Game 6 is nigh. Can the Lakers close out the series? No easy task amongst a sea of frenzied Okies, but Game 5 demonstrated a decided ability to hold the Thunder in check. Here are five factors I think could make a difference between a Game 7 and tickets punched to the semi-finals.
1) Upon a second viewing of the Game 5 beatdown, I didn't simply marvel at how well the Lakers moved the ball around the arc and inside the paint. No doubt an impressive bit of sharing, but I was even more in awe by how guys were moving without the ball. We were treated to non-stop cutting, players shifting in unison to different spots on the floor, and activity with purpose. It really drove home how stagnant the action had previously been. The Lakers' offense isn't just predicated on ball movement. People have to move as well. Better options are created and defenses are forced to work harder and guess more often. Plus, everyone remains more dialed when they spectate less.
Like a shark, if the Lakers on the floor stop moving, they risk dying.
2) Bench players generally play better at home than on the road, particularly when they're younger guys. I've written before about the night and day difference in James Harden's performance within the Ford Center confines. Well, this unfortunately cuts both ways and in particular with the youngsters. During his two games in OKC, Jordan Farmar shot two-for 10 from the field for a total of six points. Shannon Brown's four points were an equally invisible game 3 contribution, and while he bumped the total to 10 in the next outing, he needed eight shots, six of which clanged. Brown was also guilty of two terrible turnovers in that contest, and in both cases, he ran a break outnumbered or out of control rather than pulling up and letting the offense settle.
As for the veteran Lamar Odom, I don't think he necessarily hurt the Lakers on the road as much as he simply didn't help them. But I'm also looking for more from LO than backhanded compliment performances.
It'll take more than five starters showing up to close out this bad boy on the road. At least one of the Lakers' three main bench players needs to announce his presence. Maybe two. Ideally three.
3) Ron Artest set up in the post more during game five than during the other four games combined. It was also his best offensive game by a country mile. Whether scoring or making plays, Ron Ron appeared energized upon shedding his previous role, which appeared to be spotting up in the corner for an inevitably bricked trey. I'd love to see even more of him in the paint.
4) Without question, Kobe Bryant's work defending Russell Westbrook was a factor in Tuesday's lopsided win. Kobe's a better defender than Derek Fisher, particularly after two days to rest his legs, a benefit also received heading into game 6. Fresh wheels allowed 24 to perform his highlight defensive play. After Kobe missed at the rim and Westbrook beat Gasol to the loose ball, Bryant sprinted back and got a fantastic angle to square up the former Bruin. Being forced to change directions left Westbrook vulnerable to a strip from behind by Brown. Like everyone, Westbrook didn't enter Staples Center expecting Kobe assigned to him and frankly, I think the kid was a little intimidated.
But in all honesty, Westbrook's lack of success wasn't purely the result of Kobe's lockdown.
For example, in the halfcourt sets where Okahoma City have continually struggled, Kobe typically received good help defense upon Westbrook's penetration. There was a terrific sequence where Kobe picked up R.W. at the top of the circle, then pointed where Pau Gasol needed to set up behind him. The two shaded Westbrook to the left side, where he eventually attacked the rim against a challenge from Odom. The result was a wild miss. As for the transition situations making Westbrook deadliest, an Lakers efficient O forced the Thunder to continually take the ball out of their basket, a huge fast break preventative in and of itself.
Plus, as Brian and I discussed in the latest PodKast, there was also some luck in play. Taking care of the ball is tantamount against a running team. The Lakers turned the ball over four times in the first quarter, but only once did they create a break opportunity. (Westbrook snatched a ball bobbled in space by Pau, but El Spaniard and Fisher hustled back to wall off Westbrook and force a turnover of his own.) The other three resulted in dead ball situations, robbing the Thunder of a chance to bolt. These are huge breaks, the kind teams on a roll often receive. As the saying goes, when it rains, it pours. Sometimes getting wet ain't a bad thing.
In other words, Kobe may be the best individual option slowing Westbrook, but as is always the case with a team game, how everyone else plays around him on both sides of the ball is arguably a bigger factor in success or failure.
5) I did a little research on the history of various Thunderians in elimination games. Obviously, this is an inexact science --I don't remember how big a role each player had in whichever contests-- and two of the five OKC players with playoff experience beyond this season (Kevin Ollie, Etan Thomas) aren't even in the rotation. Nonetheless, I was curious how the numbers shook out.
Nick Collison: 0-1
Nenad Krstic: 0-1
Kevin Ollie: 2-1
Thabo Sefalosha: 1-1
Etan Thomas: 0-3
That's three wins and seven losses between them. In other words, not a ton of winning perspective to be shared, and perhaps even less to be tangibly applied on the court. The postseason is a brand new experience for the Thunder, and they've acclimated admirably. But staving off a fishing trip is a whole new ball of wax capable of putting a team on tilt. Getting out to an early lead isn't just beneficial towards quieting a rowdy OKC crowd, which the Thunder admittedly fed off while holding serve. It could prompt this very inexperienced team to start pressing and making the kind of mistakes a veteran team like the Lakers should be able to jump all over.