Was there a switch to flip? A magic button? An enchanted lever? No, but the Lakers turned in a quality effort to take Game 1 against the Thunder...
There will be fans, I'm sure, lamenting a lack of style points. But Kobe Bryant, even while acknowledging the need to continue improving, made the bottom line pretty clear. "At this stage," he said, "you've just got to win games. It doesn't matter how you win them."
Who are we to argue with Kobe Bryant?
Luke Walton's first bit of burn arrived with a shade under a minute remaining in the third quarter. Ron Artest had picked up his fourth foul and I suspected Walton's appearance was purely a preventative measure against a fifth foul being charged to Artest's tab.
With the frame eventually closed up by eight, Phil Jackson opted to not only keep Walton on the floor, but team him with Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar and Lamar Odom. Four reserves, plus Andrew Bynum, the postseason's first true "bench" offering.
For those who didn't get the memo, the second unit has spent this season as a wildly erratic magnet for mostly justified criticism. As the playoffs crept closer, hopes for improvement had been pinned -primarily- on LO resuming his role as sixth man/bench leader role with Bynum healthy again and -to a lesser degree- a long-shelved Walton providing another facilitator to create easier looks. We were about to learn if this purple and gold pudding contained any proof.
(Oh, and just to make sure it's perfectly clear, Kobe was also having a seat on the bench.)
The outcome? Very positive. As an added bonus, all four reserves found ways to contribute.
The quarter's opening pair of buckets came from Farmar, who ran a nice two-man game with Bynum before freeing himself for a sideline jumper, then drained a Walton feed for three. These weren't just huge buckets setting a fourth quarter tone. They represented a bounce back for Farmar after a horrible first half, low-lighted by two fouls in barely more than a minute of first quarter run. Brown complemented a quietly solid first half with a highlight reel-worthy sideline trap of James Harden, who eventually coughed up the ball while trying to escape. Odom's overall game was uneven (seven points/six points/six rebounds), but his presence played a key role in a successful defensive stand. With Walton playing tortoise to Russell Westbrook's hare after being forced to pick the kid up in scramble mode, Lamar covered the space behind them like a center fielder, allowing Westbrook nowhere to drive on an eventual air ball possession. This came on the heels of a 24-second violation for OKC, indicative of the focus displayed by this unit.
As for Bynum, whose return made this second unit reunion possible, he saved the Lakers' bacon on a very well defended possession by rebounding, then dunking Brown's baseline prayer. A dominating "I'm back!" moment for a 13 point/12 rebound/four block return filled with such announcements.
Mind you, this fourth quarter showing wasn't flawless. A couple of offensive possessions went wonky. And Walton, who played the least of any reserve other than Josh Powell, was predictably the rustiest. This became most obvious upon a flubbed fake-shot pass to Bynum while in the lane. This turnover might have prompted Jackson to put Artest, Kobe, and Derek Fisher back on the floor, but it doesn't change how the second unit pushed an eight point lead up to eleven.
For a Laker team still looking to find itself after a difficult stretch run to close the regular season, this was a nice development for a question mark-riddled issue. I'm not treating the matter as solved, but hopefully, it's a collective performance to built upon.
-- Andy Kamenetzky
ANDREW BYNUM UNDERSTANDS THE MOMENT
A lot was made after the game of the shoulder Andrew Bynum tossed at OKC's Jeff Green following a pile up under the Oklahoma City basket in the first quarter.
As Green peeled himself off the floor and started up court, Bynum threw a shoulder at him. It was pretty blatant, and I'm pretty sure of the 36,000-plus eyes in the building, the six belonging to the trio of officials were the only ones who missed it. Bynum felt he was pushed by Green, and wasn't going to take it. Or he might have been pushed by Green.
"Well that, it was a response. Because I kind of got taken out on that same play. I didn't know if he fell into me, or he pushed me. But I wasn't just gonna let that happen without retaliating," Bynum said. "That's just part of being aggressive, part of just letting people know and having a presence out there."
Was he lucky to get away with it? "I think so," Bynum said, "but somebody got away with their's on me, first."
The blow to Green was a foul, and not unreasonably classified as "cheap," but it wasn't dangerous, and sent an important message about the way Bynum was going to play, and by extension, the Lakers as a group. They put bodies on OKC players all day, were aggressive on the offensive glass, and contested every shot near the rim (nine blocked shots).
