The closest thing this afternoon produced to really juicy news ahead of tonight's Game 6 came just before Thunder coach Scott Brooks started his meeting with the media. Comfortable all cameras and recorders were safely off, Brooks smiled. "I'm giving a guarantee," he said.
He was kidding, of course.
Neither Brooks at OKC's shoootaround nor Phil Jackson at L.A.'s delivered anything controversial, sticking instead to expressions of respect, reflections on Game 5, and thoughts on tonight's contest. Really, the most interesting aspect of the day was watching the end of Oklahoma City's workout and seeing how they operate as a group. It wasn't simply the increased activity level of the Thunder relative to a typical Lakers shootaround -- they're all nine years old and can run endlessly without tiring -- but the atmosphere generally.
As they rehearsed different sets and actions, players, coaches, and support staff on the sidelines were all clapping, and yelling words of encouragement. "Good shot, Russell." "Good shot, Thabo." "Nice work, Jeff." That sort of thing. It had an extremely collegiate feel, which makes sense since most of the team either could still be in or would have just left school if four years of university life were mandatory. The team-building theme is driven home in other ways. The massive picture on one wall opposite the court, for instance, featuring one Thunder player picking up another -- faces and numbers aren't in frame -- off the court, the clasped hands positioned dead center.
The symbolism is pretty clear, as is the quote on GM Sam Presti's wall from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved." We will improve because we will work hard, and we will do so as a team. (Incidentally, Presti's office is adjacent to the court, fully enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass. Frankly, he looks like the main feature in a some sort of exhibit. If they were allowed, I'm sure Presti devotees would flock there, noses pressed against the glass like kids on a school field trip might in the penguin house at the zoo.)
Throughout their drills, Brooks was consistently emphasizing the need to set screens with more purpose than they did Tuesday night in Game 5. "We've got to get into the middle," he repeated over and over, driving home the importance of creating disruptions in how the Lakers operate defensively. OKC has struggled mightily in the half court, and if they're going to push the series to a decisive seventh game will likely need to improve.
It all served to drive home the many contrasts between these teams.
Click below for some choice quotes from Brooks and Phil Jackson:
On L.A.'s performance in Game 5: "They played a great basketball game. That first quarter was as powerful a team that we've seen all year. Offensively, they were cutting hard, moving hard, screening hard, rebounding hard. They did everything with such force and we were on our heels all game. We expect them to come out with that same energy, and we have to do the same thing."
On the need for defensive stops: "That first half (in Game 5), I think they shot 65, 66 percent. That's a lot of baskets, a lot of balls taken out of the net. No matter how good you are running the ball- and we're not great, we're pretty good- even if you're great it's tough to get transition points when a team keeps scoring on you. We've got to get defensive stops. We've got to get blocks, we've got to get steals, we've got to get stops. Those long rebounds help. All the things on the defensive end creates our offense."
On Kobe on Russell Westbrook: "How good Kobe is defensively and how much talk about that, it had some effect (on Westbrook's game). I don't know how much. I don't think it had as much as people are saying. what really affected the game was they were dynamite offensively. They had so much energy and so much force offensively in that first quarter, we didn't know what hit us... They're built to win a championship. We want to get to that level... Kobe's a good defender, you can't take anything away, but with Russell being guarded by him, Russell just has to make plays. It can't be about Russell and Kobe. It can not be about that, because if that's the case we're never going to win that battle. We have to continue to focus on doing the team things, and Russell has to continue focusing on making plays."
On how the Lakers gained penetration into the paint in Game 5: "In simplistic terms, we were hugging our man on the perimeter. That's not our game plan, that's not our defensive scheme. For some reason, we were more worried about our man scoring instead of the Lakers scoring. We have to take away their strength, and that is their inside game is pretty powerful. They've got some guys that can really score down low, and you throw in Ron Artest, he can score down on the block. Kobe can score down on the block. Their big guys are scorers. We were hugging our man on the perimeter, and opened up so many opportunities to get into the lane and get easy layups and dunks."
Phil was a little less chatty, but there were a couple good nuggets...
On the blue t-shirts again draped over every seat at Ford Center: "I want to know who the poor soul is that had to put them over 18,000 seats."
On whether they've figured out the Thunder after Game 5: "Our halfcourt defense has been pretty good. I'm not saying it's going to be the answer tonight, but the halfcourt defense has been good. We've kept them from shooting a high percentage. We knew foot speed and activity was going to be the issue at the start of the series. They exploited it a little in Game 2, but 3 and 4 they certainly did that. That's going to be the issue tonight."
On how to slow them down: "Make shots. That's the big part of it. Make a good effort, make shots, make good rebound opportunities. Don't turn the ball over."
On whether or not Kobe would have more scoring chances after two games of being "facilitator Kobe": "I wouldn't doubt it. One of the things we're waiting for Kobe to do is exert his next phase- he did that in Game 2 in the second half- but I think he'll be ready to step into the scoring breach if there's one needed to fill."
On how to make their defensive activity work against them: "Penetration is the issue. If you can get some penetration, then teams have to stop it and recover. As opposed to coming down and staying on the outside. You saw that last night in the Dallas game, where Dallas couldn't get the penetration the Spurs could in the first half. So they were reacting instead of being an active defensive team. You want to make that defense react."
Is that harder to do in their building? "A lot depends on how aggressive they play, and if we can be a step ahead of them, or a half-a-step ahead of them."