Everybody breathe again...
More analysis and video below the jump.
All season, we've waited for an opportunity to learn how the Lakers would respond when faced with a truly pivotal game. A true, no foolin', no wiggle room, no safety net of a game. They've had tests throughout the season, generally failing more than succeeding, but with the series knotted at two and the prospect of facing another frenzied crowd Friday night in Oklahoma City, Tuesday's Game 5 amounted to as close to a "must win" as 48 minutes of non-elimination game basketball can.
Like a lot of people, I was very unsure of what the Lakers would bring. Apparently, Phil Jackson shared my POV, at least partially. "I feel good about the game," he said before the game when I asked if he was curious about how his team would respond. "But really I don't know. Who knows?"
The answer wasn't long in coming.
Just over a minute into the first quarter, Russell Westbrook pushed in transition off a Derek Fisher miss at the other end. He flew up the floor, working his way down the left side of the lane. As he went up for the finish, the big mitts of Ron Artest came down, snuffing Westbrook's progress. Initially, I thought he'd just whacked the former Bruin and tossed him to the ground. I'd have been happy with a "message foul." Instead, he got his hands over the rock, forcing a jump ball. (Really, Artest threw the ball to the ground, and Westbrook had the bad fortune of still being connected to it.)
It was a very Gandalf, "You shall not pass!" sort of moment. That the Lakers actually ended up with the ball in the ensuing Bouncy vs. Earthbound matchup- Westbrook committed a jump ball violation- only signaled more good things to come.
Artest's play, recorded as a blocked shot, was the first of four the Lakers would rack up in the first six minutes of the game. Westbrook's TO was the first of four Thunder giveaways in the first eight. When the Lakers weren't blocking shots or forcing mistakes, they forced Oklahoma City into jumpers and in those moments the ball managed to get inside, contested hard at the rim. They were physical and aggressive defensively, cutting off the paint and limiting fast break opportunities, despite four turnovers of their own in the first six minutes of the game.
As a result, they raced out to a 14-1 lead, holding the Thunder without a field goal until Kevin Durant managed to knock down a 19-footer at the 5:49 mark.
As the score would suggest, the Lakers continued to play well for the duration, but it wasn't necessarily preordained. Confident as they were coming home to their floor and fans, the Lakers had to set a tone, and Artest, the guy brought in to add more toughness and backbone, delivered. In some ways, it was like the thunderous, momentum-changing dunk Westbrook dropped on the Lakers in the third quarter of Game 3. Artest's play lacked some of the drama- there were still almost 47 minutes to play- but after the purple-and-gold sanctioned layup line the Thunder ran through Game 4, the message it sent was vital.
"[The game] was going to be contested," Kobe said after of Artest's play. "They weren't going to be able to just drive the ball to the basket and get layups without us contesting. They were going to have to make tough shots."
KOBE BOTTLES UP WESTBROOK
After Game 4's humiliation, the assumption was the Lakers would come back tonight with a different look for the Thunder. They actually threw out a few, but the most significant was likely assigning Bryant to Westbrook. In Games 3 and 4, Westbrook averaged 22.5 points, five assists, eight boards and a seemingly immeasurable amount of havoc wrecked. Over the course of the series, Westbrook had success against all three of L.A.'s point guards, so Tuesday night, they tried a two.
Kobe picked up Westbrook, and his work was instrumental for the Lakers as they built their massive early lead. In the first quarter, OKC's PG was one-of-five from the floor with three turnovers. At halftime, Westbrook was two-for-eight (seven points) and sported an assist-t0-turnover ratio of four-to-five, thanks in large part to Bryant's work checking him.
Needless to say, a limited Westbrook limited Oklahoma City generally. OKC had only 11 field goals and 34 points at intermission, shooting 26.2 percent from the floor. Down 19, the game was basically over.
"When I came out of the team video (session) yesterday, he said I'd like to take Westbrook. I said ok," Phil Jackson said. Asked if he had second thoughts about the assignment, Jackson said he did. "It's a much higher activity level, playing the ball and having to play every play," Jackson noted. "There's no time off on defense, and some of the situations he's in off Durant or the things going on in the Thunder offense, a lot of times he's got a resting moment or two at the defensive end. This didn't give him any defensive rest."
Remember, Kobe is a guy fighting so many injuries for so much of the season they've actually had time to evolve. The problematic right index fracture at the tip of his finger, we were told Monday, is now an arthritic condition one knuckle down. He's admitted the balky right knee has given him problems thus far.
Still, he volunteered for Westbrook duty.
"I enjoy the challenge. I think he's been playing sensational. If we're going to be eliminated, I don't want to go into the summer thinking I could have done something about it. So I accepted the challenge," he said. "We've got to make some adjustments. Ron has been working extremely hard on Durant. Russell has just done such a great job of getting into the paint. I think I'm a pretty good defensive player myself, so I took the assignment."
PJ spoke about the inability for 24 to find moments of rest when marking a threat like Westbrook, but Tuesday his burden wasn't overwhelming at the other end, making it that much easier to focus on locking down. Bryant was fantastic offensively, orchestrating L.A.'s offense and piling up seven assists 29:17 of playing time. But he only took nine shots and wasn't forced to tax his body in some sort of Sisyphean offensive quest.
Jackson praised Westbrook's work on Bryant as the game went along, but indicated he'd likely run Kobe out there against him Friday night at Ford Center. This seems like quite a reasonable idea.
BYNUM TAKES TRANSITION D SERIOUSLY
A great moment occurred after Pau Gasol crashed to the ground upon hitting a third quarter layup in the lane. The Thunder have been consistently good during this series at not simply making hay in transition, but recognizing when a Laker is down and making a fast break advantage of numbers in their favor. Gasol on the hardwood created a prime scenario for a quick inbound and bolting down the court.
In the meantime, Andrew Bynum had spent Monday's practice repeating the phrase "transition defense" so often, he sounded like a basketball version of Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man." (Transition defense. Definitely, definitely, transition defense.) As a result, he instantly offered Pau a hand, pulled up his teammate and the two tore ass back to prevent an easy Thunder score.
In all sincerity, this was pretty inspiring stuff. I got a distinct "a soldier never leaves a man behind" vibe, like Drew was "Forrest Gump" and Pau "Lieutenant Dan." I kept waiting Buffalo Springfield to start blaring over the Staples Center P.A. system.
I asked Bynum if this was indicative of how transition defense was drilled into his head the previous day. Yep, and right before the game as well.
Explained Drew, "The coaches came to me today like, 'We're not going to be able to play you your minutes if you can't get back on defense.' Today I focused on getting back... The big thing today was just kinda being in tune with the game. Understanding how we have to stop this team, and it worked."
This attention to detail was neither in vain nor singular to Bynum. The Thunder scored just seven fast break points, easily the lowest of any game during the series. It helped Kobe did a terrific job containing Russell Westbrook, often the key to the Thunder's transition success. But the overall focus on preventing this aspect of OKC's game was made pretty evident by the continuous hustle on display.
FAVORABLE SCHEDULE THIS WEEK
During Monday's practice, Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson noted how playing four games every other day had probably taken a toll on the Lakers' collection of mostly older and/or banged up bodies. Factor in how the fourth game was an utter disaster, and everybody's psyche's felt just as bruised. Thus, the Sunday's day off couldn't have come at a better time, and both appeared fairly confident dividends might come during game five.
Judging by the pep in everybody's steps, particularly compared to the previous game's lethargy, Fish and PJ were onto something. Jordan Farmar even needed it, and he's a young 23 year-old pup.
"I think it helped a lot. Not only physically, but mentally. Just getting away. Being able to be with your family. And just get away from basketball. Not get so caught up in the grind of what's going on with us. Just to get away from it for a second, take a breath and then come back and focus. I think it was big."