After the game I asked Derek Fisher if Bynum would have known the value of delivering the same sort of message two or three years ago:
"I'm not sure. I remember even in his rookie year (him) trying to wrestle with Shaq a little bit. I don't think it's ever been about him not having the desire to be physical or having a certain presence in the middle, it's just that he's growing in his understanding of how to play this game and when the right times are to be physical, when to take a hard foul, when to turn and dunk on somebody as opposed to trying to shoot a softer shot. Drew's a smart kid, and there was a while there before he got injured where you could see that the light had gone on, and I don't think he wants that light to go off, and we're going to need him to continue to do those things for us to win."
The play represented, Fish said, a great example of postseason mentality, and while he warned they'll need to avoid being "tough just for the sake of being tough," certainly Fish as much as anyone understands the value of sending a message.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SHOT SELECTION
A surface gander at Westbrook's 10-for-16 shooting line and 23 points might leave one believing he spent all afternoon systematically carving the Laker D. In reality, he racked a large chunk of success in transition after a Laker miss, a microcosm of the game as a whole. Given a chance to run off Laker misses or turnovers, the Thunder killed it. Operating upon taking the ball out of the basket, they weren't nearly as good.
To me, this impresses even further a need for the most selective shots as possible. Specifically, passing up unnecessarily long or difficult jumpers, which often lead to long rebounds and run-outs. Taking care of the ball is always crucial, but tantamount against this particular team. In any event, gotta tear back on D whenever bricks are laid or the rock is lost.
Pau seconded this assessment in the video below. It's not often you hear players cite the importance of making an opponent actually "run their offense," but ironic or not, Gasol's right. OKC's actual sets weren't terribly effective.
He also called himself out on the transition D front, accountability always nice to hear.
DURANT VS. ARTEST: BY THE NUMBERS
One of the cool things about working for ESPN? The folks at ESPN Stats and Information. We mentioned in the video above the work Ron Artest did on Kevin Durant, and the stats guys produced some numbers really driving home the point. Needless to say, Durantula was lacking venom (pretty clever!) when matched up with Ron Ron.
Shooting vs. Artest: 4-18
Shooting vs. Others: 3-6
Turnovers vs. Artest: 4
Turnovers vs. Others: 0
Shots blocked vs. Artest: 2
Shots blocked vs. Others: 0
If that ratio doesn't improve for the Thunder, any shot they have for an upset likely goes out the window.
MORE BIG NUMBERS
12: The Lakers snagged a dirty dozen on the offensive glass, which helped account for 15 second chance points, another solid number. Bynum and Gasol had a trio apiece, and Brown grabbed a pair from the guard spot in just 13 minutes.
28: The combined point total from the Thunder's big man rotation of Jeff Green (who took 12 shots for his ten point contribution), Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison, and Serge Ibaka. By contrast, Gasol and Bynum had 32 between them. If you're inclined to include LO's 7, it's 39 for the Lakers front court. I said it before the series began and I'll say it many times during: The Lakers' advantage at the four and five can't possibly be exploited enough.
12.5: The Thunder's percentage from behind the arc. Two-for-16 on the afternoon as a team, and Durant missed seven of his eight launches. I expect them to improve upon this awful showing, but it's worth noting the Thunder's three-point shooting is actually worse than the Lakers'. For all the downtown woes L.A. will inevitably encounter during this series, OKC may spend the playoffs envious of them.
Kobe, who had earlier said the Thunder "run like deer" when asked what his guys run like: "Elephants."
Andrew Bynum, on playing longer minutes tonight than expected: "I think that with treatment in the morning, I think I'll be okay. I felt a couple little twinges, but nothing too serious. And with more treatment and as much rest as I can (get) in between games, I think I'll be okay."
Bynum, on the potential for a "playoff beard": "I can't connect on (the right side) at all. I want one, super bad."
Phil Jackson, on their work against Russell Westbrook: "I thought we did a really good job in the fourth qurater. Our team did a really good job of stopping the penetration in the fourth quarter. Third quarter, second quarter, I thought he did some things to push the ball down our throat. We're going to have to watch that we take charges and not just stand there and get escorted to the basket, as they say."
Kobe Bryant, on the win:
Andrew Bynum, on defense, rebounding and an emotional dunk:
Phil Jackson, on the game one performance:
Phil, on defending Durant, Bynum's performance and the bench:
Fisher, on the Bynum-Green incident
Artest, on execution and defense: