Wednesday, May 30, 2012

San Antonio Spurs, NBA Title Favorites (5.30.12)

It may be too early to proclaim, or too late if you're a Spurs fan, but if you have been watching the San Antonio Spurs dismantle the Oklahoma City Thunder, as well as every other opponent throughout this twenty game winning streak, then you should understand that you are watching the title favorite for 2012.

The Spurs etched past the dominant 2001 Los Angeles Lakers for the longest winning streak in NBA history that carried over from the regular season and into the playoffs. Do you remember those Lakers? Coming off of their first title, Shaq and Kobe dominated the competition with averages of 28.7 ppg and 28.5 ppg throughout the regular season. The Lakers reeled off eight straight wins heading into the playoffs, with the average point differential throughout those games at +11.75 per game. Then they rolled though the Blazers in three games, the Kings in four games, and the Spurs in four games. The Lakers average point differential in those playoff games stood at +15.45 per game, and it put the winning streak at nineteen games. Impressive.

However, Allen Iverson went bonkers and screwed up the whole operation. AI dropped 48 all over Derek Fisher, Tyron Lue, and even Kobe, to lead the Sixers to a game one upset in LA as Philly won 107-101 in overtime. The Lakers slept on the heavy underdog 76ers, and AI produced the only Philadelphia victory of the series. The Lakers responded by torching the Sixers with four straight wins and an average point differential of +10 per game. The Lakers finished the season 23-1. Shaq averaged 30.43 ppg in the playoffs, while Kobe flanked him with 29.43 ppg. Simply put, they were unstoppable. Including the loss to the Sixers, the Lakers finished those 24 games with an average point differential of +12.42 per game.

The 2001 Lakers were very impressive, and they highlighted the most prolific one-two punch in the NBA. The 2012 Spurs are assembled much, much differently. The Spurs are a complete team. The Lakers employed serviceable role players who came up big in certain spots, but the Spurs ask their role players to contribute all game long, all year long. The top three players for the Spurs, Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili, only averaged 18.3, 15.4, and 12.9 points per game throughout the regular season. Not exactly dominant. However, the Spurs next nine players averaged anywhere between six to ten points per game. Patrick Mills topped out at 10.3 ppg, and Matt Bonner bottomed out at 6.6 ppg. This gave the Spurs a full roster of capable players, twelve deep. Utilizing a deep, balanced roster, the Spurs finished with the top seed in the West, going 50-16 while saving the legs of the older big three.

The Spurs have not lost since Andrew Bynum went into beast mode and pulled down 30 rebounds. That was 49 days ago on April 11, 2012. The Spurs came right back and destroyed the Lakers twice within the next week and a half. The Spurs finished the regular season on a ten game winning streak, with the average point differential at +17.6 per game. Then they destroyed the Jazz in four games, dismantled the Clippers in four games, and are currently slowing down the explosive Thunder with a 2-0 lead to start the Western Conference Finals. That makes ten straight wins in the playoffs, with the average point differential at +11.9 per game. The reduced point differential can be attributed to the tougher competition. However, defeating playoff teams by a double digit average is still impressive.

Overall, the streak now sits at twenty straight wins, with the average point differential at +14.75 per game. Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili have upped their numbers to 20.5, 16.8, and 13.6 points per game in the playoffs. They have capitalized on their increased minutes. Their collective minutes have increased by twelve minutes when compared to the regular season. Parker has gone up by 3.7 mpg to play 35.8 mpg. Duncan has gone up by 4.5 mpg to play 32.7 mpg. Ginobili has gotten healthy and increased his time by 3.7 mpg to play 27 mpg. Popovich has shortened the rotation a bit in the playoffs, but he still has a regular seven flanking the big three. These role players have continued to perform well. The seven guys are averaging between three to nine points per game. Danny Green tops out at 9.3 ppg, and Matt Bonner bottoms out at 3.1 ppg. The seven players combine for 49.8 ppg in the postseason. Out of the top ten players, only Tiago Splitter has missed a game.

With such a balanced roster bringing it every night, the Spurs look poised to take down anyone. Their brand of basketball epitomizes team play. Excellent team play is difficult to defend. It shakes defensive principles. It forces a defense to make tougher decisions. Instead of keying in on one or two guys with strategies such as denying, fronting, shadowing, hedging, and over rotating, the collective defense is forced to reduce giving up so many options. Each strategy has a counter. When a defense concentrates on less variables, it excels. When a defense must concentrate on more variables, it loses some of that collective, concentrated power. In doing so, it weakens in order to spread out and defend further options. If you played the odds, you would want the role players to score instead of Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili. However, the Spurs employ a version of "moneyball." Popovich puts players in scenarios in which they can succeed. These role players serve as stars in their limited scope. If you double any of the big three, the ball will eventually end up in the hands of a role player for a good look.

Although the Spurs employ their own "Big Three," it plays out much differently compared to other dynamic trios. The Spurs excel at moving the ball and hitting the open man. The Spurs have six role players shooting well from deep in the postseason. Five of them are shooting over 40% from downtown, and three of those five are topping 50%. The sixth guy, Danny Green, is shooting a respectable 38.3% on his 47 attempts. Popovich has successfully instilled confidence in each player, and in doing so, each member on the team supports another member's decision. This isn't the blind support that Kevin Durant gives to Russell Westbrook. This is real support. Almost every decision made by a Spurs' player is correct by design. You can't fault a guy for shooting a wide open 3 following excellent ball movement. You just can't. Especially when that guy is a good to great shooter.

Kevin Durant won't fault Russell Westbrook for going 10-24, 3-7 from deep, for 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists. But maybe he should. Westbrook routinely pulled up and forced jumpers when he didn't have the advantage. Westbrook wanted to negate Tony Parker's beat-down on him. Parker finished 16-21, 1-2 from deep, for 34 points, 3 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 turnovers. Westbrook got caught in a matchup battle. Parker scored off of good looks within the system of the team. Westbrook forced shots in order to match Parker's numbers. Westbrook failed to capitalize on the counterattack. Instead, he forced the issue. Durant finished the game 10-17, 3-4 from deep, for 31 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks, and 3 turnovers. I'm sure Durant desires more shot attempts, especially on a night when his jumper is flowing. Unfortunately for Durant, those attempts were jacked up by Westbrook. Westbrook's overall line is impressive, especially his 8 assists compared to 0 turnovers. However, Westbrook failed to ride the coattails of Durant. Instead of following Durant's lead, Westbrook played hero. Westbrook failed and he cost his team a chance to split the series. Now OKC has to win four of the next five games. The Spurs have only lost twice in a row four times this season. They haven't lost three times in a row all season.

Trust in the team concept alleviates the pressure upon the star players of the Spurs. They don't have to work as hard in order to produce quality numbers. They can let the game flow to them. Depending upon the defense, Parker can run the pick and roll and execute up to five great options. He can attack for a layup, pull up for the jumper, hit the roll, hit the pop, or drive and kick out. Each option is deadly due to the overall composition of the team. Kick outs lead to 3's, pull ups lead to good looking mid range 2's, layups are simple, rolls are attacking the basket, and pops are open jumpers. These big three have no problem with executing every option.

Other dynamic trios rarely play out like this. Boston is similar, but more so due to declining abilities. Other trios usually depend wholly upon the trio. The Heat depend on LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh for almost everything. The Thunder depend on Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. The Lakers depend on Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol. Having three stars of this magnitude works well, but it also requires that the stars must bring it every night. The stars must carry the load. If one of them has a bad game, that means that the other two will have to take on an even bigger role. Even worse, sometimes the star who is struggling will keep forcing the issue in order to turn his performance around. Sometimes this works, often times it ends up like Westbrook's 10-24.

Most trios command huge salaries which lead to a huge hit against the salary cap. With a limited budget, the rest of the team must be comprised of guys who fit within the salary cap. Players in the NBA rarely accept less than their market value. This makes attaining talent much more difficult. Some guys will chase a ring and sign for less money, but these guys are rarely still in their prime. The Spurs have done a remarkable job of fielding a mixed roster of youthful energy coupled with veteran poise. If any of their big three suffer, they have another capable option to go to. This option won't be asked to make a difficult play. This option will be asked to make the correct play. Credit general manager R.C. Buford for his excellent scouting, and credit Gregg Popovich for his excellent development and coaching.

The Lakers went 16-1 in the postseason in '01. Can the Spurs go a perfect 16-0? If, or when, the Spurs finally do lose, I won't count them out. They may lose the opportunity to pass some of the longest, most impressive winning streaks in NBA history, but when the confetti rains down during the last game of the year, I bet it will be silver and black. Forget about LeBron and Wade, the Spurs are offering the most impressive run for an NBA championship since the 2001 Lakers. Enjoy the show.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tyson Chandler All-Defensive SECOND Team (5.24.12)

When I read over the announcement of the All-Defensive First Team for the NBA, Dwight Howard popped off the page. Seriously, Dwight jumped out of my computer screen and started dancing.

Dwight Howard won the Defensive Player of the Year Award for three straight years from '09 to '11. This season, that award was given to Tyson Chandler.

So how is it possible that Tyson Chandler was awarded Defensive Player of the Year, yet he didn't make the All-Defensive First Team? Chandler was instead placed on the All-Defensive Second Team. Was it a misprint? No. Was it a mistake? No... well possibly. Well, what the hell was it?

"It," highlights the voting process for both awards. Do you know who votes for Defensive Player of the Year? Do you know who votes for All-Defensive Teams? Well, if you don't, the votes do not come from the same source. The DPOY is based off of a panel of 124 sportswriters and broadcasters. Each voter selects three players and ranks them. First place gets five points, second, three points, and third, one point. The player with the most points wins. The All-Defensive Team votes come from 30 NBA coaches. Each coach votes for five First Team players, and five Second Team players. Two points are awarded for each First Team vote, and one point for each Second Team vote. The coaches are not allowed to vote for players on their own roster. The coaches must vote for two guards, two forwards, and one center. Dwight and Tyson both play center.

For DPOY, Tyson Chandler received 45 first place votes, 25 second place votes, and 11 third place votes. That gave him a total of 311 points. Dwight Howard placed third in this ranking. Serge Ibaka actually almost stole the DPOY from Chandler. Ibaka finished with 41, 25, and 11 for 294 points. Ibaka also made the All-Defensive First Team, as a forward. Dwight finished with 18, 23, and 27 for 186 points. Not really all that close. So the sportswriters and broadcasters of America considered Dwight Howard the second best defensive center, and the third best defensive player for this season.

So why is it that the NBA coaches differed? Looking at the season's numbers, it's pretty clear that Dwight was the better defensive player. Dwight averaged 14.5 rebounds per game, 10.8 defensive, along with 1.5 steals, and 2.2 blocks in 54 games. Chandler averaged 9.9 rebounds per game, just 6.5 defensive, along with 0.9 steals, and 1.4 blocks in 62 games. The numbers are really not all that close. However, Dwight played more minutes per game, clocking in at 38.3 compared to Tyson's 33.2. With five extra minutes, Dwight easily inflated his averages. The team numbers also tend to favor Dwight. Orlando finished as the 8th best defensive team in terms of points allowed per game, with just 93.4. New York finished 11th with 94.7. However, Orlando slightly lost the field goal percentage battle, as they allowed their opponents to shoot 44.9% compared to New York's 44.2%. Overall, Dwight's impact seems to be greater. His extra minutes may have helped, but it's not his fault that he is young and can play all day long.

However, even the NBA coaches weren't ready to anoint Dwight with the First Team. Dwight received 16 first place votes and 9 second place votes for 41 points at the center position. Chandler received 13 first place votes and 10 second place votes for 36 points at the center position. Chandler came just five points short of being placed on the First Team. That's just two more first place votes and one more second place vote, or five more second place votes. Marc Gasol stole one first place vote away, and a second place vote. Joakim Noah received 14 second place votes. By giving away points to those centers, the NBA coaches allowed Dwight to make the First Team. Chandler could have easily made the First Team. When comparing the first place votes, it's clear that the coaches were split, 16-13.

So how did these voting sources not come out with the same result? Well, I'd say that the narrative of Dwight Howard this season is what allowed Chandler to receive the DPOY award for the first time in his career. Caught up in the hoopla of, "Trade me," and, "No, I want to stay, I love Orlando," and then mixed in with, "I won't play for Stan Van Gundy anymore," the sportswriters and broadcasters of America said, "F- it, we are not awarding a petulant superstar." Even the NBA coaches almost got caught up in the hoopla. When you look at the numbers, Dwight is clearly superior, yet he was punished for his behavior off the court.

In actuality, I don't mind the punishment. The numbers say Dwight was better, but watching the on-court product, you'd be hard pressed to say who was more valuable defensively. Dwight put up numbers, but did he ever really seem all that invested? At least Dwight had gritty teammates, guys who aren't stars and who scrap and play hard. Chandler had to deal with the permeable defense of superstars Marshmello Anthony and Amare "I hate playing with Marshmello" Stoudemire. Factor in the fact that Marhsmello quit on Mike D'Antoni, and you have to respect Chandler's defensive effort. Carmello stopped playing defense and he ran D'Antoni out of town. Once D'Antoni was gone, Carmello decided to play hard again. Chandler dealt with all of this crap very well, and he anchored the defense from the D'Antoni offensive minded philosophy to the Woodson defensive minded philosophy. Do you think Dwight would have been able to deal with all of that? Dwight struggled with a good situation in Orlando, imagine him dealing with the soap opera of New York.

Dwight quit on his team at the end of the season as they were rolling into the playoffs with the third seed. Yes, I know he suffered a back injury. But isn't it peculiar that he finished the season injured soon after saying that he would never play for Stan Van again? Such accusations have been denied by Dwight's representatives with statements such as, "It's a completely made-up B.S. story." However, do you really believe that? Just watch this clip and tell me you believe anything Dwight Howard or his representatives state. Following Stan's admission that management told him that Dwight no longer wanted to play for him, Dwight was questioned about it and he stated, "Come on man, [...] What's true? [...] I said that? [...] I didn't hear anything." Throughout this awkward interview Dwight shook his head, gesticulated with facial expressions, and denied everything. He straight up lied moments after his coach called him out. Little did he know, Stan Van just spilled the beans and his hollow lies would forever shatter his credibility.

Stan Van was just fired after going 259-135 in five seasons, and 31-28 in the playoffs, along with a trip to the finals in '09. Orlando had the fourth best record in the NBA over the past five seasons, and the third most playoff wins over that period (before this postseason). That is impressive, especially considering the steep drop off of talent outside of Dwight Howard. Stan Van Gundy brought out the best in role players. Dwight Howard is great, but his talent alone with that supporting cast should have been a perennial six seed in the East, not the fourth best team over the past five seasons. CEO Alex Martins, the man who fired Stan, stated, Van Gundy was a "great strategic coach." He further stated, "Strategically we may not be able to find anyone better." That's all you need to hear. Orlando management just admitted that Stan Van Gundy is the best coach for their team. Van Gundy stated, "When you're talking a professional relationship, what matters, at least to me, is the results [...] the object is to win games." Stan, you won games. You delivered what should matter the most, unfortunately your superstar player no longer wants to play for your winning ways.

So did the writers get it wrong, or did the coaches? The negative narrative of Dwight definitely impacted both sides. With three consecutive DPOY awards, did Dwight really drop off this season? No, he didn't. Actually, he posted his best defensive rebounding numbers with 10.8 compared to 10.1 ('11), 9.7 ('10), and 9.6 ('09) in the previous three seasons. He also increased his steals, with 1.5 this season compared to 1.4, 0.9. and 1.0. His only slippage came in blocks, as he averaged 2.2 this season compared to 2.4, 2.8. and 2.9. Overall, he improved. On numbers alone, Dwight should have won DPOY. When he popped off my computer screen and began dancing, Dwight pop locked and dropped it while stating, "That's right, I am better than Tyson." Dwight's inclusion on the All-Defensive First Team should hold a bit more credibility compared to the DPOY honors. Writers and broadcasters sell a narrative to push headlines and stories. All year long we heard about how Dwight was a coach killer, how Dwight wanted to leave, how Dwight wanted to stay. The writers were under no circumstances going to award Dwight Howard the DPOY. To them, he didn't deserve it. To them, he killed Orlando's season. To the NBA coaches, he killed Orlando's season, but his numbers could not be overlooked. The writers overlooked the numbers and impact, whereas the coaches didn't. Plain and simple.

However, there is one caveat. You would think that NBA coaches and their basketball credibility would always get it right in regards to All-NBA teams. However, many have lamented the fact that the All-NBA teams are always littered with "reputation picks." Critics point to players who make the team based on past greatness and not necessarily current greatness. These coaches don't have an agenda, but they are just as flawed as the writers and broadcasters of America.

So what do you think? Who got it right? The writers? The coaches? Both? Neither? Should Dwight have won DPOY and made All-Defensive First Team? Should Chandler have made All-Defensive First Team to go along with his Defensive Player of the Year honors? Is it right as is?

You may wonder if this has ever happened before. Well, the NBA has been awarding DPOY awards since the '82-'83 season. In the past thirty years, only two other guys have been snubbed like Chandler.

In 1986, Alvin Robertson, a shooting guard for the San Antonio Spurs, won DPOY for the '85-'86 season, but Sidney Moncrief, a shooting guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, took his spot on the All-Defensive First Team. Robertson led the league in steals that season, with a whopping 3.7 per game. He also pulled down 4.0 defensive rebounds, and averaged 0.5 blocks per game. He played in all 82 games. He also won the first ever Most Improved Player Award that season. Roberston was a multi-dimensional player, and he is one of four players ever to record a quadruple double. In '86, his award worthy season, he dropped this line, 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals. He is the only player to ever have steals as the fourth category, the other three players all recorded over 10 blocks. Despite the great season, Sidney Moncrief stole his spot due to his reputation. Moncrief averaged 1.4 steals, 3.0 defensive rebounds, and 0.2 blocks per game. Nowhere near Robertson's numbers, right? He also played in less games, appearing 73 times. However, Moncrief was the DPOY for consecutive seasons. His first was the inaugural presentation of the award in '83, and he followed it up in '84. Robertson was relegated to All-Defensive Second Team.

Then it happened in 1995. Dikembe Mutombo won DPOY for the '94-'95 season, but he was trumped by David Robinson for the All-Defensive First Team. Dikembe played in all 82 games, and he led the league with 3.9 blocks per game. Dikembe also averaged 8.7 defensive rebounds and 0.5 steals per game. Robinson won DPOY in '92 with a whopping 4.5 blocks per game, but his '95 numbers were not worthy of bumping down Mutombo. In '95, Robinson averaged 3.2 blocks, 7.9 defensive rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game. His steals were nice, but were they really what catapulted him in front of Mutombo for First Team honors? I have a feeling that Robinson received the accolade due to his reputation. Mutombo was entering his fourth year in the league for the Denver Nuggets, whereas Robinson was a star in his sixth year for the San Antonio Spurs. Mutombo would go on to win DPOY in '97, '98, and '01. He was not snubbed for First Team honors in any of those seasons. Robinson only made one more All-Defensive First Team, it came the following season in '96. Despite leading the league with a whopping 4.5 blocks per game, Mutombo was snubbed off both teams in '96, with Robinson on the First Team, and Olajuwon on the Second Team.

Tyson Chandler's relegation to the All-Defensive Second Team may be questionable, but it is not unprecedented. If he couldn't beat out Dwight Howard in a season in which Dwight was enveloped in negativity and universally loathed from both critics and NBA circles, then he probably didn't deserve the All-Defensive First Team anyways.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lakers Season Over, Kobe One Man Show (5.21.12)

Kobe Bryant walked a lonely road on Monday night.

Kobe poured in 42 of LA's 90 points. Kobe pulled out all the stops and played as if the game was do or die, which it was. Unfortunately, the rest of the Lakers did not play with the same fire.

Kobe even dunked the ball five times, something he hasn't done since his 20's. Following his posterization of Emeka Okafor last postseason, Kobe stated, "It's a message for us that is important. And you know I save those. I don't have many of those left." Well, Kobe emptied his tank and gave everything against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game five, but he couldn't do it alone and the Lakers lost 90-106. The Lakers will now face a long offseason full of questions and lacking answers.

The Lakers were neck and neck with OKC all game. Lead changes were abundant. The Lakers entered the fourth quarter down 77-83. Then, Mike Brown made his worst coaching decision of the year. Brown sat Kobe to start the fourth. This is Brown's normal rotation, however, it should have been obvious to Brown that Kobe was the only guy getting the job done. As Kobe sat, the Thunder rattled off 5 points in the first minute. Brown called timeout, but he still didn't sub Kobe in. Following a Sessions turnover, Kevin Durant nailed a 3 to make the score 77-91 with 10:30 remaining in the game. Following a consecutive Sessions turnover, Brown subbed Kobe in, but it was too late. LA would never get the deficit below double digits as the Thunder ran away with the victory. Blaming Brown may be a case of armchair quarterback. But his decision to watch OKC pour in 5 easy points in a minute, and still sit Kobe coming out of a timeout, is unforgivable. Just like the rest of the Lakers, Mike Brown was not ready for the big moment. The way Kobe was rolling, Brown should have went with him for the rest of the game. Kobe is an all-time great when it comes to pushing through the limits of exhaustion. Maybe the game would have been different if the deficit hadn't swollen to 14 points within the first three minutes of the fourth quarter.

Kobe finished the game 18-33, 1-6 from deep, for 42 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers. His critics will laughably point to the fact that he had zero assists. I won't. Kobe set the table, but the other guys didn't deliver. Kobe was aggressive all night. His poor deep shooting mostly resulted in the fourth quarter as he fired up desperation 3's, going 0-3. Although he played hard, Pau provided a disappointing 5-14, 0-1 from deep, for 14 points, 16 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, and 3 turnovers. Kobe had some heated moments with Pau down the stretch, even yelling at him at times, but my guess is that Kobe was just frustrated with the way the game was going and he nitpicked Pau. One thing Kobe couldn't nitpick was Pau's effort. At least Pau showed up, the same can't be said for Bynum.

Bynum was absolute garbage. He was routinely forced off his spots on the block. He failed to dominate the paint. He just couldn't score on Kendrick Perkins. Then there was his defensive effort. Bynum routinely played soft defense, at times he even looked like a matador pulling the muleta. A possible explanation could be the three fouls he picked up in the first half, with the third one an absolute phantom foul. But there was no excuse for his fourth foul in the opening moments of the third quarter. Bynum reached on a pick and roll and he ended up tripping Kevin Durant. Instead of playing fundamental basketball and moving his feet, Bynum opted to choose the easy route and reach. He got burned and was unable to play aggressive basketball for the rest of the half. Bynum finished the game 4-10 for 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 steal. Notice any holes in that stat line? Foul trouble may impact blocks, but foul trouble should not impact work on the glass. Four rebounds is inexcusable. Four rebounds in 35 minutes highlights a lack of effort. Bynum's lazy game came at the worst possible time. I fully believe that Bynum's lack of effort cost the Lakers the victory. Bynum stated after the game, "Tonight was the worst game I played all year." Yeah, no kidding.

Excluding Kobe, the Lakers shot 16-42 for 38%. Those numbers would have been even worse if Metta World Peace hadn't gone 4-5 for his 11 points. As a whole, LA shot 34-75 for 45.3%, and 2-11 from deep for 18.2%. The Lakers lost every important category that they needed to win. OKC inexcusably out rebound LA 51-35. OKC outscored LA 50-46 for points in the paint. OKC outscored LA 30-6 on fast break points. OKC dished out more assists also, 20-12. The only category LA won was points off turnovers, LA forced 12 turnover for 15 points, whereas OKC forced 12 for only 12 points. Not much of a victory. The biggest signifiers for the loss are the rebound totals and the fast break points. Despite employing two seven footers, LA could not win the battle on the boards. OKC dominated on the offensive glass, pulling down 14 compared to LA's measly 3. This should have been the other way around. Giving a high octane team more possessions is never wise. With LA unable to crash the offensive glass, OKC capitalized by pulling down defensive rebounds and getting out in transition. 30 points off of the fast break is just way too many. No one will beat OKC if they pour in 30 fast break points.

The first play of the game served as a foreshadow of events to come. Bynum could not capitalize on an iso at the near mid block. Perkins would not budge as Bynum attempted to back him down into the lane. Bynum eventually gave up on trying to move Perkins, and he kicked the ball out to Sessions at the near wing 3. Sessions nearly air balled the wide open shot as it came up real short. Durant nailed a pull up jumper off a curl. Pau responded with an aggressive drive, but he ended up missing the entire rim on a running lefty hook in the lane. Sessions followed by drawing a foul, but missing both free throws. Then Westbrook nailed a pull up jumper off the pick and roll. Kobe responded with a baseline turnaround bank shot from the far mid block to get LA on the board. Bynum followed with a 6ft miss over Perkins in the lane. Then Pau missed an open 17ft jumper from the far mid wing. Pau kept at it though, and he finished a dunk in transition after MWP hit him trailing in the lane.

Then Kobe got going. Kobe was very efficient throughout the game by scoring in early offense opportunities. Following a Westbrook missed jumper, Kobe pushed up the near side, attacked to the middle, got to the far elbow, and hit the 12ft jumper. Then Pau stole an alley oop lob pass. Pau hit Kobe, and Kobe pushed up the near side, got to the free throw line, and hit the 14ft jumper in transition. Following a Metta strip of Perkins at the far block, Kobe pushed up the far side, backed down from the far wing, turned baseline, and finished a reverse layup at the near side.

