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May 22, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Closing the Book

by Kevin Pelton

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Oklahoma City 106, at L.A. Lakers 90 (Oklahoma City wins 4-1)
Pace: 93.3
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 111.5, L.A. Lakers 98.2

The Los Angeles Lakers had great talent. The Oklahoma City Thunder is a great team. There's a difference, and it was on full display as the Thunder ended the Lakers' season on Monday. Two stretches defined the game. Down four late in the third quarter, Oklahoma City ripped off a 14-3 run to take the lead. The Thunder then opened the fourth period with 10 unanswered points to take control. The Lakers never again got within single digits.

Oklahoma City's bench was the catalyst for the first run, which started immediately after James Harden and Nick Collison checked in for Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka. The Thunder was good enough to play even when both teams had their starters on the floor (+3 in the first quarter, -7 in the third), and the addition of Harden tipped the balance of talent in Oklahoma City's favor. The Thunder was +19 with Harden on the floor.

The second run came when Mike Brown rested Kobe Bryant to start the fourth quarter. Bryant spent just 1:49 on the bench, during which the Lakers were scoreless and Oklahoma City extended its lead from six to 14. Brown went with both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to try to get as much scoring punch on the floor as possible, but Ramon Sessions struggled with turnovers and the Thunder took full advantage at the other end.

It's easy to say in hindsight that Brown should have kept Bryant on the bench, but as he said after the game, he needs to be able to get Bryant a rest. We saw Bryant run out of energy in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and although this wasn't a back-to-back, extending him to 43-plus minutes would likely have had an impact on his level of play late in the game. One way or another, the Lakers were going to suffer from their dependence on Bryant. Had Brown kept him in and Bryant struggled, the hindsight chorus would have complained that he didn't get a rest.

Part of the issue with resting Bryant was that Scott Brooks was able to keep his superstars on the floor, as he did in Game 4. Younger Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can handle the heavy load, and their energy remained strong at the start of the fourth quarter. The way Brooks was able to use Durant and Westbrook is a tangible example of the value of youth in the postseason.

As he usually is, Bryant will be polarizing in this game. He attempted 33 shots without an assist and dominated the basketball in the second half. However, this wasn't a matter of Bryant forcing shots. He was able to get good looks, often in the flow of the offense. Bryant made 17 of his 27 shot attempts inside the arc in one of his more efficient outings of the postseason (.592 True Shooting Percentage).

Shooting the basketball wasn't the Lakers' problem. Their .467 effective field-goal percentage was their second-best mark of this series and ranked fourth among their 12 postseason games. To the extent the Lakers had a tough time scoring the basketball, it was almost entirely because they were one and out on nearly every possession. The Lakers had just three offensive rebounds, and their 7.5 percent offensive rebounding percentage was the lowest by any team in the playoffs this season.

That stat is damning for Bynum, who came up with just four rebounds--none offensive--in 35 minutes. Aside from a strong stretch at the start of the second quarter with Bryant on the bench, Bynum was invisible after getting into early foul trouble. Kendrick Perkins deserves credit for making life difficult for Bynum and all of Oklahoma City's big men made good on his absence at the other end. Serge Ibaka had five offensive boards, Perkins four and Nick Collison two as the Thunder came up with 14 second chances, extending possessions.

Those extra shot attempts, plus a stunning 30 fast-break points, made it difficult for the Lakers to stop Oklahoma City. Even when the Lakers had both Bryant and Pau Gasol playing well in the first half, they still trailed the Thunder at the break because of their defense. Durant, Harden and Westbrook were all going well, combining for 70 points on 64 shooting possessions. When Oklahoma City's stars play like that, the Lakers need to be nearly perfect to keep up. The Thunder will always have the advantage in terms of role players, so the Lakers' stars have to be better. Tonight they weren't, and over the course of the series they weren't.

It's tempting to call this the end of an era, but the Lakers haven't been a contender since they were swept out of last year's playoffs by Dallas. They were sixth in the Western Conference in point differential, which remains true even when you adjust for their exceptionally difficult schedule. The needed seven games to dispatch of a Denver Nuggets team that finished sixth in the West. And while they could have won any of the middle three games of this series, the Lakers were decisively beaten in the other two and never played a game where they were clearly better than Oklahoma City. As compared to the West's top teams, the Lakers just don't measure up, and with Bryant, Gasol and much of the supporting cast aging, it's difficult to see how anything short of a blockbuster trade will reverse that.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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