For weeks the question had been can the Lakers flip the switch? Can they go from seemingly going through the motions on a day-to-day basis to the type of team that won it all last year? Well, the answer was an emphatic yes. It wasn't flawless basketball but it was certainly much better than how they played in the final three weeks of the regular season. They took control of this game from the get-go outscoring the Thunder 27-13 in the first quarter. They extended the lead to as many as 17 points but the Thunder were able to cut that lead down to six before the Lakers pulled it out 87-79.
The sub-question was whether Andrew Bynum could return and make an impact. He was the biggest spark in turning around the Lakers malaise. On the Lakers second possession he spun and made a hook shot as if he had never left. Halfway through the second quarter he dunked on Nenad Krstic and heard the LA crowd go wild. Bynum's minutes were limited but he still managed to play 30 minutes without looking rusty at all. He finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks. He did slow down a bit in the second half though, tallying just 3 points and 2 rebounds. But a second half slowdown is something very typical for Bynum as it's happened countless times this season.
The Lakers were cruising until Russell Westbrook became aggressive. It's no coincidence that Westbrook began to heat up once Bynum sat down in the second quarter. With the big man out of the paint, Westbrook had a free path to the rim. The Thunder went on a 15-6 run to close the quarter and Westbrook scored or assisted on 12 of those 15 points. His dominance continued into the second half as he scored 18 of 19 points for the Thunder in a stretch that spanned the two halves. The Lakers actually switched to put Bryant on Westbrook and it did seem to slow him down a bit. This created a huge mismatch with Derek Fisher on Jeff Green but the Thunder weren't able to take advantage of it as Green was off all night.
The story of this game though, was the Lakers defense. The numbers tell the story - 9 blocks, 6 steals, and they forced three 24-second violations. It just shows how much better they are with Bynum on the floor. He allows guards to become more aggressive and take risks on steals because he's there if they get beaten.
The Lakers acquired Ron Artest for exactly this type of series. He had the tough task of stopping Kevin Durant and he did an amazing job. He kept Durant in front of him, was on his hip the entire game, and contested just about every shot. Durant was held to 24 points on 24 shots. Durant did get a few star calls but no more than Bryant. Now if only Artest could knock down a few shots. He was 3 for 11 including 1 of 8 from three-point range.
What the Thunder need to do to win:
-Hit three-pointers. They're not a very good three-point shooting team but they can do better than 2 of 16 like they shot yesterday.
-If Derek Fisher is guarding Jeff Green they have to exploit that matchup. Green is faster, quicker, and probably stronger - not to mention 8 inches taller.
-Work Durant off screens. The Lakers are one of the worst teams at defending the pick and roll and Artest is one of the best one-on-one defenders. They must give Durant a chance to catch the ball on the move and without Artest draped all over him.
What the Lakers Should Be Worried About:
-Artest picked up his fifth foul with nearly 7 minutes left in the game. He could easily get into foul trouble much earlier than that and then Durant might be able to get it going on offense.
-Lakers three-point shooting. It's been a problem all year and they shot about their average yesterday but that's not good enough. If they can knock down 40 percent of their threes they'd be a much more difficult team to beat.
-Will Kobe be able to put this team on his back if he needs to? Bryant was just 6 for 19 for 21 points. He also missed 5 free throws. His legs looked a little stronger but if he continues to struggle with his shot it will be near impossible for the Lakers to repeat.