Two games, two wins over a talented, hard-working team. Could be much, much worse.
"What did Mark Twain say? Rumors of my demise are overrated, or whatever?"
Thus did Phil Jackson get all literary when asked to describe Kobe Bryant's fourth quarter during Tuesday night's 95-92 nail-biter over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples, giving the Lakers a commanding 2-0 series lead heading back to Oklahoma City for Thursday's Game 3. Indeed Kobe, who had struggled over his last four games coming in and only found more dirt tossed on him after a six-for-16 first half, showed whatever ails him- pick any combination of body parts- isn't necessarily fatal, at least in basketball terms.
It didn't necessarily start well. Kobe missed his first two shots of the frame- including one blocked by OKC's Nenad Krstic, the fifth (fifth!) time Bryant saw an FGA swatted away- and had to sit after picking up his fourth foul with 10:37 to play. At this point, he was eight-of-22 from the floor, and very, very annoyed. Just over two minutes later he'd return, and whether due to an electrolyte-laden sports drink, inspiration from D.J. Mbenga's hair, or tapping into the fact he's, you know, Kobe Bryant, he was a totally different player down the stretch.
He hit his first shot, a pull up jumper near the elbow, then another in the mid-post over an all-too-small Eric Maynor for the and-one. 90 seconds later, he drilled a deep three in front of Kevin Durant. From there, he attacked the Thunder defense, forcing himself to the line and making seven-of-nine, a vast improvement over his Game 1 form. In all, it was a 15 point quarter, on 50-percent shooting (4-8) and seven-of-nine at the stripe. In all, he made four of L.A.'s six field goals over those 12 minutes, and seven of the team's 10 freebies. Pau Gasol chipped in, drawing a timely offensive foul on Durant with under two minutes to play, securing a couple big rebounds, and playing with active hands defensively late in the game, but tonight the script played out as written- Kobe Bryant hitting big shots in crunch time.
For fans longing to see signs of revival after seven quarters of playoff struggle, it was a welcome sight.
Kobe didn't need any reminders of what he was capable of. "Not for myself," he said after the game. "Probably for some of you inkers, but not for me." Nor was he wrapped up in questions raised in the media about his ability to rise to the occasion. ("After 13 years you'd think they know better.")
He certainly seemed in brighter spirits after the game, shelving Monday's "Surly Kobe" in exchange for a looser, more relaxed version, pleased he played better and in his mind found a balance between the need to be aggressive and also to make the right plays.
He wasn't uniformly brilliant by any stretch. Tuesday's win won't go down as one of his all-time playoff greats. But it very well could restore Bryant to a healthier (metaphorically speaking) place where he feels more connected to the game in front of him, able to play without having to balance dual and occasionally conflicting goals of greasing the wheels of the team's still-flagging offense- the Lakers shot only 37.5 percent from the floor and, as they did Sunday, won this game on the defensive end- and finding his own offensive rhythm.
AT LEAST WE'LL KNOW
The Lakers again shot the ball very poorly Tuesday night. 37.5 percent from the floor, and only 27.3 percent from downtown. Both constitute regressions from Sunday's still-inefficient Game 1. Before the game, Jackson spoke highly of Oklahoma City's impressive interior defense. They front aggressively, and have the athletes available to cut off passing angles and help fast and effectively when the ball does enter the post. Tonight, particularly in a putrid second quarter, the Lakers failed to take the time to work the ball to the proper angles to make good passes, or to show awareness of when their post players would be swamped before even touching the ball.
But fundamentally, the Thunder have for two games challenged the Lakers to make outside shots, and for the second game the Lakers failed the test. Many of their 22 triples were wide open and reasonably taken, others were open and ill-advised. Either way, they tended not to go in. "I just thought our shooting was horrendous tonight. Another really bad game with shooting. Guys having open looks- Ron, Fish, Lamar- guys that are experienced players in the NBA... We'll have to shoot much better to beat them in Oklahoma."
There may be magic buttons, so to speak, for effort and attention. It might exist for intensity. These are things able to be ratcheted up based on circumstance. But there is no magic button for shooting. I don't care what time of year it is, players in the NBA are never apathetic about whether or not their shot drops.