Following a Sessions blocked layup, OKC pushed the ball and Westbrook hit KD for an alley oop dunk. Pau missed an open jumper, and Bynum picked up his second foul while going for a rebound. Bynum was subbed out with 4:43 to go in the first. Then Ibaka drove the lane, missed a floater, fought through to crash the glass, and finished with a dunk. This was OKC's seventh offensive rebound of the quarter. Such effort cannot be overlooked. It clearly points to the inability of the Lakers to play hard and strong in the paint. A minute after Bynum picked up his second foul, so did Kobe. Following a missed jumper, Kobe backpedaled as Harden pushed up the court. Harden ran over Kobe at the near elbow, and Kobe flew back. Harden lowered his shoulder and plowed Kobe, but the refs called a block. Block/charge calls are difficult, but this one seemed to be a bit questionable. Kobe took the hit square in the chest and fell back. Harden sank both free throws. Kobe stayed in the game and tried to establish Pau in the post. Kobe stood at the near top 3 and looked to hit Pau at the block. Pau couldn't establish position on Nick Collison, and he ended up getting pushed out all the way from the mid block to the near wing. Pau caught the pass at the near wing, quickly attacked baseline, and absorbed the foul on the drive. Pau sank both free throws, but his inability to own the paint was disappointing. Pau beating someone off the dribble 23ft from the basket is never optimal.

Kobe responded with a strong close on the quarter. First Kobe abused Fisher on an iso. Kobe backed down Fish at the near mid wing, turned baseline, and hit the 15ft turnaround jumper. Then he pounded the ball from the far wing to the top. Kobe used a Hill pick to get to the near mid wing. Kobe pumped, sealed Durant on his right hip, leaned in and hit the 13ft lefty bank. Yes, lefty. Kobe then stole a pass, but Blake couldn't capitalize on an open corner 3. Kobe actually caught a break to close the quarter. Nazr Mohammed gathered an offensive rebound and was fouled at the far block with 0.5 remaining in the quarter. Kobe should have been the culprit, as he swung through Nazr's arms to prevent the putback, but the refs assigned the foul to Hill.

The Lakers finished the quarter down 21-26. Kobe went 6-9 for 15 points, 1 rebound, and 1 steal. Bynum went 0-1 for 0 points, 1 rebound, and 1 steal. Pau went 1-6 for 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Pau's activity was great, but he just couldn't get the ball to drop. Westbrook struggled, going 2-7 for 4 points and 2 assists. Durant went 2-4 for 4 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover.

To start the second quarter, Mike Brown stated to TNT sideline reporter, Craig Sager, "The one thing we can't do is we can't get pushed out of our spots and get pushed around tonight." This was an obvious reference to both Bynum and Pau. Brown must have ingrained this message during the break, because Bynum and Pau did a much better job offensively from the block. Unfortunately, the Lakers would fail to establish their position consistently once the second half started. With Kobe sitting to start the second, LA featured Bynum. Pau started it off by finishing a tip dunk following a Sessions missed layup. Collison responded with an easy layup on the pick and roll. Bynum conceded the bucket to avoid his third foul. Then Sessions ran a pick and roll from the near top. Sessions attacked to the free throw line, drew the help man, and lobbed the ball to the rolling Bynum for the alley oop dunk. OKC came right back with the same pick and roll set. Collison dribbled from the top 3 to the near top 3. Harden took the handoff and dribbled left to the top 3. On the previous play, Collison got an easy layup. This time, Bynum got caught staring at Collison rolling to the bucket. Bynum stared, and Harden hit the flashing Mohammed at the far block for a wide open dunk. Bynum responded with an iso at the near mid block. Bynum took two dribbles, turned baseline, and hit the righty hook. However, Bynum once again failed on the defensive end. Fisher probed the far mid wing and hit Mohammed at the far elbow. Nazr pumped, and Bynum bit on the fake. Nazr blew by Bynum and finished an easy dunk. Why Bynum would ever bite on a jumper from Mohammed is beyond reason. Despite his offensive production, Bynum gave all of his points back with weak defensive plays.

Sessions responded with a floater and some free throws to tie the game up at 32. His free throws were a direct result of an excellent play by Devin Ebanks. Ebanks air balled an open 17ft jumper from the far mid corner, but he didn't give up on the play. Harden pushed up the court in transition, but Ebanks caught up to him as he went up for the layup. Ebanks swatted the layup and Sessions pushed up the court in transition to draw the foul and free throws. Bynum followed with an iso at the near mid block. Bynum faced up, jabbed right, attacked baseline and spun back middle. Bynum stepped through the double, battled through the foul, and finished the layup, and one. He sank the free throw.

Following this, Kendrick Perkins checked back in the game and Bynum was once again irrelevant. Kobe also checked in and he immediately looked to feed Bynum. Kobe dribbled at the near wing and fed Bynum at the bear block. Bynum passively backed down Perkins, and he ended up kicking the ball back out to Kobe at the top 3. Kobe missed the 3 to beat the clock. A couple minutes later, Bynum picked up his third foul at the 5:24 mark. Kobe forced Harden into a tough floater in the lane. Bynum went up for the defensive rebound, but he only grabbed the ball with one hand. Harden ripped the ball out and went up for the putback. Bynum elevated straight up in the air, and Harden missed the putback. Once Harden missed, the whistle blew late, and Bynum was assigned the foul. This phantom foul was egregious. The replay showed Perkins holding down Bynum's arm as he went for the rebound, which led to the soft one handed rebound that was ripped away. Then the replay showed Harden and Bynum narrowly avoid contact as Harden went up for the putback. If Harden had finished the putback, a foul would not have been called.

Metta, Pau, and Kobe closed the quarter. Pau started with a baseline turnaround jumper that Metta assisted. Metta then drove the lane and created contact for a trip to the line, he sank both. Then Pau forced Westbrook to miss a tough contested layup. Kobe pushed the ball up, hit MWP at the near side 3, and MWP fed Pau at the near block. MWP cut through to the baseline, and Pau hit him in the lane for a layup under the basket. Then Kobe pulled out a reverse dunk that looked like it belonged in 1998. If Kobe had an afro, you would have guessed he was a teenager again. Kobe used an iso at the near mid wing. He faced up, jabbed right, swung through, and attacked the baseline. Kobe blew by Harden and threw down the 180, one handed reverse dunk. The next possession, Kobe pumped at the far side 3, got Harden to jump, leaned into Harden to absorb the contact, and fired up the 20ft jumper. No foul was called on the play and Harden finished a layup in transition. Kobe was pretty upset with the no call. He responded by establishing position at the far mid wing. Harden fronted Kobe, so Sessions swung the ball from the far top 3 to Pau at the top of the key. Pau sent a perfect lob as Kobe spun off Harden and cut to the rim. Kobe caught the lob and threw down the two handed alley oop dunk. Metta followed by driving from the near wing into the middle. Once in the lane, Metta dumped the ball off to Pau for the easy layup.

Then the refs overreacted and gave OKC free points. Ebanks started the scene with a great chase down block on Durant. Sessions took the outlet and pushed up the near side. Sessions then threw a horrible cross court pass that third graders make. Sefolosha stole the ball and pushed up the court. With Metta as his only obstacle, Thabo attacked the rim. Metta went up for the block, got his entire right hand on the ball, and Thabo fell to the floor. Metta's right hand got all ball, but his left hand gave a little push to Thabo in the back. Thabo fell to the ground, and it seemed like the refs were just going to call the play as it was, a hard foul. Then the refs convened and assigned Metta a flagrant foul. Metta cried out in disbelief and was awarded a technical foul. As Durant shot the technical, Kobe talked to the refs and was also assigned a technical. Durant hit both technical free throws, and Sefolosha sank the flagrant free throws. Reggie Miller called out the refs, and stated, "It's guilt by association," referencing Metta's past. The change to a flagrant was absolutely an overreaction based on the fall. Reggie harped on the blatant mistake, and the halftime crew of Shaq, Kenny, and Charles also called out the refs, with Charles stating, "That was a joke, that wasn't even close to a flagrant foul."

The half ended with LA down 51-54. Kobe nearly fed Ebanks a dunk before the end of the half, but Ebanks didn't score before the buzzer. Kobe finished 2-6 for 4 points and 2 rebounds. Bynum went 3-3 for 7 points and 1 rebound. Bynum's offensive production was negated by his defensive mistakes. Pau went 3-3 for 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Westbrook went 2-4 for 4 points and 1 rebound. Durant went 2-6 for 8 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal. OKC's big three of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden scored 33 of the 54 points in the half.

The third quarter featured more Kobe, an explosion by Westbrook, and more struggles for Bynum.

Bynum struggled right out of the gate to start the second half. On the first offensive possession, Sessions fed Bynum at the far block. Bynum pounded the ball with three dribbles, but Perkins wouldn't budge. Bynum kicked out to MWP at the far wing, and MWP sent the reentry. Perk almost swam around Bynum and stole the entry, but Bynum was just barely able to fend him off. Bynum took one dribble, turned baseline, and missed the lefty hook. Durant brought the ball up court, ran the high pick and roll from the top, and attacked left. Durant came off the pick to his left, and then crossed back to his right. Instead of moving his feet and staying in front of KD, Bynum went for the reach, and he ended up tripping Durant, and picking up his fourth foul in the process. Bynum knew he had three fouls. Bynum knew there was no way in hell he was going to pickpocket Durant. But he still went for the lazy reach. Unacceptable. Bynum responded by posting at the far block, taking two dribbles, turning baseline, and hitting the lefty hook. But this was immediately negated by another defensive lapse. Sefolosha held the ball at the far wing as Durant ran the baseline to the far corner. With MWP trailing KD, Bynum decided to leave Perkins at the rim to run out to the corner and deny the pass to Durant. This would have been a fine play if Metta had called for a switch or help, but Metta didn't. Metta kept running after KD, and with two guys out at the corner, Sefolosha hit Perkins wide open at the rim for a dunk. Reggie Miller immediately stated, "Why would you send Andrew Bynum out to the corner to guard Kevin Durant?" I'm sure the coaches were wondering that too Reggie. Bynum must have made the decision on his own, because Metta was definitely not expecting to switch onto Perkins at the block.

With Bynum making boneheaded plays, Kobe kicked it into high gear. Kobe started with a layup as he curled to the free throw line and attacked the basket for a lefty finish. Then he popped from the dotted line in the lane up to the near top key to hit a 21ft jumper in early transition offense. Then he dunked on Durant after Sefolosha saved a ball from going out at the baseline. Kobe caught the save at the far elbow and attacked the basket. Durant elevated, but wisely chose to get out of the way and avoid being on a poster. Following a Pau tip in, Kobe pulled out the Dirk shot. Kobe dribbled from the near corner to the near mid block. Kobe backed down Sefolosha, shot the one-foot step back knee raise jumper, and sank the shot. Kobe took the hit on the elbow to make it an and one, he finished the free throw to make the score 66-64.

Durant responded with his own Dirk shot. Then Pau had a pretty ugly moment. Pau tried to establish position at the near mid block, but he failed and he was pushed out all the way to the near side 3. Pau caught the pass and attacked to the middle. Pau picked up his dribble at the dotted lines in the lane. Pau didn't really think about what he was doing at this moment. With no one to pass to, Pau looked lost. With Ibaka crowding him, Pau began falling backwards, so he shot a flat footed fading jumper in order to avoid the travel. He missed short. Durant brought the ball up and ran the high pick and roll. Durant attacked left and tried to cross back right. MWP tapped the ball out from behind and Kobe picked it up and pushed the full length of the court to finish a two handed dunk just ahead of Perkins. Kobe sped ahead of Perkins just enough to avoid what I'm assuming would have been a hard foul at the rim.

Bynum continued his horrible play. Bynum started it off by playing pretty decent pick and roll defense as he contained Harden in the lane. Harden dumped off to Collison, and Pau swatted Collison at the near block. Instead of dropping back to Perkins after containing Harden, Bynum stood and watched Pau. Following the block, the ball flew to the far block, and Perkins finished the putback. The Lakers came down and tried to feed Bynum. Pau stood at the far top key and he looked to hit Bynum at the far block. Pau opted to swing to Kobe at the far wing. Kobe looked to hit Bynum also, but Perkins side fronted. Kobe swung back to Pau, and Pau hit Bynum. Bynum quickly turned baseline and missed a lefty 4ft hook. Bynum then came down on defense, failed to box out, and watched his man, Collison, finish a Durant missed 3 with a tip dunk. Bynum pulled out the matador move and let Collison right by him to finish the dunk.

Then Russell Westbrook stole the show. Sessions brought the ball up and tried to hit Kobe with a lazy pass to the near top key. Westbrook shot the gap, stole the ball, and pushed up the court. Sessions wrapped up Westbrook at the near elbow, but Westbrook threw up a running scoop shot that banked in from 15ft, and one. The crowd exploded, Westbrook was fired up, and he sank the free throw. The next play down, Kobe held the ball at the far wing, and he expected Pau to either set a hard screen or slip the screen. Pau did neither and instead drifted. Kobe attacked the baseline and ended up traveling on a step through move. Kobe immediately yelled at Pau on the way back down the court. Pau seemed to accept the blame with a head nod. Kobe let out an exasperated, "F***!" on his way back down the court. Following a Metta 3 in transition to tie the game at 73, Westbrook hit a pull up 11ft jumper from the far elbow.

