This is why the Lakers are the most frustrating team in the NBA. In Game 4 they get blown out by 21 and don't have a single redeeming aspect of their game and then last night, they absolutely crushed the Thunder leading wire-to-wire and dominating every aspect of the game on the way to a 24-point victory. It was possibly their best game of their season and definitely their best game in over two months.
In a rout like this there are a lot of things to point at for why the Lakers won but here are five things that were different in this game than in Game 3.
1. Fast Break Points. The Thunder had averaged 18 fast break points over the first four games whereas the Lakers had a total of 17. But last night the Lakers outscored the Thunder 12-7 in fast break points. The Lakers made it a point of emphasis to get back on defense. They could not allow the Thunder to get easy buckets that swing momentum. Phil Jackson even told Andrew Bynum that if he couldn't beat his man down the court he'd be pulled from the game. The adjustments worked as the Thunder didn't get their first fast break bucket until under two minutes remaining in the first half.
2. Ball Movement. A lot of analysts looked at the box scores and saw Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum shooting a high field goal percentage but not getting many shots. These people then said the Lakers needed to get them more touches. It seems logical enough - but that's what the Lakers did in Game 4 and it didn't work. They were constantly getting the ball in the post to the big men and they were being met with double teams. It's not that the Lakers need to set up isolation plays for Gasol and Bynum but that they need to move the ball around enough to get them open looks. And it's not just passing the ball. It's driving to the bucket and passing. It's anything that keeps the ball moving. Last night the Lakers got the ball into their big men off of drives from the guards. This movement set up dunks and lay ups all night for Gasol and Bynum. The two combined for 46 points on 26 shots but few were simply off isolation plays.
Through the first quarter the Lakers had 11 assists on 14 field goals. The ball movement is what led to the huge disparity of points in the paint. The Lakers scored 58 of their 111 in the paint as opposed to just 26 for the Thunder.
3. Free Throw Disparity. The Thunder had dominated this aspect of the series but in Game 4 it was the Lakers who came out on top. They made 22 of 31 free throws and the Thunder hit 18 of 24. The Lakers got more free throws by moving the ball and causing the Thunder to have to foul because they were out of position.
The Lakers didn't allow the Thunder to get to the line by playing better defense. They never allowed the Thunder to get comfortable on offense and that frustrated them all night long. The Thunder kept driving to the rim but the Lakers stood their ground. I do believe that if this game was in Oklahoma City the Thunder probably would've shot about 10 more free throws. I'm not saying there were that many uncalled fouls but there was a lot of contact and I think the crowd can have an influence on officials.
4. Kobe Bryant's Defense. Bryant went to Phil Jackson and told him he wanted to guard Westbrook. Westbrook had been killing the Lakers. Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar had all tried their hand at guarding him but he broke down each one of them. Bryant wouldn't allow it to happen. His length stopped Westbrook from being able to blow by him like he had the other Laker defenders. He never allowed him to get out in transition and even forced him to turn the ball over. In the first four games he had turned it over just 6 times but last night he coughed it up 8 times. Westbrook went 4-for-13 and was never able to put together a run to get hot.
5. Lakers Bench Wasn't Awful. I know - not the most ringing endorsement but I can't say they were great. Their bench is their biggest weakness and it's not like it was a strength last night. But they didn't blow the game. The Lakers have gotten off to a great start in four of the five games in this series but have given up much of their early leads while their starters rest. Last night, the bench was actually able to expand the lead. In the first 4:15 of the second quarter, they outscored the Thunder 4-3 before Bryant re-entered the game. I told you they weren't impressive but they played good enough defense to not let the Thunder back in the game.
The Lakers played a near-perfect game and there wasn't much the Thunder could do. But there is one adjustment they're going to have to make in Game 6. I'm assuming Bryant is going to defend Westbrook again and if he does, the Thunder need to take advantage of their mismatch. With Bryant on Westbrook, that leaves Derek Fisher to guard 6'7 Thabo Sefalosha or 6'5 James Harden. I don't know if either of them even got the ball when Fisher was guarding them. Those two players must step up if Bryant continues to bottle up Westbrook.
As it became clear that the Lakers were going to run away with this
game, the analysts kept bringing up last season's playoff series
against the Houston Rockets. The Rockets had also tied the series at
2-2 and in Game 5 the Lakers won by 40 and then went on the road and
lost Game 6 by 15 before closing the series out at home by 19. You will
be hearing about this constantly over the next two days before these
two teams meet in Oklahoma City on Friday. I'm hoping the Lakers
remember that series as well and realize they shouldn't tempt fate and
should close out this series in six. Then, Bryant might get to rest a couple extra days and be ready for the second round.