at Oklahoma City 77, L.A. Lakers 75 (Oklahoma City leads 2-0)
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 96.6, L.A. Lakers 88.6
When the Oklahoma City Thunder came out of the final media timeout with 2:08 to play, the Chesapeake Arena crowd, previously silent in the face of a Lakers run, roared to life. The Thunder offense would soon follow suit. For the vast majority of the second half, we saw the Oklahoma City attack at its worst--isolation plays with little ball or player movement, too many jumpers and few points in transition. The Thunder had scored just 20 points in the entire second half, committing more turnovers (eight) than field goals (seven).
Then, without warning, everything clicked. Oklahoma City came out of the huddle with a quick-hitting pick-and-roll for James Harden, who turned down the screen and caught the Lakers' defense unprepared, driving to the hoop for a layup. Those were the first two of nine unanswered points that would bring the Thunder all the way back to wrest Game 2 away from the Lakers.
Here's the key question about Wednesday night's game: Did the Lakers find a strategy to slow down the Thunder, or did they blow their best chance at the road win they'll need to pull the upset?
In part, the term "slow down" is chosen intentionally. This game was played at an 82-possession pace, the slowest of the playoffs for Oklahoma City. As skeptical as I tend to be of pace as driving the outcome of games, I do think the Thunder's offense was much too passive after halftime. When Oklahoma City plays against a set defense, the Lakers' size triumphs over the Thunder's quickness. Avoiding that doesn't necessarily mean getting out in transition, though that helps. It can be as simple as getting the Lakers on the move, or attacking within a half-court set like Harden's post-timeout bucket.
Given more chance to prepare for Game 2, the Lakers made a nice adjustment by funneling both defenders on the pick-and-roll toward the ballhandler, daring the Thunder's big men to beat them. Hence 11 shot attempts from Serge Ibaka, who struggled to make the Lakers pay by knocking down the midrange jumper when he popped to the perimeter. The strategy also helped the Lakers pull the extraordinary feat of forcing turnovers--13 in all.
The biggest difference from Game 1 was Russell Westbrook's performance. Contained on the perimeter by the Lakers, and unable to dribble into the rhythm pull-up jumpers he got in Game 1, Westbrook's shot selection was poor. He missed 12 of his 17 shot attempts, just seven of which came in the paint. Westbrook was also unable to find teammates the way he did in Game 1, handing out four assists in 34 minutes.
The Lakers were unable to build a larger cushion because their own offense wasn't much better. The Lakers did a better job of working the ball inside--until the last two minutes--but Kendrick Perkins did a good job of harassing Andrew Bynum, who missed 11 of his 19 shot attempts. Pau Gasol was the most efficient option the Lakers had, but he attempted just 11 shots, scoring 14 points. Kobe Bryant couldn't shoot the Lakers to a victory. Played well by James Harden, and even better by Thabo Sefolosha on the final possession, Bryant shot 9-of-25 from the field and missed all six of his three-point attempts. The Lakers' role players were no better from beyond the arc, with Metta World Peace going 1-of-3 and Steve Blake 1-of-5.
The Laker offense was a disaster in the final two minutes. Consecutive inexplicable turnovers resulted in a Kevin Durant runout dunk and kept the Lakers from taking time off the clock. The following two trips resulted in difficult Bryant attempts with the shot clock running out. The best look the Lakers got in the last two minutes was Blake's missed three on their last possession, down one. Somewhere in that stretch, Bynum has to at least get a touch to give Oklahoma City something more to consider on defense.
Game 2 demonstrated that the Lakers can hang with the Thunder in this series, which was in some question after the Game 1 blowout, but Oklahoma City will execute better on offense going forward. Harden and Westbrook won't struggle as much as they did. And losing means the Lakers have to sweep a back-to-back at the Staples Center this weekend, which is a lot to ask of veteran legs.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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