Bynum followed with another clank. Metta stood at the far wing and looked to hit Bynum at the far block. Bynum was fronted, but he worked to spin around and get Perkins on his back. Metta swung the ball to Pau at the far top key, and Bynum threw his hands down in frustration. Pau swung to Kobe at the near wing. Kobe used a Pau pick to attack the middle, and he kicked to MWP at the far side 3. Metta fed Bynum at the far block, and Bynum waited for the double to clear out. Bynum took one dribble, turned baseline, and missed the lefty hook. Bynum shot it short, just like every other miss he had on the night. Harden took the rebound, pushed full court, and finished the layup in transition. Then Sessions came down and set up Bynum for an easy shot at the rim. Sessions attacked from the top 3 to the free throw line. Sessions sent a bounce pass to Bynum at the far block, and Bynum went up soft. Perkins swatted his shot.

Westbrook responded with a pull up 12ft bank jumper, and one. He made the free throw, making the score 73-80. Kobe responded with a 3 at the near top 3. Kobe used a down screen from Pau to pop up and nail the shot in early offense. Westbrook responded by capitalizing on a cross matchup. With Pau on him, Westbrook filled in the space and hit the pull up jumper from the free throw line.

Kobe tried to counter with an attack to the basket. He drove baseline from the far wing, got to the far block, spun middle, and threw up a contested shot. Kobe missed, and Pau followed with a tip in. However, Pau's tip didn't count. The third quarter buzzer went off with the ball still on his fingertips. The Lakers missed out on four points by less than a second due to buzzer beater end of quarter situations. The Lakers finished the quarter down 77-83. Kobe finished the quarter 6-9 for 15 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers. Bynum went 1-5 for 2 points and 2 rebounds. Pau went 1-2 for 4 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 turnover. Westbrook went 5-8 for 12 points, 1 assist, and 2 steals, KD went 2-6 for 5 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 turnover.

With the game within striking distance, Mike Brown decided to try to buy Kobe some time for rest. Kobe sat to start the fourth, whereas Durant, Westbrook, and Harden all started for OKC. Pau started the quarter with an aggressive drive, but he missed the running lefty hook from 5ft. Harden responded with a 17ft jumper following a pick and roll. The Lakers tried to respond with Bynum, but they failed. Pau stood at the near elbow, drove middle, and kicked to Sessions at the far wing. Sessions swung to Ebanks at the far corner. Ebanks looked to hit Bynum, but the spacing was not right. Bynum came out to set a screen, and Ebanks took two dribbles to his right to shoot a wide open jumper from the far mid wing. Ebanks bricked it. Westbrook raced up the near side in transition. Westbrook noticed that no one was running out to pick up Durant, so he hit KD at the near wing 3. Durant swished the open jumper in transition as Blake desperately tried to close out. Brown called timeout with the score at 77-88 at the 11:03 mark. Brown surprisingly left Kobe on the bench coming out of the timeout. Sessions committed a charge, and KD hit another 3. Sessions came down and committed another turnover after putting too much speed on a pass into Bynum at the far block. The ball sailed out of bounds.

Kobe checked back in for Sessions at the 10:11 mark with the score at 77-91. It wouldn't matter. The Thunder blew the game open and never looked back. Despite the inevitability, Kobe kept battling. Kobe hit a 16ft jumper from the far top key. Then he used a pick from Pau at the top 3. Kobe attacked left, split the hedge, and attacked the basket to finish with a dunk. Reggie Miller stated, "It's been a one man show out here." OKC immediately took a timeout, and Durant came out and hit a 16ft pull up jumper over MWP at the far elbow to make the score 84-99 with 6:18 to go. KD smiled on his way back down the court, realizing that the game was pretty much over. Kobe dropped his 40th point with another split on the hedge. Kobe took a handoff from Pau at the near top 3. Kobe attacked to the free throw line, crossed right, got to the near mid block, and hit a 9ft bank shot to put the deficit at 13 with 4:54 to go.

With LA getting desperate, Kobe let his frustrations get the best of him. Kobe brought the ball up the far side and picked up his dribble. Kobe angrily slapped the ball after a miscommunication between him and Pau. Kobe handed off to Pau, and got it right back. Kobe attacked to the far mid corner and missed the contested jumper. Reggie stated, "They just haven't been on the same page." With OKC up by 15, Kobe checked out at the :57 mark. OKC finished the game and won 90-106. Kobe finished the quarter 4-9, 0-3 on desperate 3's, for 8 points and 1 rebound. Bynum went 0-1 for 1 point in over 10 minutes. How can a seven foot center not pick up a rebound in over 10 minutes of play? Well if you play with no heart, that's one way. Pau went 0-3 for 0 points and 3 rebounds. Westbrook went 3-6 for 8 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist. Durant finished 3-5 for 8 points and 2 rebounds.

With LA bowing out in the second round for the second straight year, moves will surely be made. I expect Pau Gasol to be moved for more depth at the wing position. I love Pau Gasol. I love his skill, his intellect, and his ability when he's engaged. However, for the past two years, Pau has been a main culprit in postseason exits. Pau's consistency has been questionable, but it may be a product of conceding to Bynum. Pau rarely utilized his skills in the post this season. Instead Pau had to stand at the top of the key and at the mid wings in order to space the court for Bynum. If Pau and Bynum were the same age, I'd keep Pau, but they aren't. Pau is older and he serves as the most likely trade bait. Hell, he almost brought the Lakers CP3!

Bynum's immaturity and inability to carry LA in big moments is alarming. However, Bynum is only 24, and he is considered the second best center in the NBA, trailing only Dwight Howard. I believe that Bynum will always be one play away from being hurt for the season. He surprisingly stayed healthy this season, despite the tough schedule. It will take at least another two years of health for me to believe that Bynum is durable. After seven years in the NBA, Bynum has come a long way, but who knows if he has peaked. The only guys to actually get better after their seventh NBA season are few and far between. The most recent example is Steve Nash. Nash actually won back to back MVP's in his tenth and eleventh seasons. With Bynum's injury history, his immaturity issues, and his disappearances in big moments, the Lakers may want to deeply consider moving him. Bynum will carry a lot more value on the trading block than Pau Gasol. Bynum's youth, coupled with another team's desire for a big man cornerstone, could lead to some great return value to LA.

Either way, one of them will be gone next year. I truly doubt Mike Brown is going to get another year with this tandem, which is a shame. Brown was a part of the Duncan/Robinson title in San Antonio in '03. He understands how to utilize twin towers. I believe that this truncated season truly robbed Brown of the ability to utilize the LA twin towers properly. With games every other day, Brown could not implement a creative offense due to a lack of practice time and a lack of training camp.

Then there is Kobe. Another year has gone by, and Kobe has added another NBA season on his odometer. His window for catching MJ's six rings is closing quickly. If LA doesn't win it all next year, Kobe will probably be stuck at five rings by the time he retires. Kobe's resurgence this year was great to see, but who knows how long his procedure from Germany will hold up. Kobe is truly the guinea pig of that operation. Athletes will watch Kobe closely to see how his body responds years down the road. Maybe he has found the fountain of youth. Maybe he just had another great season. Either way, Kobe is going to be a 34 year old shooting guard next season. Basketball is a young man's game. Let's see how long Kobe can battle Father Time.

As a whole, the Lakers could not live up to their title aspirations. At times they looked like they could beat anyone in the NBA, comfortably. At other times they lost to the Wizards, Pistons, and other bottom feeders. The Lakers should be able to come back strong next year if Bynum makes a conscious decision to give his all every single night. The sad thing is, no one knows if Bynum will respond with that effort.

LA threw away two games in this series and it cost them. OKC and San Antonio will be a fantastic matchup. Watch how San Antonio gets easy buckets on back door cuts and pick and rolls. I'm not sure if KD and Westbrook will be able to kill San Antonio with jumpers. Will KD and Westbrook be able to win more close games against the calmest team in the NBA? I'm not so sure. San Antonio won't implode down the stretch like LA. However, maybe it's OKC's year like it was for Dallas last year. Remember how Dallas pulled out clutch win after clutch win in the closing moments? OKC seems to be doing the same thing, with Durantula emulating Dirk.

LA and OKC flipped roles at the most pertinent of times. LA went 10-4 in games decided by three points or less in the regular season. In the playoffs LA went 1-3. On the other hand, OKC went 5-4 in the regular season, and 3-1 in the playoffs. Obviously, OKC has found something special in the playoffs. Let's see if it continues into the next round.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Lakers Throw Away Game Four (5.19.12)

The Lakers just threw away their title chances.

After game three, I was pretty excited to see OKC finally lose a close game. The Thunder have been great at finishing games this year. Game four would bring more of the same.

Pau Gasol shrunk from the moment in the closing minute. Following a pick and roll with Kobe, Pau had two great options, either shoot the shot from the near mid block, or hit Bynum for a lob at the far block. Instead, Pau decided to try to kick the ball out to Metta World Peace at the far wing. Kevin Durant jumped the gap and brought the ball up the court with less than 30 seconds to go. With the score tied at 98, KD ran down the clock as he dribbled at the far top about 6ft behind the line. KD calmly took a dribble in toward the line, forcing MWP to back up below the line, and fired up the 3. Durantula sank it and provided the go ahead basket with 13 seconds to go. Kobe couldn't respond with a 3 of his own, and the Lakers dropped another close one, losing 98-101.

Up 91-78 with just eight minutes remaining, the Lakers gave up another lead and let another win slip away. Instead of being down 3-1 in the series, the Lakers could easily be up 3-1. With a trip to OKC on Monday, the Lakers will look to avoid another early second round exit. Overcoming such devastating losses will surely be difficult.

Although Kevin Durant hit the game winner, the game ball belongs to Russell Westbrook. Westbrook dominated the game. He scored 31 of his 37 points on either isolation plays or the pick and roll. 14 points came off of isolation, and 17 off of the pick and roll. He routinely hit pull up jumpers. Westbrook only shot 2-8 from 18ft and beyond, but he nailed 7-8 shots from 10ft to 17ft. The Lakers did a great job containing Westbrook in games two and three, but in game four, the Lakers did not hedge well and they allowed Westbrook to get off good looks.

The Lakers dominated the paint to begin the game, but Russell Westbrook kept the Thunder within striking distance. Westbrook scored the first basket of the game by nailing a pull up 18ft jumper. Kobe responded with some free throws and some nice body control due to a slip on the court. There would be about six slips throughout the game. At one point it looked like Westbrook may have pulled his groin due to slipping while trying to cut back to the ball for an inbound pass. With Staples Center overloaded due to the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings all playing in the postseason, the conditions of the ice under the court may have been to blame. Although Staples Center officials claimed that the floor was fine, I cannot recall a game with so many slips, let alone a first quarter. Anyways, Kobe dribbled at the near wing, attacked middle, slipped in the lane, maintained his pivot with his back to the basket, ball faked, and turned toward the rim for the two handed dunk. Bynum followed with a dunk of his own due to a setup from Sessions. A minute after Kobe's slip, Ramon Sessions slipped while trying to dribble at the far wing. This led to a shot clock violation.

Bynum responded by stealing a Durant pass in the lane, out hustling the bigs of the Thunder up the court, and finishing a dunk in transition. I can't recall the last time Bynum beat other bigs down the court for a dunk. Bynum gets some dunks by leaking out after contesting jumpers, but he rarely beats someone when they start at the same position and begin to run. Pau followed with a nice putback dunk following a Bynum miss. Westbrook responded with another pull up jumper due to a pick and roll. Bynum didn't hedge and Westbrook easily sank the open look, which led to some great analysis by Steve Kerr. Bynum responded by hitting a diving Sessions in the lane for a layup, and then finishing a turnaround lefty bank shot from the near mid block.

Following a turnover by Pau, Westbrook ran a high pick and roll from the far wing. He attacked middle, crossed over right to left to get to the far elbow, and slipped. Westbrook was able to dump the ball off to Perkins before he fell all the way down, and Ibaka finished a putback following Perkins' missed reverse layup. Westbrook followed with another pull up jumper. Utilizing an iso at the far wing, he attacked left, got to the far mid block, and pulled up for the 13ft jumper. Kobe responded with his own jumper, and an attack to the basket that yielded free throws. Following a Durant air ball in the lane, Kobe hit a 17ft pull up jumper. Bynum followed that by hedging and contesting a Fisher far wing jumper that air balled. Bynum leaked out, and Kobe hit him for the easy layup in transition. Kobe closed the quarter on a rather embarrassing note. After drawing a foul on KD while establishing position at the top of the key, Kobe took the inbound pass at the far wing and circled to the top of the 3. Kobe danced, dribbled through his legs five times, pulled off a rock step to hesitate and fake the cross over between the legs, and then attacked to his right. Kobe went hard, but he lost his dribble as he blew by Durant. The Thunder did not capitalize, and Bynum finished the last bucket of the quarter by hitting an 8ft righty hook in the lane.

The Lakers finished the quarter up 29-24. Kobe went 3-5 for 10 points, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Bynum went 5-5 for 10 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block. Bynum was spectacular. Pau went 1-3 for 2 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 block, and 1 turnover. Westbrook went 4-6 for 8 points and 2 assists. KD went 3-7 for 6 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 turnover. Although the Lakers scored a lot of points, the pace of the game still favored them. The Lakers were able to pound the ball inside, and Bynum capitalized.

