As you know, I was in OKC covering Game 3 and Game 4. The plus side of playoff traveling is getting to watch truly critical and exciting games in person, always a treat for any hoops nut. But as Mrs. Garrett taught us, in life we take the good and we take the bad. And there is in fact a downside to attending a game. I've come to regard the invention of the DVR as absolutely invaluable to my job. Without the aid of a Slingbox (which I really should own, but that's beside the point), watching a game at the arena robs you of the perspective gained from pauses and rewinds. The value of a second look cannot be underestimated.
Sometimes, it completely changes how you look at a game, as I explained to Brian in the latest Podkast.
Such was the case with the game four debacle. No amount of viewings could make this 110-89 drubbing appear "pretty." But upon a second gander distanced from my emotional reaction (remember, I'm a huge Laker fan at heart), I was surprised to find the proceedings didn't come off as bad as anticipated. Depending on how you look at it, the loss wasn't even automatically troubling. Annoying? Sure. Inexcusable? Often. Embarrassing? Without question. But red flag raising?
I thought so at the time, but watching it again, I'm not quite as convinced. While there was certainly much worth criticizing, lost in all the floundering was two important positives:
1) The Thunder remained largely ineffective while running any offense created neither in transition nor at the line. They shot 35 percent from the field during the second quarter, 38.1 percent during the third, and 37.5 in the fourth, and 40.8 percent overall. As Pau noted after game 1, the Lakers must force OKC to run their offense. The statement normally feels strange and counter-intuitive, but it's totally accurate in this case. Oklahoma City gets very little done when forced to create for themselves. If the Lakers impose this limitation on their opponent, they'll likely control the game.
2) The Lakers' emphasis on pushing the ball inside may not have produced a win, but it doesn't change the fact the Lakers were often very effective doing it. The Thunder still has a difficult time handling Andrew Bynum (perfect in four first quarter tries from the field) and Pau Gasol, particularly when they have even just reasonably good position. Moreover, there was often terrific execution getting the ball inside, especially when orchestrated by Kobe Bryant. Plus, there were clean outside looks created from the interior, generally the scenario where the Lakers do their best work bombing.
When they'd bother exercising the patience needed to overcome the active and fronting OKC bigs, that virtue was often rewarded. When this series began, I was absolutely convinced the best way to win was through working the Lakers' size advantage down low. I remain convinced heading into today's game five. The same way I remain convinced this Thunder team is sometimes only as dangerous as the Lakers allow them to be.
The Lakers didn't lose because of a misguided or untenable paint-oriented plan. They also didn't lose because Kobe Bryant didn't take a shot until the second quarter or wasn't "aggressive enough." If you want to claim Kobe's previous facilitating stints were more effective, fair enough. But this approach nor Kobe himself was "the problem." (As long as we're clarifying Bryant-centric matters, I ain't buying suggestions only 10 shots were taken as a "silent protest/pout/intentional tank job" reaction to cries Kobe shot too much in game three. This explanation feels much more conveniently juicy than contextually aware.)
They didn't lose because Kevin Durant put up a super-efficient 40 points. And they didn't lose because the Thunder has the momentum and are unafraid of the Lakers (despite both being true).
In my opinion, the Lakers mainly lost for two reasons. The continual struggle to contain (and avoid creating) transition opportunities for OKC. This is a legitimate issue in need of addressing, whether you're talking defense employed or cutting down on these opportunities (hence, more paint shots and fewer from outside). But perhaps even more importantly, because the game quickly unraveled into an often painfully unfunny comedy of errors, often quite uncharacteristic of how they normally play:
1) The Lakers aren't an outstanding free-throw shooting team, but in this particular case, the inability to get it done at the stripe was both extreme and tone-setting. By the first half's end, they'd already missed seven times in 10 tries. The prowess picked up in the second half, but only after a hole had been created. As Phil Jackson rightly noted, professional basketball players are expected to make your free throws.
2) It's one thing to fail to keep the Thunder off the line in transition situations. OKC is simply too fast for the Lakers to consistently and effectively defend while backpedaling. This is simply a reality to hopefully be negotiated and countered. What caught my eye, however, was the amount of costly shooting falls the Thunder drew on jumpers. Kobe, for example, was tagged on an and-one J (Russell Westbrook), a four-point play (James Harden) and a missed three (Thabo Sefalosha). Offering the opposition 10 points through fouls is extremely uncharacteristic of Bryant, which I don't worry about a recurrence.
By the way, seven of those 10 points came before halftime, just like the free throw disaster. Eliminate those extreme factors and it's a whole new ball game coming out of intermission, huh?
3) Over the first three games, Gasol collected a whopping 40 rebounds. His work cleaning the glass has been consistently excellent. Game four, however, was an absolute disaster. Balls kept slipping through his hands. The first quarter alone featured several gaffes, including a loose ball eventually landing in Jeff Green's hands while the Hoya was on his back. Failure to snag the rock eventually led to a Westbrook jumper, plus an equally inspired Thunder team and crowd. Pau finished with a paltry four boards, and while this ineptitude was maddening, similar to Kobe's badly timed fouls, it strikes me as more fluke than trend. Thus, I'm willing to flush it down the porcelain.
4) Pau's poor performance on the glass was a microcosm of the Lakers getting collectively and thoroughly outworked. Continual failure to box out. Loose balls were watched in flatfooted fashion as a Thunderian (typically Westbrook or Green) raced over to land a second chance opportunity. Reach fouls. Rarely did anything "hustle" not shake out in favor of Oklahoma City. They never, ever, ever stopped moving. The Lakers often weren't moving at all.
I'm not a big fan of sports cliches, particularly "Team X won because they wanted it more." On the striking whole and especially in the playoffs, the stage has been reached where both teams want it pretty damn bad. More often than not, the team "wanting it more" usually happens to be more talented and playing better. However, in this particular game, the Thunder really did behave like they wanted it more.
Yesterday, Derek Fisher and Jackson hinted the issue wasn't a lack of desire, but fatigue from playing the first four games every other day. I guess either -or even both- could be the truth. In any event, between Sunday's chance to recharge, the staggered upcoming schedule, the previous effort and a markedly urgent attitude displayed at yesterday's practice, I'm also content to extend the benefit of the doubt. I don't picture this issue resurfacing again.
Thus, as badly as game four went, a second examination oddly provided me some solace. The Lakers didn't lose because the Thunder neutralized a Laker advantage. Nor did they lose because the Thunder introduced an unsolvable wrinkle. On the whole, the biggest reason the Lakers lost is because they either got spectacularly in their own way or they simply didn't work hard enough. Both are very fixable issues.
In and of itself, this second viewing was about as much fun as a proctologist visit. But as is often the case with such excursions, unpleasant as they may be, there's an undeniable sense of comfort emerging once you've gotten it over with and the results prove less scary than imagined. That's how I felt watching this game again.
I asked Phil during practice yesterday for his thoughts upon watching film. Here's what he had to say: