Looks Like Another Perfect Day

April 23, 2010 5:20 AM

Maybe Durant Is the Best Closer in the Game

Durant on Kobe.jpgGame 3 looked like more of the same at the beginning. The Thunder failed to capitalize on the crowd's energy and fell behind early as they had in Game 1 and 2. The Lakers hit their first seven shots and jumped out to a 15-3 lead. But just like in Games 1 and 2 the Thunder outscored the Lakers the rest of the way. This time they outscored them enough to actually win the game. The Thunder trailed until early in the fourth and were able to hold off the Lakers, winning 101-96.

How the Thunder Won:

They were able to weather the poor shooting of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

In the first half Russell Westbrook had just 10 points and through three and a half quarters Durant shot 2 of 13 for 9 points and yet the Thunder were able to hang around and keep the Laker lead in single digits. Jeff Green contributed with 7 points in the first quarter and James Harden added 15 to lead the Thunder in the first half. Harden kept the Lakers from blowing this game wide open. He hadn't even scored in the first two games, missing all five of his shots and then goes off for 15 in the first half. He finished with just 18 but their stars, Westbrook and Durant were able to pick up the scoring load in the second half.

Durant finished the game looking like the NBA's scoring champion. He scored 20 points on 11 shots (6/11) in the final 18 minutes of the game. But don't think Ron Artest's defense was any worse than it was in the first two games. Durant took a shot with one-on-one defense from Artest nine times and had just 8 points to show for it. He scored on the move, he scored with Kobe guarding him, and most importantly he got to the line (13 times) where he knocks down 90 percent of his shots.

They were able to get out in transition.

In the first two games the Thunder combined for 25 fast break points. Last night they had 34. This is where Westbrook is at his best. The Thunder were able to push the pace and that got Westbrook going. He finished with 17 points after the break including 10 in the fourth.

Durant was more than just a scorer.

I noted how Durant really struggled to find his shot but that doesn't mean he didn't contribute. He finished with a career-high 19 rebounds and had 4 steals. Also, he had turned it over 12 times in the first two games and had just two in Game 3. But his biggest contribution was his defense on Kobe Bryant. With the game on the line, Durant took on the responsibility of guarding Kobe Bryant. He absolutely shut him down. With Durant guarding him, Bryant managed to make just 1 of 7 shots. Bryant never got a clean look at the basket over the outstretched arms of the lanky Durantula. There was never any question about Durant's ability to score but if he can play defense like he did in the fourth, there could be a lot of MVP awards in his future.

They kept their poise.

The Lakers exploded out of the gate and it didn't bother them. Bryant hit three consecutive threes - it didn't even phase them. In the third quarter, the Lakers would build about a 10-point lead and the Thunder would cut it down to 4. This seemed to happen over and over again. Then finally, early in the fourth, they gained their first lead of the game. They never hung their heads and never doubted they would come back and that confidence and poise is quite impressive for the youngest team in the league.

How the Lakers Lost:

They weren't aggressive.

You may look at the free throw disparity and think the Thunder got the home court calls. The Thunder shot 34 free throws compared to 12 for the Lakers. But the officiating was tremendous last night. The disparity is a result of the way the teams run their offense.

The Lakers offense is an inside-out game. They dump it into Bynum or Gasol (even Bryant when he posts up) and those players take hook shots, mini-jumpers, fade aways, or they pass it out to the perimeter. The problem with this offense is it doesn't offer many opportunities to get to the line. The Lakers didn't shoot their first free throw until under 2 minutes remaining in the first half. They are a finesse team and they shouldn't be. They need the guards and Odom to drive through the lane and pick up contact. It seems they are all afraid of contact. Odom is at his best when he is slashing to the lane but he's been MIA for the series. He's scored just 19 points in the three games combined. At both the end of the first and third quarter, with time winding down Odom shot three-pointers instead of driving to the rim. Did the Thunder's 17 blocked shots from Game 2 get in his head? The Lakers as a team shot 31 three-pointers. That's an unbelievable amount for a team that relies on points in the paint and is a below average three-point shooting team.

The Thunder have quick guards who slash into the paint and want contact. This is one of the reasons the Lakers haven't been able to pull away in any of the three games - the Thunder can manufacture points by getting to the line.

It took Kobe too long to get others involved. 

Bryant made six game-winning shots this season. Just about everyone thinks of him as the best closer in the game. But that's because they remember those game-winners and not a game like this. They don't remember the games where Bryant attempts to take over and instead almost single-handedly loses his team the game. Bryant went one-on-one with Durant and missed shot after shot as the Thunder's lead grew. With 3:30 remaining he finally decided to stop shooting. Maybe he remembered what Phil Jackson said about how if Bryant isn't hitting he needs to help out in other ways. He finally looked to drive the ball and pass. THANK YOU. This is what he needs to do. It's not about going one-on-one and pulling up for a fadeaway jumper over the backboard. He needs to drive to the hole, wait for the double-team and then find the open man. Three times in the final 3:30 he drove to the lane, kicked and it resulted in a bucket. A couple times it was a direct assist and another it took an extra pass. But all three resulted in wide-open looks. Bryant took 29 shots to score 24 points. One of these games he might turn it around and hit some shots but until he's feeling it he can't shoot himself out of this slump and kill his team in the process.

Game 4 is Saturday at 9:30pm where The Thunder look to even the series.

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