Bynum started the second with a baseline 12ft turnaround jumper. Then he swatted a Nazr Mohammed putback in the lane, raced down the court, and finished with a dunk in transition. Seeing Bynum sprint down the floor was a treat. Unfortunately, Bynum would not score for the rest of the quarter. Kobe followed by setting up MWP for a wide open 3 that put the Lakers up 43-33. The lead hovered around ten points for the rest of the quarter. Late in the quarter, Kobe made a spectacular play. Following a Pau swat on KD, Kobe pushed up the far side, got to the wing, changed pace, crossed left to right between his legs, and blew by Harden to attack the rim. Kobe went strong to the rack, absorbed the contact from Ibaka, and finished with a two handed layup. Westbrook followed with a 16ft pull up jumper following a pick and roll. Then Kobe was swatted on a dunk attempt and Westbrook finished with a dunk in transition. Kobe responded by pushing up the far side with 9 seconds to go in the half, changing his pace, and once again blowing by Harden. Kobe attacked the basket at full speed, absorbed the contact from Perkins, and finished the strong layup, and one. Kobe sank the free throw. Following the made free throw, OKC looked to inbound the ball for the final shot. Westbrook streaked up the near sideline and then tried to cut back to the ball. As he cut back, Westbrook slipped and fell to the ground. Westbrook stayed down for a good while, and it looked like he could have seriously injured himself. As he tried to plant his right foot, he missed the plant, and his right foot slid while his left knee buckled.

The Lakers finished the half up 56-46. Kobe finished the quarter 2-6 for 6 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 turnover. Bynum went 2-6 for 4 points and 1 assist, with two of his shots getting blocked at the rim. Pau went 2-4 for 4 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 blocks. Westbrook went 2-4 for 6 points and 2 assists. KD went 3-5 for 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block.

Fortunately for OKC, Westbrook started the third, and he played really well. The third quarter pretty much featured Kobe versus Westbrook. Kobe started the quarter with a 16ft fade from the near mid wing. Two minutes later he hit a 13ft fade from the near mid block. Westbrook followed with a pick and roll from the near wing for a 3. Then Westbrook pushed in semi transition, used a Perkins pick at the near mid wing, attacked to the elbow, and drew a foul on Bynum as he pumped and absorbed the contact. Westbrook sank both. Kobe responded with his own trip to the line. He used a Pau pick at the near top 3, attacked to the near side, took the double with him to the near mid corner, backed down, spun baseline, spun back middle, split the double, and absorbed the contact for a foul at the rim. He sank both free throws as well, making the score 66-56 with 6:54 to go. Kobe followed with another pick and roll with Pau. Kobe used it at the near top 3, attacked to the near mid wing, backed down, turned baseline, and hit the 9ft floater. Then Kobe curled to the free throw line, attacked the basket, and drew another foul to sink both free throws. Kobe followed that by backdoor cutting from the far wing to the basket. Pau hit Kobe on the cut and Kobe circled under the rim to drop off the ball to Bynum for an easy dunk in the lane.

Not to be outdone, Westbrook brought the ball up, used a Perkins pick at the far wing, attacked middle, elevated in the lane with his left shoulder launching into Pau's chest, and finished the layup with his right hand. Then Westbrook hit a pull up 13ft jumper over Bynum following a pick and roll. Kobe followed with a near top key isolation. He backed down Westbrook, got to the elbow, turned middle, stepped through to seal Westbrook on his backside, and hit the leaning scoop shot in the lane. Following an Ibaka block on Hill, Westbrook ran down the ball to the near corner, pushed up the court, noticed no one picking him up, and turned on the jets about 35ft from the basket to attack the middle and finish a layup at the rim. Kobe responded by pushing up the near side with 6 seconds on the clock. Kobe got to the near wing, crossed right to left, picked up his dribble, pumped, pumped again to get Westbrook out of position, and hit the long 22ft jumper with his foot just on the line.

Kobe barely beat the buzzer, as the ball left his hand with just 0.1 to go, and the Lakers entered the fourth up 80-71. Kobe finished 5-7 for 15 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist. Bynum went 1-2 for 2 points, 1 rebound, and 1 steal. Pau went 1-3 for 4 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 turnover. Westbrook went 5-10 for 13 points and 1 rebound. Durant went 2-3 for 8 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers.

The fourth quarter would feature more Kobe and Westbrook, but this time Kobe was not as successful.

Westbrook started the fourth with a trip to the line, and he made one of two. Although the box score insinuates that Kobe had a miserable quarter, and believe me, shooting 2-10 is pretty awful, the blame cannot all fall upon Kobe. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol completely disappeared in the fourth quarter. Many of Kobe's misses came as late clock buzzer beaters due to the inability of the Lakers to establish the post early in the offense. On their first offensive possession, Pau struggled to establish position at the near elbow as Durant bodied him up. Being bodied up by Durant should be an oxymoron. This forced Blake to make a different read. The ball eventually got back to Pau at the far top 3, but Durant crowded him with 8 to go on the clock. Pau skipped the ball to the near corner and Blake missed the contested 3 to beat the clock. Metta gathered the offensive rebound and reset the offense. Metta hit Pau at the near mid block for an isolation, but Pau struggled to post up KD and he eventually kicked the ball out. Pau should have dominated KD on the block and attacked the open baseline, but he passively kicked the ball out to Blake at the top 3 after Fisher softly doubled him. Blake hit Sessions at the near wing and Sessions hit MWP at the near side 3. MWP surveyed the floor and looked to send the entry to Bynum at the near block. Bynum failed to establish position, but Metta hit the contested 3 to beat the buzzer. Steve Kerr immediately called out Bynum for his inability to establish position, but Pau was no better. The next possession, Pau looked to hit Bynum on a high low, but Bynum couldn't seal well enough and Blake ended up missing a 3 to beat the buzzer. Metta responded with two great plays. Metta attacked the basket and fed Bynum a dunk. Then he used a pick from Pau to hit an open 3 at the near wing.

Jordan Hill followed with a putback hook to make the score 91-78 with 8:02 to go. Then Derek Fisher changed the momentum. Westbrook drove left from the top, got in the lane, and hit Fish at the near side 3, swish. KD followed with a pick and roll that led to made free throws. Kobe missed a Dirk shot, and Westbrook used a pick and roll to hit a fading 14ft jumper from the far elbow. Kobe then set up Blake for a layup, but Westbrook responded with another pick and roll that led to a 16ft jumper from the free throw line. Pau was late on the hedge and gave Westbrook too much space. Kobe followed with a 3 from the near wing late in the clock that went in and out. Westbrook raced up the court, pounded the ball the entire possession, and dribbled to the far side 3 with 10 on the clock. Westbrook used a Perkins back pick to attack right, and he finished an and one layup at the rim. He sank the free throw, making the score 94-90 with 4:54 to go.

LA responded by trying to hit Bynum in the post. MWP stood at the far wing and tried to hit Bynum at the far mid block, but Bynum was side fronted by Perkins. MWP swung to Blake at the near top 3, and Blake hit Kobe at the near wing 3. Kobe backed down Harden to the near mid block, turned baseline, pumped, Harden stayed down, so Kobe elevated and hit the fading 17ft jumper from the near mid corner. Westbrook responded with another pick and roll pull up jumper from the elbow. The Lakers once again tried to establish Bynum on the block. Blake pounded the ball until 8 seconds were left as he tried to hit Bynum from a variety of angles. Blake swung it to MWP at the near side 3. MWP looked to hit Bynum, but Perkins side fronted him. Just like the first possession of the quarter, MWP fired up the 3 to beat the clock, but this time he missed. Blake gathered the offensive rebound and hit Kobe at the top. Kobe dribbled to the near wing, attacked left into the middle, elevated in the lane, and absorbed a lot of contact from Perkins. No call was made, and Kobe threw up an air ball on the layup as he hung in the air after crashing into Perkins. KD immediately pushed up the court, got into the lane, and was softly fouled by Blake. Blake stood in the lane for the charge, but KD slyly slid away from Blake and took the tiniest bit of contact to draw the foul. KD hit both free throws, making the score 96-94 with 2:58 to go.

The next possession, Blake, once again, pounded the ball while trying to set up the offense. Blake finally got the entry into Bynum at the far mid block with 7 seconds to go. Bynum backed down Perkins into the lane, turned baseline, and missed the lefty hook shot. MWP battled for the offensive rebound, but KD gathered it on the baseline. KD then lost his balance and fell out of bounds, but the refs assigned a foul on MWP. Metta didn't touch him, but the phantom foul didn't cost the Lakers as Durant surprisingly missed both free throws. The next possession may have been the ugliest one all game. Pau stood at the near top key and he hit MWP at the near mid block with 10 on the clock. MWP attacked middle and kicked it to Pau at the elbow. Pau took a dribble to his right and hit MWP at the near corner. MWP dribbled to his left, got to the near elbow and air balled a contested jumper. The spacing was awful, and Pau's insistence to kick it back to Metta was disappointing. Durant punished LA with an isolation from the near mid wing. KD backed down Kobe to the near block, Kobe gambled for a steal, and Durant swiftly turned baseline to hit the turnaround jumper and tie the game at 96 with 1:54 to go.

Following a Kobe miss from the top 3, Kendrick Perkins scored his first basket of the game. Westbrook finally missed a pull up jumper, but Perkins got away with a push in the lane and he finished the putback at the rim. The push was rather obvious. Bynum was in great position at the rim, and then he was reaching back for the ball. The reach back is usually indicative of a push in the back. Perkins got away with it, but Kobe came right back and earned a trip to the line. Kobe used a Pau pick at the near top 3 to attack right to the near block. Kobe got to the block, spun back to the middle, hesitated, and drew the foul on Ibaka in the lane. Kobe sank both shots, making the score 98-98 with 1:04 to go.

Then three pivotal plays occurred. Westbrook used a series of picks at the top to go right and left. Eventually he went left, got to the near top key, and tried to cross over to his right. Westbrook slipped, and Blake stole the ball. Then Pau hit Kobe at the near wing. Pau came over to set the pick, but he noticed Ibaka stay high to double, so he slipped the pick. Kobe hit Pau on the slip at the near mid block. With Perkins rotating over, Pau had two great options, but instead he picked option number three, the wrong option. Pau could have blown by the rotating Perkins and finished a layup. Pau could have thrown the lob to the rim for Bynum to dunk the ball. Instead Pau made the wrong read and tried to kick the ball out to Metta at the far wing. Durant shot the gap and stole the ball with 33 seconds to go. Pau's passive play truly killed the Lakers right there. Instead of going up by two and putting some pressure on OKC, Pau gave Kevin Durant the opportunity to shoot in the final minute without the added pressure of knowing a miss would probably yield a loss. KD came down and ran out the clock at the far top 3, about 6ft behind the line. With MWP giving him some space, Durant smoothly took a dribble in and hit the pull up 3 over Metta. Not wanting to give up the drive, Metta backed up below the 3-point-line as Durant filled in the space. Durant calmly sank the good look to make the score 98-101 with 13 seconds to go.

Kobe got off a good looking 3, but he missed. Kobe inbounded to Pau at the far side, took the handoff, and circled the perimeter to the near top 3. Kobe got off a clean looking 3, but he just missed it. Harden followed with two made free throws and Kobe finished with a miss, an offensive rebound, and a jumper at the end. Game over, 100-103.

Kobe finished the quarter 2-10 for 7 points, 1 rebound, and 1 assist. Bynum went 1-2 for 2 points, 1 rebound, and 1 block. Pau had 1 turnover as his only stat in over 10 minutes of playing time in the fourth. Westbrook went 4-6 for 10 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. Durantula went 2-3 for 11 points and 3 rebounds. Durant did a great job of attacking the basket for free throws.

Looking at those fourth quarter numbers, it's apparent that the Lakers did not go inside. However, when analyzing the game, it became clear that the Thunder did a great job of denying the post entry. The Thunder fronted the post and always had a backside defender. When the guards would rotate the ball, the Thunder defenders would rotate accordingly, as if on a string. Their defense was great. The best counter would have been an aggressive Gasol. Pau should have killed Durant in the post, but he never even attempted a shot. Pau could have mitigated the post entry difficulty by backing down Durant from the near and far top of the key. Pau held the ball here multiple times, but he always looked to pass from this position. Obviously, it wouldn't have mattered if Kobe could have sank some more shots. Kobe fired up some difficult shots, and he only took two out of his ten shots in the lane. It would have been nice to see Kobe attack the basket.

Overall, Durant and Westbrook were just too dominant. KD finished 10-18, 3-4 from deep, for 31 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, and 3 turnovers. His 46 minutes were also a game high. The Thunder needed every single minute from Durant and it's obvious that his young legs gave him a huge assist. For a guy to play 46 minutes, and play well, on the second night of a back to back, that is impressive. Assist the NBA schedule makers for that one. Obviously Durant used his skill to play well, but the fact that his young legs allowed him to log all but two minutes can only be a positive for OKC. Westbrook finished 15-26, 1-2 from deep, for 37 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. Westbrook logged 43 minutes. Kobe went 12-28, 0-2 from deep, for 38 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 turnovers in 40 minutes. Kobe attacked the basket strong and went 14-17 from the line. Bynum went 9-15 for 18 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks in his Laker high of 43 minutes. Pau went 4-10 for 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, and 3 turnovers in his 39 minutes. The Lakers won the points in the paint battle, 48-34. Both teams were even on the fast break, with LA winning 15-14. LA lost the turnover battle, with 9 turnovers for 14 OKC points. OKC committed 7 turnovers for 10 LA points.