Along these lines, it's worth noting game six is on Friday, creating a two day gap between contests. That could very well do the Lakers a huge solid when it comes to mustering up the energy required to close out the Thunder in their house. Clearly, these youngsters get a decided charge from playing in front of their fans, but it'll be interesting to see if the Lakers look like a different team on the road with more more rest.
14: The number of three-pointers taken by the Lakers, four in a final frame kindly described as garbage time. In a totally related note, the Thunder didn't do jack tonight in transition. If you've wondered why I've raved like a lunatic for the Lakers to abstain from downtown shots and instead accentuate their height advantage down low, this would be a pudding's proof. OKC's opportunities to kick in the afterburners decrease dramatically when robbed of long rebounds.
58: The Lakers' points in the paint. Again, that whole "the Thunder can't handle the Lakers in the lane, so why not spend more time there?" thing. It wasn't just the points. It was the way guys set up plays from inside. Kobe, Pau and Artest all collected at least five assists, dimes often created around the free throw line, the elbow or in front of the basket. The Lakers owned the paint, along with the game.
10: The number of blocks and steals accumulated by the Lakers on the night. And to be clear, that's not a combined total. We're talking a "Bo Derek" for each stat. Every Laker playing at least 10 minutes got at least one swipe or swat, with style points often a bonus treat. Jordan Farmar jumped the lane to not merely steal a pass, but rip it out of Serge Ibaka's hands en route to a layup. Kobe stripping Durant in space. Even little Derek Fisher pinned a shot from Thabo Sefalosha off the backboard. If it's not perfectly clear by now, defense was in vogue this evening.
8: Kobe's old number, back when he was truly at the height of his athletic powers. Not that Bryant's become some uncoordinated geek, but he's undeniably less explosive now than during his younger days. Plus, he's dealing with ankle and knee injuries. Thus, on paper, covering the likes of Russell Westbrook for an entire game might appear a bit beyond his physical capabilities at the moment.
Or not. Speaking of "8," Westbrook finished the night with the same number of turnovers. They weren't all the direct result of Kobe's lockdown, but these gaffes serve to demonstrate Bryant's success taking the youngster out of his comfort zone. I'm not sure a defender of any age could have done much better.
I also think Sunday and Monday off did Bryant wonders for this particular assignment. With all due respect to his defensive abilities and iron will, I'm not positive the body would have cooperated earlier in the series. Certainly not during game three and four as his minutes were clearly taking a toll. But he was fresh enough tonight, with two days to recuperate before game six, wouldn't shock me to see him check the kid again.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks on Kobe: "Kobe had an impact on the game. The stat sheet does not show that. The guy was competing and set the tone defensively. He did a good job of guarding Russell to start the game. That kind of threw us off a little bit. Kobe's a great player. He found his way."
Pau Gasol, his and Andrew Bynum's impact: "We had 18 (field goals) out of 26 (attempts), so yeah, we shot the ball well and we were aggressive. I think we made ourselves a big presence in the lane .We were effective. We'll try to continue to do that in Game 6. It will be a little more difficult in Oklahoma, but I think we need to be as aggressive as we were tonight as a whole."
Gasol, on the importance of playing effectively in the paint as a team: "That's the key for us to be able to move the ball, attack, and penetrate. With passing, with dribbling, and finishing out the plays. I think we did a good job on that by being aggressive and assertive."
Durant, on Kobe Bryant and coming back with a strong game: "You're all killing me, coming at me with this. Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league, one of the best players in the world, and you're talking to me like he played a phenomenal game like it's something he normally doesn't do. He's Kobe Bryant, he's going to come out and lead his team. That's what he's been doing for 12 or 13 years. He's a guy who he doesn't really have to score on his team for them to win games now. A couple years he had to, but now he can get everybody involved, get rebounds, get blocks, run around our defense. He doesn't really have to score, and tonight he showed you why. That's what great players do. People say he's lost a step or whatever, but he's the still the same Kobe Bryant that he's been for a while."
Kobe Bryant on guarding Russell Westbrook
Kobe Bryant on the evolution of his game (a video not likely to be enjoyed by Smush, Kwame or Cookie)