At this point, particularly with Artest's shooting slump continuing (he was two-of-10 overall, one-of-six from downtown), it's fair to call the Lakers a poor shooting team. This is who they are. They could get hot at the right time, as Trevor Ariza managed to do last season, but such happenings would be more a function of luck than anything. 84 games into the season, this is who the Lakers are. They can compensate by getting to the line more often than the 24.2 times a night they managed during the regular season (17th in the NBA), or the 22 visits to the stripe in Game 1. Tuesday, the Lakers shot 32 free throws (making more would help, too, but that's another conversation).
If they don't, though, the playoffs will continue to be a tough slog offensively. After the game, I asked Jackson if at some point they worry the shooting is permanent, something that'll plague them through the postseason. "When we go home and and we're eliminated from the playoffs. And then we worry about it. Up until that time, we worry about defending and getting second opportunities, and making the plays when we have to."
If the Lakers can't find a workaround, that moment might come faster than everyone hopes.
DON'T COUNT PRE-HATCHED CHICKENS... BUT
Having won the first two games on their home floor, history suggests the Lakers have grabbed control of this series with an iron claw worthy of the Von Erich brothers. All time, teams matching this pattern in a best-of-seven have gone on to win over 94-percent of the time (179-11).
6: I mentioned in our video the 31 combined points from the Lakers not named Kobe or Pau. But to illustrate the point even further, I give you the highest point total of any Laker this evening. Congrats to Shannon Brown and Andrew Bynum, who tied for co-honors. At the risk of sounding unappreciative of the little things, there simply has to be more contributions from the supporting cast.
62.5: The Lakers' fourth quarter percentage at the line. Sixteen tries, with only ten converted. It will be very difficult to win too many tight games down the stretch without a better showing. Particularly when the opponent goes a perfect in thirteen tries.
19: The number of offensive rebounds grabbed by the Lakers, who also won the overall rebounding battle 49-37. The work cleaning their own glass played a big role in their 23 second chance points. And by the way, those additional tries came in handy, because...
17: As in "blocks." As in, "The Thunder had 17 of them." Other than Jeff Green, no Thunderian who played 10+ minutes failed to log at least one. Because of this prowess, every single Laker who took at least one shot got rejected at least once in the process. I've watched a lot of basketball in my day, and to the best of my recollection, I've never seen that happen before. Mind boggling.
32: Kevin Durant's point total, an improvement on game one's 24 on as many shots. This time around, he shot 12-for-26 from the floor, but a few of those makes were extremely difficult. (Sometimes you just gotta tip your cap to a player who happens to double as the league's leading scorer.) There were also two air balls adding flies to the ointment. All in all, I don't think Ron Artest's work against the kid was notably less effective. Durant still worked very hard to get his (again, 26 shots were needed for 32 points, even at a decent shooting percentage) and he only went to the line six times, well below his now-famous seasonal average. Plus, he was credited with eight times, so the improved overall scoring total shouldn't be taken at face value as "Durant going nuts."
All things being equal, I imagine the Lakers can live pretty easily with nights like this one.
235,000: The dollar amount awarded to "Mirage Big Shot Jackpot" winner Craig Calloway, a 29 year-old Compton resident who canned a half court shot between during the break between the third and fourth quarters. Predictably, Staples went bananas upon witnessing the string music. Unfortunately, Calloway's standing ovation was probably as animated as the crowd got between the starting lineups being introduced and "I Love L.A." eventually playing over the loudspeakers. By and large, fans seemed to alternate between being nervous over the outcome and confused by the Lakers' play.
DJ'S HAIR IS MORE INTERESTING THAN RON'S
Because while both may be bleach blondies, only Mbenga has "C$" carved in the back of his melon. Congo Cash, baby!
Kobe Bryant, on his improved performance in Game 2, and what the Lakers can expect facing a hostile crowd in Oklahoma City:
Kobe Bryant on his performance against the Thunder:
Phil Jackson on inside play, shots blocked and bad shooting
Phil Jackson on Kobe's performance and free throwing shooting
Lamar Odom on winning ugly and playing a halfcourt style
Lamar Odom on improving, bad shooting and OKC's shot blockers:
Luke Walton on the need for better execution
Jordan Farmar on the Thunder and the half court shot