Kobe made some headlines for calling out Pau after the game. Kobe stated, "Pau has got to be more aggressive." Many critics laughed at the fact that Kobe shot 2-10 in the fourth and then called out Pau. Kobe admitted that he took tough shots, but he also insinuated that if his teammates had stepped up, he would have never been in that position to take those tough shots. Kobe is correct. Pau's bad read didn't exactly cost LA the game, but his overall passive play throughout the fourth forced Kobe to jack up shots. With Bynum negated by Perkins, and Pau nonexistent, Kobe had to take shots just to get up a shot on the possession. The old cliche, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take," applies to this situation. Kobe had to shoot, and he missed.

In the end it came down to a great shot by Kevin Durant. What can you say? A big time player hit a big time shot. After letting two games slip away, LA is now mired in a 3-1 hole. Despite playing OKC even in both losses, it will take a miracle for LA to come back and win the series. Hopefully LA can win game five and live another day to fight in LA.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lakers Attack the Basket, Win Game Three (5.18.12)

The Lakers just won the first of two must wins.

Now they have to take care of business and win on Saturday. Playing back to back games is never ideal, but at least it gives the Lakers the opportunity to tie the series in one swift motion.

If you watched how the Thunder dismantled the former champs, Dallas, then you understand the importance of game three's victory. Dallas forced OKC into two very tough opening games, and ended up losing both by four total points. Dallas was blown out in game three, and then lost by just six in the closer. With LA's victory comes a dent in the armor of OKC. They finally lost a close game. The Lakers closed out strong and won 99-96, handing OKC their first loss of the postseason.

Usually a win like this for a former championship team isn't all that exciting, but the way the Thunder have been closing, a win like this is monumental, especially following game two's meltdown. The Lakers continued some of the positives of game two, and even overcame what looked to be a deadly run by James Harden to finish ahead in game three.

Lakers win before even playing?
(Courtesy ESPN)
During half time of the Boston-Philly game, the ESPN telecast had a gaffe and showed a clip that stated, "Thunder at Lakers - Next on ESPN, Thunder lead series 2-1." I joked with some people that the fix was in. Well, 42 free throws later, maybe I was right. Kobe benefited from some interesting calls, and the Lakers sank 41-42 free throws, with Kobe shooting 18-18. But OKC shot 26-28, so I'd say that the refs were just a little happy with the whistle.

The ESPN telecast jumped to the game with the Lakers up 6-0 at the 9:58 mark. This is just one reason why I really dislike national telecasts. As a Lakers fan, I would rather watch the beginning of LA rather than the end of Boston vs Philly. Although entertaining, I care about the Lakers game. I wanted to see how LA would respond in the opening minutes. I guess I'll never know. But the crowd sure was loud, so something good must have happened. I did get to see Ramon Sessions have a nice start. Sessions finished a backdoor cut to make the game 8-0. Then he hit a floater in the lane off of a pick and roll to make the game 10-4.  Kobe followed with a handoff in the far corner for a 20ft jumper, swish. Then Andrew Bynum played some great pick and roll defense and forced Kevin Durant to miss a tough, contested jumper from the far elbow. Bynum followed that up with an offensive rebound and dish to Pau in the lane for a dunk. Kobe followed with a steal on a backdoor cut, and he hit Sessions with the outlet for a dunk, putting LA ahead 16-4. Following the timeout, KD hit a floater. Then OKC got a steal as Pau forced a pass to Kobe, but Metta hustled back on defense and forced KD to lose the ball out of bounds. Little hustle plays like that are what save a game. Kobe followed with a one dribble pull up jumper from 16ft. Then Kobe was whistled for a dubious foul on James Harden.  Despite the foul, Metta gathered the Lakers and barked orders to calm the guys down.

Then Derek Fisher had his only positive moment while guarding Kobe. Hoping to take care of the mismatch, Kobe called for the ball at the free throw line with the much smaller Fisher on him. Metta passed up Kobe and instead hit Blake in the near corner. Unfortunately, Blake ended up throwing the ball away, and Fisher scored in transition.

Bynum finished the quarter strong with his pet move. Bynum took two dribbles at the near mid block and turned baseline for the turnaround jumper. He missed, but he was fouled. He sank both of the free throws and the Lakers closed the quarter up 23-15. Kobe finished the quarter 3-6 for 6 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Kobe really hurt OKC with quick, decisive moves. Bynum went 1-4 for 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. Pau went 2-5 for 4 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers. Pau's aggression on the glass was great to see. Westbrook really struggled, shooting 1-4 for 2 points and 1 rebound, and he was subbed out early at the 6:01 mark. Durant went 2-5 for 4 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 turnovers.

In the second quarter, the Thunder closed the gap and cut the deficit to 3 points within the first two minutes. However, the Lakers played some great pick and roll defense and forced Westbrook into a turnover that led to a Blake 3. Westbrook ran the high pick and roll and attacked right. Pau did a great job of hedging, so Westbrook backed out and used the pick again, this time to go left. Pau worked hard, and cut Westbrook off in the lane. Westbrook elevated and tried to kick out, but Barnes shot the gap and ended up pushing the court and hitting Blake for a 3. Blake followed with a backdoor cut and assist from Pau for a layup. Sessions followed with a nice aggressive take to the basket that led to made free throws and then he hit a 9ft fading jumper in the lane.

Despite the game being a must win, coach Brown carefully monitored minutes. Kobe and Drew checked back in at the 6:09 mark, their normal rotation from the regular season, with the score at 32-33. Kobe immediately picked up his third foul, but coach Brown trusted him to play smart and he let Kobe finish the quarter. Following some Kobe free throws, Jordan Hill came up big with an amazing block on Kevin Durant. Durant dribbled at the near wing and Metta popped the ball out. Durant regathered it 5ft behind the far wing 3, danced a bit, and blew by MWP to attack the baseline and get to the rim. With KD coming with a full head of steam, Hill rotated to the far block and met KD at the top of his jump. Hill went up with two hands straight in the air and ended up swatting KD's dunk attempt.

Then Russell Westbrook lost his composure and freaked out. Let me just say, if this had been Metta who acted so petulantly, he would have been suspended for throwing those elbows. Westbrook dribbled at the far top 3 and got into the lane. Hill rotated and swatted his layup, Ibaka missed the tip, and Westbrook regathered the ball at the near block. Bynum swatted Westbrook again, the ball squirted out, and Westbrook dove for it on the floor. MWP immediately ran over and stood over Westbrook as he went for the jump ball. While on the floor, Westbrook began throwing elbows and swinging his arms wildly to prevent MWP from getting a handle on the ball. Westbrook freaked out, popped Metta in the back of the knee, and got upset that MWP's leg gave out and dropped on him. MWP dropped a knee on Westbrook, and Westbrook got up and acted all hard. Every action has a consequence, I guess Westbrook doesn't understand this. The refs awarded double technicals, but Jeff Van Gundy stood up for MWP and called out the officials, stating, "The double technical is the biggest cop out there is in officiating. What does anyone want World Peace to do right there? He drops on his leg only because he gets hit." Two minutes later, Westbrook and MWP had another run in. Westbrook ran the high pick and roll with Durant at the near top 3. Westbrook attacked left, crossed back over right, and ran into the back of KD. Westbrook lost the ball, recovered it at the near side half court, and tried to get away was MWP hounded him. Westbrook attacked left and tripped, but the refs awarded MWP a foul. Westbrook was clearly flustered.

Metta finished the quarter with a 3 from the far side. Sessions drove and kicked, setting up Metta for the open swish and putting LA ahead 50-47 to enter the half. Kobe finished 0-3 for 7 points and 1 rebound. Kobe persistently attacked the rim and was awarded free throws all night. Bynum went 1-3 for 4 points, 1 rebound, and 1 block. Pau went 1-1 for 2 points and 1 steal. Westbrook had a great quarter, going 3-6 for 12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. His aggressive drives led to free throws. Durant went 3-5 for 9 points, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. Both Kobe and Harden entered the half with 3 fouls apiece.

Kobe started the third quarter with a beautiful finger roll. Kobe dribbled from the far wing and attacked the baseline. Kobe went hard to the rim, elevated, and finished a nice right handed finger roll in traffic after absorbing the contact. A minute later, Bynum missed a turnaround jumper that didn't hit the rim, and Jeff Van Gundy exposed him for his knack to take a dribble to gather himself. Three minutes later, Bynum made up for it. Kobe missed a long jumper and Bynum tracked the ball down to the far mid corner. Bynum quickly attacked the basket to get off a shot before a shot clock violation. Bynum missed, but Kobe gathered the offensive rebound and fed Pau for a dunk, making the score 56-53. OKC came right back and used a play that the Nuggets ran to death on the Lakers. Durant stood at the far wing, went right, waited for Perkins to adjust his screen from one side to the other, and then attacked left to hit the 16ft pull up jumper.

Durant followed with this ridiculous shot. Durant dribbled at the far top, used a pick, attacked left, and threw up a ridiculous running 14ft floater off balance. Durant shot the ball because he figured he'd get the call. He didn't get the call, but he made the tough bank shot. Kobe followed with a floater in the lane, and then he drew a foul on Fish at the far mid wing as Fisher bodied him up. Kobe sank the free throws.

Then Jack Nickolson got involved. Following a dubious foul on Barnes, Nicholson called out the ref and even stated, "You were behind that play," referring to the ref's position. This led to some great banter from Van Gundy regarding Nicholson. The Lakers entered the fourth down 69-70. Kobe finished 3-8 for 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Bynum went 0-4 for 4 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 turnover. Pau went 1-1 for 2 points, 2 assists, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. Westbrook went 2-5 for 4 points and 3 rebounds. KD went 3-6 for 10 points, 1 assist, 1 block, and 1 turnover.

With 12 minutes to seal the deal, the Lakers and Thunder had an up and down fourth quarter. Following a bunch of free throws, Andrew Bynum committed the only missed Laker free throw of the game. Drew came up short at the 9:15 mark, missing his first but swishing the second. Durant followed with another ridiculous shot. Durant caught a back door pass at the near block, lost his handle, recovered it at the far block, and threw up a scoop shot as he was falling over.

Kobe responded by killing his former teammate, Derek Fisher. First he backed down from the near wing to the near mid corner. Fish bodied him up, but Kobe hit the baseline fade. The next possession, Kobe hit Pau, reposted, caught the ball at the near elbow, shook baseline, turned middle, and hit the 13ft fade over Fisher. Imagine how many times Kobe has done this in practice with Fisher, it must be countless.

Then James Harden put a scare in the heart of LA. First he forced Kobe into a tough jumper and leaked out for the dunk. Then he tipped a pass as Barnes advanced the ball up court. Barnes was lazy, and Harden ran it down to the far side. Harden gathered the ball, Pau protected the rim, so Harden fired up the 3 from the far side, swish. This 5 point run made the score 78-83 with 6:39 to go. The run was reminiscent of game two's meltdown.

LA called timeout, and Steve Blake responded. First Blake ran a high pick and roll with Kobe. Blake attacked left, KD didn't hedge because he didn't want to leave Kobe, and Blake hit the open 15ft jumper from the far mid wing. Then Blake ran it again. KD, once again, didn't hedge due to Kobe, Westbrook went under the screen, and Blake nailed the open 3 from the far wing, tie game.

Westbrook and Durant responded with dunks in transition, making the score 97-92 with 2:41 to go. Kobe responded by setting up Pau for a trip to the line, and Pau sank both. Then Metta made a great defensive play, recovering to the post and swatting Perkins. Kobe responded with a gorgeous dribble drive to the bucket. Kobe used a Pau pick to dribble to the top 3, Kobe crossed between his legs, performed a half crossover, hesitated, and blew by Harden to go right and to the bucket. Then Kobe planted his feet and shielded Perkins with his body to finish the righty layup high off the glass, making the score 91-92 with 1:32 to go. Kobe followed that by pulling off a veteran swim move and locking up Harden's shoulder. Kobe drew the foul and sank both free throws. Then Kobe got Westbrook to foul him as he got him to bite on a pump at the near mid corner. Kobe sank both, putting LA up 95-94 with 33 seconds to go.

Metta followed with the defensive play of the game. Metta pressed KD 35ft from the basket. KD crossed over Metta and attacked into the lane. Pau rotated and left Ibaka at the far mid corner. KD hit Ibaka, but Metta quickly flew over there and jumped for the block. Ibaka pumped, getting the fly by, but this allowed Bynum enough time to rotate over and force Ibaka to shoot a tough contested jumper. Ibaka missed, but KD gathered the offensive rebound at the near block. Metta snuck up on KD under the rim and stripped him. Metta promptly sank both free throws, 97-94.

