Oklahoma City 103, L.A. Lakers 100 (Oklahoma City leads 3-1)
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 124.8, L.A. Lakers 116.1
I think it's fair to say the Los Angeles Lakers' loss Saturday night had its roots in the lockout. By virtue of the compressed playoff schedule, and their inability to close out the Denver Nuggets in fewer than seven games, the Lakers were forced to play a rare postseason back-to-back set. For a veteran team that relies heavily on its star players, playing back-to-back was terrible for the Lakers, at least on paper. For three quarters, they actually appeared to be the fresher team. The Lakers were getting to loose balls, Kobe Bryant was getting to the paint and the Oklahoma City Thunder was frustrated.
Come the fourth quarter, the preset narrative finally kicked in. Because the Thunder hung around, Mike Brown was unable to give his starters extended rests. Andrew Bynum sat for a minute in the second half. Bryant rested for 3:41. Even Metta World Peace (off for 1:50) played nearly the entire second half. Thing is, the Thunder's stars players saw even more action. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook never rested after halftime. Their younger legs, with a week's worth of rest after sweeping the Dallas Mavericks, were able to handle the extra load. Oklahoma City was the fresher team down the stretch.
Westbrook deserves most of the credit for keeping the Thunder in position to steal this game. After a scary fall just before halftime, Westbrook figured out the Lakers' defense in the second half. He was able to get to the rim for easier buckets than he usually finds against L.A.'s size up front, and knocked down the pull-up jumpers that have become such an important part of his repertoire during the playoffs. Westbrook had 23 points on 18 shooting possessions after halftime.
Because Westbrook was having so much success with the ball in his hands, and because World Peace was denying him, Durant didn't get as many opportunities to score. After dealing with frustration over the whistles he wasn't getting early in the game, Durant made the most of the chances he did get after halftime. He scored 19 points on 11 shooting possessions, making four of his six shot attempts, three of them beyond the arc, and adding eight free throws once he started getting calls. Durant's most important score was his last, when he dribbled into a three-pointer that broke a 98-all tie and gave the Thunder its final margin.
Durant also deserves a lot of credit for stepping on the glass. He had seven rebounds in the second half as Oklahoma City played the Lakers to a draw on the boards after halftime despite playing extended smallball. The Thunder got away with smaller lineups because the Lakers were unable to beat fronting defense to get the ball inside to Bynum, who attempted just four shot attempts and two free throws after halftime despite dominating the Thunder in the first half.
After initially being skeptical he might use Bynum too heavily, I liked Mike Brown's move to extend Bynum's stint on the floor and play him with Pau Gasol and the second unit, offering more scoring punch with Bryant on the bench. However, he still had to bring Bryant back too quickly in the fourth quarter. After looking spry early and living at the free throw line, Bryant could get nothing going against Durant and James Harden down the stretch. He missed eight of his 10 shot attempts in the fourth quarter, most of them less than ideal looks.
The Lakers did a lot of good things Saturday. They've played Oklahoma City even since their blowout Game 1 loss, but three coin flips have ended up favoring the Thunder twice. The Lakers have made mistakes down the stretch, certainly, but they were one of the league's best teams in close games during the regular season. What's changed has less to do with the Lakers' execution and more with the fickle nature of small sample sizes.
Oklahoma City can afford to play these close games because home-court advantage and the Game 1 win give the Thunder more margin for error. If the Lakers are motivated, they can extend this series if they continue to play at this same level. But coming back to win it may now be impossible.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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