over from right to left. Kobe went up and got fouled on his wrist during the shot. Sefolosha adamantly denied having fouled Kobe. Kobe and Sefolosha then began to talk for about a minute straight. They talked smack before the free throws, in between the free throws, and after the free throws on their way back down the court. Unlike many teams in the NBA, the Thunder are not intimidated by Kobe Bryant or the Los Angeles Lakers. Their previous meeting this season was also full of smack talk, with Kobe and James Harden going at it. The confidence of the Thunder is sky high; they fully believe in themselves.

The third quarter was where it all fell apart for the Lakers. Russell Westbrook absolutely torched them, shooting 6-9 for 17 points and dishing out two assists. Westbrook attacked the rim hard, and this allowed him to set up his pull up jumper. Westbrook hit four of his six shots coming off of a pick and pulling up at the top of the key or either elbow. The Lakers pick and roll defense could not stop Westbrook. Most of the time they sagged off as Westbrook came off of the pick. This is usually the correct play against the streaky shooting Westbrook, but Westbrook was hot. When the Lakers did step out hard on the pick, Westbrook would blow by the big man and finish at the rim. Essentially Westbrook put the Lakers in a catch-22. With a minute left in the third, Kobe got into another round of talking with the opponents. This time, it was during a Bynum trip to the line. Kobe walked over and inserted himself into the conversation between Fisher and Westbrook. It seemed like Fish was giving some tips for Russell, since Russell was matched up on Kobe defensively. Kobe had some fun with the situation, and he talked to both Fish and Westbrook for the entire trip at the line. Westbrook sealed his hot quarter with a huge 3 pointer to end the third quarter. With 2.9 remaining on the clock, Westbrook raced down the far side and pulled up at the wing for a 3. He swished the shot and carried some huge momentum into the fourth quarter.

Although Westbrook killed the Lakers in the quarter, the Lakers caught some unlucky breaks. The Lakers got their hands on many balls, tipping passes and tipping rebounds, however, they seemed unable to come up and control the ball. The Thunder scored on multiple occasions after the Lakers would tip a pass and the ball would land in perfect position for a Thunder layup. By the end of the quarter, the Lakers were outscored, 34-19 and they trailed 78-68. Mike Brown commented on the loose ball conundrum during the start of the fourth quarter commercial break interview. Brown stated, "They are coming up with every loose ball, every offensive rebound, and they are just outworking us. They are a little quicker to everything [...] that's the difference in the ball game." The Lakers looked a half step slow on many of those loose balls, and it cost them many opportunities. Playing against the young, energetic Thunder, the Laker just seemed to get beat to the loose ball every time. Also noteworthy was Pau Gasol picking up his fourth foul early in the quarter. Without Pau, the Lakers offense was not as smooth and free flowing as it had been up to that point. Backdoor cuts and high low post feeds were no longer available due to Pau's absence.

Perkins delivers a hard foul on Gasol.
(Courtesy TNT/ NBA)
The Thunder came out hot and blew open the fourth quarter. They started the quarter 5-7 and Westbrook and Durant each had highlight worthy dunks during this stretch. The Thunder led 88-70 with 7:30 remaining. Metta World Peace came up with some huge 3 pointers and the Lakers cut the lead to 96-87 with 2:30 to play. The Lakers went on a 15-5 run during this stretch, but they would squander their biggest opportunity of the game. Coming out of a timeout with two minutes remaining, the Lakers could have cut the lead to 7 with plenty of time, however, Pau Gasol held onto the ball too long and was unable to get up a shot as time expired. This shot clock violation cost the Lakers a possible comeback opportunity. The Lakers once again got within 7 with just over a minute to play, but Westbrook answered right away with a huge jumper that put it back up to a 9 point lead. Pau ended up taking a hard foul on the next possession from Perkins. Pau pump faked and Perkins came down with an elbow on Pau's neck. Pau and Perk both stared each other down and the resentment was tangible. This would be the last scuffle and the Thunder would hold on to win 102-93. The Lakers won the quarter 25-24, but it was not enough to overcome their horrible third quarter.

The starting five of the Lakers did not play their most efficient game. Kobe led the way, going 7-25 for 23 points. Metta shot 3-13 for 9 points. Sessions had a quiet 3-6 for 7 points. Pau went 4-11 for 13. Only Bynum had a good game, going 10-15 for 25 points. Obviously the Lakers need to shoot a lot better to contend with the Thunder; however, matching the Thunder offensively is not the answer. The Lakers need to step up their defense, especially on the pick and roll. Russell Westbrook finished 13-27 for 36 points. Many of these points were directly due to pick and roll opportunities. He shot it when the Lakers sagged off and he drove it when they came up hard. The Lakers need to get back to the basics and get their defensive rotations back on time. Surprisingly, Durant and Harden were both relatively quiet, with 21 and 9 points. If the Lakers saw these numbers before the game, they would surely have figured they won the game.

After this game, and a heated meeting earlier this year that featured Bryant and Harden talking some major smack, it seems like these two teams are destined to meet in the Western Conference Finals. Hopefully the Lakers can get their act together and prevail like they did in 2010. The Lakers won that series 4-2, with four of the six games decided by 8 points or less. If they do meet, Kobe will have to admit that a true rivalry has been established. For basketball's sake, I hope it happens.

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