The Thunder easily hit Perkins on an inbound play making the score 97-96. Perkins was left open as Bynum hedged hard to prevent KD from getting a 3. Kobe calmly sank two clutch free throws, putting LA up by three. With no timeouts, OKC pushed the floor. KD took the handoff at the near wing, circled the perimeter, and used a Perkins pick at the top. Pau hedged it perfectly and forced KD into a tough, contested 30ft 3 from straight ahead. The shot almost dropped, but it missed. Then Bynum swatted Ibaka on the putback, game over.

Kobe finished the quarter 3-8, 8-8 on free throws, for 14 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 turnover. Kobe's aggression won the game for LA. He hit 18-18 free throws and made numerous big plays down the stretch. Although he struggled with his jumper, shooting 9-25, 0-1 from deep, he attacked the basket and poured in 36 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and just 2 turnovers. Bynum finished the quarter 0-2 for 3 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Pau went 0-1 for 4 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block. Westbrook went 1-3 for 3 points, 1 rebound, and 1 steal. KD went 4-7 for 8 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 turnover.

In a must win game, Mike Brown effectively balanced the minutes of his starters. Drew played the most at 40, but the Lakers should have enough in the tank for today's game. Although Drew struggled, shooting 2-13, he did attack, like Kobe, and he sank 11-12 free throws, for 15 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, and 1 turnover. Pau finished 4-8 for 12 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and an uncharacteristic 4 turnovers. Westbrook struggled mightily, shooting 7-18, 0-3 from deep, for 21 points, 9 rebounds, just 1 assist, 2 steals and 1 turnover. He was really off his game. Durant went 12-23, 1-4 from deep, for 31 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 1 block, and 5 turnovers.

Let's see if LA can follow up this strong performance and win Saturday to tie the series.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lakers Collapse In Final Two Minutes (5.16.12)

In the NBA playoffs, a loss like this will surely haunt you.

If you were betting on this game, and the bookie told you, "Oklahoma City will only score 77 points," you definitely would have put all of your money on the Lakers. Unfortunately, the Lakers only scored 75 points. Kobe Bryant may have had his worst two minute stretch of basketball, ever. Kobe hasn't flamed out this badly since he was a rookie firing up air balls against the Jazz in the conference semifinals. With a seven point lead, and just over two minutes remaining, the Lakers suffered an epic meltdown and lost by two points. With the chance to head back to LA tied up at 1-1, the Lakers blew the game and now face a 2-0 hole.

Giving away a game in the playoffs is always debilitating. Just ask Memphis. They gave away game one in the first round when Nick Young went berserk with the three ball. Memphis dug out of a 3-1 hole and forced a game seven on their home court, but they couldn't seal the deal and they lost. They know that losing game one cost them the series.

The Lakers came two minutes away from stealing home court and making this series a lot more uncomfortable for OKC. Now they have to dig out of a 2-0 hole and try to tie the series up with back to back games on Friday and Saturday. This is not promising. The Lakers will have to put everything they have into game three. Losing game three will put them in a grave box. By expending so much energy in a must win, the Lakers will surely be drained the next day when they play game four. The chances of the Lakers heading back to OKC tied up at 2-2 are much slimmer now.

However, maybe this game wasn't all doom and gloom. The Lakers may have figured out how to play OKC. The defense was drastically improved. The Lakers were great against the pick and roll. The bigs, Drew, Pau, and Jordan Hill, did an excellent job of hedging hard on the picks and forcing the guards to give the ball to far less offensive talents, namely Perkins and Ibaka. When the guards would decide to force the jumper, Pau and Drew were right there to contest the shot. The Lakers did an excellent job containing Russell Westbrook. Westbrook killed the Lakers with the pick and roll in game one, but in this game he only shot 2-6 from the midrange, and he finished the game 5-17, 1-3 from deep, for 15 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal. Harden was no better, he went 0-1 from the midrange off of the pick and roll, however he did take over late and make 2-3 layups in the final two minutes, one coming off a pick and roll. Then there was Durant. He only went 1-3 off of the pick and roll midrange jumper. The Lakers rotated well, hedged hard, and forced those three to give up the ball. This led to bricks from Ibaka and Perkins. Ibaka went 4-11 for 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 7 blocks. His defensive impact was impressive, but offensively, he was a liability. Perkins did no better. He went 1-5 for 2 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. Notice how the Thunder bigs had very little boards. Kevin Durant led the team with 7. By forcing the bigs to pop on the pick and roll, the Lakers forced the Thunder into numerous one and done situations. The Thunder only had 6 offensive rebounds for the entire game, compared to 11 from LA.

Overall, the Lakers did everything they needed to do to win the game. They stymied the high octane Thunder. They fed the post. Kobe hit clutch jumpers in the fourth. Then the final two minutes came and the game was stolen away. I considered OKC's performance in game one an aberration due to their hot shooting. In game two, they shot just 42% from the field, and just 35% from deep, far lower than game one's 53% and 41% from deep. I believe that these game two numbers are more of the norm. However, LA followed with their own aberration on offense, shooting just 38.5% from the field, and just 2-15 from deep for 13.3%. LA's inability to hit a 3, coupled with their epic collapse, cost them a win. On the final play of the game, Steve Blake missed a wide open 3 from the near corner. The Lakers could not have asked for a better shot. Blake missed it. The game should have never came down to that shot, but they did get a wide open look for the win. Then there was Kobe's uncharacteristic play down the stretch. Kobe hit two huge shots early in the fourth, but in the final three minutes Kobe went 0-3 for 0 points, with one of those shots actually getting blocked. In this stretch he also had 1 turnover that led to a Thunder dunk. Then a pass from Blake flew right through his hands and out of bounds the following possession. Kobe's mistakes could have been avenged with a last second shot, but the Thunder made sure he couldn't catch the inbound pass for the final shot. When the Lakers watch the game tape, they will love everything about it until the final two minutes.

Kobe started the game with a missed layup. He curled into the lane, attacked the rim hard, and went up for the finger roll. However, he was too far under the basket, and the ball hit the underside of the front iron. Miscues like this usually don't happen with Kobe. I guess it was a sign of things to come. Two minutes later, Metta passed up an open 3 at the near top 3. Instead, Metta hit Kobe at the near mid wing with 4 seconds on the shot clock. Thabo Sefolosha disrupted Kobe by tapping the ball away, and by the time Kobe regathered the ball in the near corner, the buzzer went off for a violation.

Despite his offensive troubles, Kobe had a great defensive first quarter. Kobe picked up three steals in the quarter, his first following the shot clock violation. Westbrook ran a pick and roll with Durant at the far top 3. Westbrook attacked left to the far wing and swung it to KD who popped to the near top key. Kobe rotated, left Sefolosha at the near side 3, and surprised KD for a steal. Kobe pushed up the floor and finished with a basket as Durant goaltended his layup. The next play, Westbrook brought the ball up as Durant ran off a Perkins down screen to the far wing. Westbrook hit KD at the far wing, but Bynum hedged KD hard, leaving Perkins wide open. Pau rotated to cover Perkins at the far mid block, leaving Ibaka open. Bynum recovered into the lane as Metta recovered and matched up with Durant. Ibaka flashed to the free throw line, and KD hit him. Kobe rotated over, left Sefolosha at the near side 3, and contested Ibaka's jumper, brick.

A minute later, the Lakers suffered another shot clock violation. Kobe attacked the rim, but Ibaka did a great job of rotating and swatting the finger roll. Sessions recovered the ball with 1 on the shot clock, but he couldn't get up a shot in time. Three possessions later, Pau committed to the hedge on the pick and roll. Westbrook attacked right from the top, but Pau stuck with him and forced Westbrook to throw up an ugly running fade contested jumper, air ball. Bynum came down and finished a nice reverse. The next possession, Bynum hit a nice lefty turnaround bank shot. Then Pau hit a righty turnaround bank shot. Kobe followed with consecutive steals. Kobe stole an errant Harden pass under the basket and setup Bynum for an easy layup at the rim. Kobe followed with a great rotation to steal the ball from the rolling Collison in the lane. Kobe noticed Collison slipping the pick from the top, so he left Harden and stole the ball from Collison's blind side. Bynum followed with a trip to the line and sank his free throws.

Kobe followed with a fading 8ft jumper in the lane, and the Lakers closed the quarter up 22-21. Kobe went 2-7 for 6 points, 2 assists, and 3 steals. Bynum went 3-6 for 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 block. Pau went 1-2 for 2 points and 3 rebounds. Westbrook went 2-7 for 7 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist. Durant went 2-2 for 4 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers. The Lakers did an excellent job bottling up Westbrook and Durant. All eight of the Lakers made field goals came in the lane.

Three minutes into the second, TNT showed a clip of Mike Brown during an official timeout. Brown stated in the huddle, "Hey, the most physical team wins, the most physical team wins on both ends of the floor." A minute later, Pau and Harden got into a scuffle battling for the board following a free throw. The refs assigned a double foul, but Pau actually got away with a cheap shot as he ran into the back of Harden on the way down the floor and gave him a nice subtle shove. Hill followed with an offensive rebound and dunk. Then KD got to the far wing and used a Perkins pick to attack middle. Bynum hedged hard and forced KD to hit Perkins at the far mid corner. Perkins took a dribble into the lane and threw up an ugly hook that didn't hit the rim. Metta fired up a 3 to tie the game at 33. The Lakers once again forced the Thunder to hit a big on the pop, but this time Ibaka sank the 17ft jumper from the near mid wing.

Kobe followed with a beautiful lefty finger roll. Bynum stood at the near block, took two dribbles, and turned baseline for the turnaround jumper. Perkins did an excellent job of bodying him up, thus thwarting Bynum's momentum on the turnaround. With Perkins hindering Bynum, Ibaka rotated from the weak side and spiked the ball away. Kobe recovered it at the near elbow, took a dribble into the lane, and then stepped back to the near mid block. Kobe pumped, froze the defense, and stepped through to finish a lefty finger roll at the rim. Kobe then set up Jordan Hill for an open jumper at the near mid wing as he took the double and kicked it. Hill sank the open jumper. Kobe followed that up with an impressive jumper. Kobe was at the near top, he looked to use a Pau pick to go middle, but he couldn't because the Thunder overplayed the middle. Kobe dribbled out to the near wing, attacked baseline, and beat the hedge as he turned the corner. Kobe got to the near block, backed down, shook baseline and turned middle to hit the 12ft fade from the near mid block.

Serge Ibaka picked up his fifth block of the game by swatting Bynum. Pau stood at the top of the key and hit the flashing Bynum at the near mid block. Bynum shook baseline and turned middle. Ibaka left Pau and swatted Bynum from behind. Sefolosha gathered the ball and hit the streaking Westbrook for a dunk in transition. Ibaka did a great job of blocking shots from the weak side, however, this block was just sneaky. Pau should have called out the double, but Bynum was probably too far into his move. Bynum's pet move is to take two dribbles and shoot the ball. Ibaka definitely knows this, and he rotated extremely well from the weak side to block numerous Bynum attempts. A minute later, Kobe turned the ball over as he lost his handle going behind the back. Ibaka finished with a dunk in transition. Then Bynum utilized an iso at the near block. He took two dribbles, turned baseline, and missed the turnaround jumper. Westbrook air balled a buzzer beater to end the half, and the Lakers finished the half down 45-48.

Kobe went 2-4 for 4 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 turnover. Bynum went 1-4 for 2 points and 2 rebounds, with two of his misses due to Ibaka blocks in the lane. Pau went 2-4 for 6 points and 1 rebound. Westbrook went 1-3 for 5 points, 1 rebound, and 2 assists. KD went 2-2 for 6 points and 1 assist. The Lakers really held Westbrook and Durant in check in the first half. Westbrook went 2-4 from the midrange in the half, and KD went 1-1. Although these are high percentages, the attempts are what matter. The Lakers did a great job of hedging hard and forcing these two to give up the ball.

To start the third quarter, Reggie Miller made a great analogy. If you recall game one, the Lakers were dominating the paint offensively. Reggie stated, "I think the Lakers are approaching this series like it's a boxing match. They know they're not gonna knock out the Thunder. But what they want to do is have body blows. And how do you get body blows? By inside touches. They want to wear down the Thunder big. And if the Lakers continue to go to Pau and Andrew Bynum down low and wear down the Thunder big, it could be the series all tied up at one."

Reggie was spot on. The Lakers scored seven of their eight baskets in the paint in the third quarter. Bynum started with a three second violation, but he made up for it by blocking a Westbrook jumper at the near elbow following a pick and roll. Bynum hedged, disregarded Perkins, and contained Westbrook well enough to swat him. The next possession, Bynum hedged hard on another pick, forced KD to give it up to the popping Perkins at the free throw line, and Perkins bricked it. Then Kobe set up Pau for an easy dunk. Kobe stood at the near corner, blew by his man baseline, elevated under the board, and dumped it to Pau for a nice dunk. KD missed a contested jumper, but Bynum couldn't make him pay as he missed a turnaround fade in the lane. The Thunder ran another pick and roll, with Westbrook at the near mid wing. Bynum hedged hard and left Ibaka. Westbrook had to swing it, and Ibaka bricked the open jumper from the far top key. Bynum followed with an easy look in the lane after MWP set him up. Pau followed with a strong take to the rim from the top of the key. Pau drove left, got into the lane, and finished a running 3ft floater.

OKC immediately took a timeout as LA went up 51-48 with 7:50 to go. Then the Thunder capitalized on a four point swing. Looking back, it's little plays like this one that led to the Lakers' demise. KD curled to the free throw line and caught the entry. Kobe sagged off of Sefolosha and stripped KD in the lane. Sessions picked up the ball and attacked the rim. Sessions seemed worried about getting blocked from behind, and he ended up missing the dunk. This led to an easy transition dunk for Durant. After forcing Westbrook to miss a tough contested layup, Kobe capitalized with a fade in the lane from the from the near mid block. Kobe attacked from the far wing and probed to the near block. He pumped, stepped through to the rim, and sent a beautiful dump off to Pau in the lane. Ibaka rotated perfectly and swatted Pau, but Pau saved the ball and hit Kobe. Kobe took the pass and hit the 8ft fade in the lane. Bynum followed with another three in the key violation, but Kobe nailed a sweet 17ft jumper on the next possession. Kobe caught it at the near mid wing, faced up, swung through from left to right, took one dribble, and hit the pull up jumper from the near mid corner, swish. It was probably Kobe's quickest move of the night. His swing through was lightning fast. Bynum followed with a baseline reverse that Collison goaltended. Bynum then contested Westbrook on the pick and roll pull up from the free throw line. Bynum altered the shot, forcing Westbrook to put a lot of arc on the shot and come up short. Metta followed with a pick and roll from the near elbow and he hit Pau rolling to the rim for a dunk.

Kevin Durant followed with a ridiculous layup. KD stood at the top 3, faked right and went left. Perkins set a back pick on MWP, and KD drove the lane. He went to the rim and elevated. Pau rotated well, but KD made a spectacular play. KD brought the ball up high with two hands, then he brought it down to his left hip. With Pau's arms outstretched, KD threw up a two handed scoop just under the backboard. The ball went high off the glass, just under Pau's arms, and left KD's hands just moments before he landed on the floor.

Kobe followed with a strip on Harden and a 9ft bank shot from the near mid block. Then Barnes stripped Harden on a drive and the ball bounced off Harden and out of bounds. Blake finished the quarter by getting fouled and sinking both free throws, his first points of the series. The Lakers entered the fourth up 63-60. Kobe went 3-7 for 6 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal. Bynum went 2-4 for 4 points, 1 block, and 1 turnover. Pau went 3-4 for 6 points and 1 assist. At this point, LA had 42 points in the paint, much more than OKC's 26. Westbrook finished 1-5 for 3 points and 1 rebound. KD went 2-4 for 4 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover.

The start of the fourth quarter was ugly on both ends. Only Harden scored in the first 3 minutes, as he nailed a 3. Metta missed three straight jumpers to start it off. Sessions hit Metta in the near corner. Metta attacked middle, backed down into the lane, spun back baseline, and shot a turnaround fading jumper that missed the entire rim and clanked off of the backboard. The next possession, the Lakers struggled to get into their offense, and Barnes dumped the ball to Metta at the near wing with 5 on the clock. Metta attacked middle, got to the near elbow, and missed the lean in jumper. Hill corralled the offensive rebound at the far block, but he missed the putback. Then Metta was forced into another late clock situation. Metta caught it at the near wing with 8 on the clock. Metta held the ball there until 3 seconds were left. Metta dribbled to the near corner and fired up a fading jumper as if he was Kobe. Well, Metta is no Kobe, and he hit the side of the backboard for a shot clock violation. Harden followed with a 3. Then Pau drove left from the near top key into the lane. Pau missed the lefty runner. Pau should have been featured on each of these plays, but he was passive and could not establish position on the blocks or decent passing angles. His aggressive drive was good, but he couldn't finish. Following a KD miss, LA called timeout and Kobe and Drew subbed back in the game.

Bynum traveled on his first possession back in the game. Metta made up for it by stealing the ball. The Lakers came down, and Kobe hit a spectacular shot. Pau hit Kobe at the far top key with 5 on the clock. Kobe took one dribble to his left and pulled up for the 17ft jumper from the far mid wing, swish. Pau followed by forcing Harden into a tough contested layup that he missed. Then Kobe played decoy, taking two defenders with him on a curl and setting up Blake for a wide open 3. Bynum stood at the top 3, saw the defenders chase Kobe, and hit Blake at the far wing, swish. MWP followed with another steal, as he reached around KD on the entry pass and stole the ball. MWP pushed up the court and was fouled. He made one of two. Following a made Ibaka jumper off a drive and kick, Kobe came down and hit another tough shot. Kobe stood at the near wing, hit Pau at the top key, and ran over for the handoff. Kobe danced at the top in an iso, crossed right to left, got to the far elbow, stepped back, and hit the contested 18ft jumper over Harden. Westbrook followed with another pick and pop, but this time Ibaka bricked it. Blake followed with his own wide open brick from the near wing 3. Durant pushed the ball up, got to the top 3, and used a Perkins screen to pull up and sink it. Perk set the screen as he ran down the court with Durant trailing him. Bynum never hedged, MWP was wiped out by Perk, and Durant made the open shot, cutting the score to 71-68, Lakers lead with 5:54 to go.

Nothing came easy at the end, for both teams. The next possession, Ibaka made another great swat. Pau stood at the near top key and he sent the entry to Bynum just outside the parabola in the lane. Bynum took one dribble and turned toward the far side. Ibaka left Pau and swatted Bynum from behind as he shot the turnaround jumper. Bynum recovered at the near mid corner, took a dribble baseline, spun back middle, and missed the turnaround hook in the lane. The next play, Kobe set up Pau for an easy shot in the lane, but Pau bobbled the pass. Kobe recovered it at the far block, turned baseline, and shot the fading jumper from the far block, clank. Pau should have had an easy layup. Following an Ibaka brick off a drive and kick, the Lakers went back inside. Kobe used a pick from Pau at the far wing to attack the middle. Kobe hit the rolling Pau at the far block, and Pau dumped it off to Bynum at the near block for the easy dunk. Westbrook followed with a step back brick from the near elbow. Then Kobe air balled a contested 3 to beat the clock from the far wing. Westbrook followed with his own brick from the near wing 3 to beat the clock. Bynum missed a turnaround jumper just outside the parabola. KD missed a pull up 3 from the near wing.

Then Bynum finally got something to drop. Blake hit Bynum at the far mid block. Bynum faced up, jabbed baseline, backed down with two dribbles to the middle, and turned baseline to hit the lefty turnaround from the far block. This sweet move put the Lakers up 75-68 with 2:08 remaining. OKC called a timeout to regather. A seven point lead with two minutes to go should have all but guaranteed victory, but then things got wacky.

Harden started it off with an extremely tough finish at the rim. Harden avoided the pick at the far wing, attacked baseline, crossed right to left to get into the lane, and finished a contested lefty layup over Pau. Kobe came down to the near wing and tried to send an entry to Pau at the near elbow. Kobe lobbed the ball and KD stuck his arm up like Inspector Gadget to steal the weak pass. KD finished with a dunk in transition, making the score 75-72. The next possession, Blake dribbled up the near side, sent an autopilot pass to Kobe at the near wing, and watched Westbrook jump the gap and distract Kobe. Westbrook nearly came up with the steal, as he sagged off Blake and pounced for the ball, but it didn't matter because the ball flew through Kobe's hands and out of bounds. This play was just like the opening play of game one, except that time, Westbrook got the steal. Different plays, same result, turnover. However, the Thunder failed to capitalize as KD missed a 3 from the top.

Then the game was lost. After Bynum was fronted and softly doubled off the ball, Kobe got stuck with the ball at the far wing with 7 on the clock. Kobe dribbled to the far mid corner and shot a turnaround fade. Harden stuck with him the entire way and blocked the shot. Kobe air balled it and Harden finished another tough layup by attacking the basket in transition. Up 75-74, the Lakers again looked to get Bynum the ball. Perkins did a great job fronting Bynum. When the ball would swing, Perkins would battle for position and deny the entry. Perkins effectively denied Bynum the ball, and the ball ended up in Metta's hand at the near mid wing. Metta drove middle and kicked the ball out. As Metta kicked it out, the ball was tipped. Kobe had to gather it at the far top 3, and he fired up the 3, out of rhythm, to beat the clock. Kobe missed the contested 3, setting up Durant for the game winner. Durant caught the ball at the top 3 and used a Perkins pick to attack right. Bynum hedged extremely well, forcing Durant to circle all the way to the far side. But Durant eventually turned the corner and attacked to the far block. Durant went up for the 7ft floater at the block and the ball softly bounced in, putting the Thunder ahead 75-76 with :18 on the clock.

The Lakers immediately called timeout to advance the ball. Inbounding from the near side, the Lakers could not get the ball in and Blake had to call timeout to avoid a five second violation. Sefolosha did a great job denying Kobe the ball. The Lakers tried again, this time with Metta inbounding. Kobe curled from the lane up to the top of the 3, but Thabo stuck right with him. Kobe darted to the near mid wing, and then back up to the top. He couldn't get open, but Metta got the ball in to Pau at the top, about 6ft behind the 3. Pau handed it off to Kobe, and Kobe killed the clock at the near wing. Kobe finally attacked, forcing Thabo to take the foul with 5.7 on the clock.

Coach Brown took another timeout, his final one. Considering how much difficulty the Lakers had getting the ball in on two straight occasions, this probably wasn't wise. Metta was the inbounder at the near side. Kobe curled from the lane to the top 3. Durant turned his back on Metta and spied Kobe at the near wing. Durant's only responsibility was to make sure Kobe couldn't come to the near side and get the ball. With Durant killing the near wing, Kobe used a Pau flare screen at the top of the key to pop out to the far side. Ibaka wisely shadowed Kobe as Thabo stuck with Pau. Metta had no choice but to inbound the ball before the five second count. For some reason, Russell Westbrook took his eyes off the ball and looked over at Kobe popping out to the far side. Blake popped to the near corner, and Metta sent the inbound pass. Blake fired up the wide open 3, and he clanked it. Game over.

A lot of discussion has covered the fact that Steve Blake took the final shot. Some have even questioned if Kobe wanted the ball. Such accusations are ridiculous. Obviously, Kobe was the first option, but the Thunder devoted three guys to guarding him. Durant at the near wing, Sefolosha on his body, and Ibaka shadowing on the flare. Metta made the correct decision to hit Blake. We have all seen Blake hit clutch shots this postseason, unfortunately he missed this one.

I don't fault Kobe for his actions on the play. However, Kobe did cost the Lakers another opportunity. As he crashed the glass to the far block, the ball bounced to the far mid corner and Sefolosha gathered it. Instead of immediately fouling Thabo, Kobe angrily threw his arms down in disgust. This cost the Lakers at least a second as Pau had to rotate over and take the foul. The Lakers then fouled KD, and he only hit one of two, making the score 75-77. However, only 0.3 remained on the clock. If Kobe had quickly taken a foul, there would have been at least 1 second remaining. Instead, Metta was forced to throw a full length pass into the key for the lob tip in. Harden intercepted it and the game ended.

Kobe finished the quarter 2-7 for 4 points and 1 turnover. He went 2-2 and then missed his next five shots. Bynum went 2-5 for 4 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers. Pau went 0-1 for 0 points, 1 rebound, and 2 assists. Pau's disappearance came at a horrible time, especially considering his strong third quarter. Westbrook went 0-2 for 0 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 steal. Durant went 3-7 for 8 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. The Lakers held Durant and Westbrook in check, but untimely mental breakdowns killed them.

Kobe finished the game 9-25, 0-6 from deep, for 20 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, and 2 turnovers. Kobe really struggled with his jumper. Kobe only hit four shots outside of 12ft, going 4-14 from that distance. Kobe was having a pretty efficient night, but his final five bricks killed his averages, and the team. Bynum went 8-19 for 20 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, and 4 turnovers. Four turnovers from the big fella is too many. Bynum got a lot of looks, but he couldn't punish OKC with a dominant performance. Pau finished 6-11 for 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists. The rest of the Lakers shot 7-24 for 21 points, but that was inflated by Jordan Hill's 3-4 for 6 points. Hill also had 6 rebounds and a steal. His activity was solid.

The Lakers won the points in the paint battle, 46-34. The Lakers forced the Thunder to turn the ball over. OKC had 13, which LA converted for 17 points. Considering OKC only had 4 in game one, this is more realistic. LA had 15 turnovers of their own, which OKC turned into 14 points. Kevin Durant was pretty much the only Thunder player to have a good game. Durant finished 9-15, 1-4 from deep, for 22 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 4 turnovers. With LA returning home, these type of numbers from OKC would be very welcome.

The Lakers figured some things out and they should be able to utilize those strengths at home. It will be tough to come back from 2-0, but it has been done before. LA came back from 2-0 against the Spurs in '04 in the conference semifinals. That was the year DFish hit the 0.4 shot. It may take a miracle, but it can be done. Let's see if the Lakers take care of business on Friday.