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Monday, May 14, 2012
Rapid Reaction, Game 1: Thunder 119, Lakers 90

By Brian Kamenetzky

It's only Game 1. There is a lot of basketball left to play.

That is not meant as a threat.

The Oklahoma City Thunder entered their Western Conference semifinal against the Los Angeles Lakers as overwhelming favorites, and Monday at Chesapeake Energy Center, absolutely nothing happened that might alter the conventional wisdom. After a quick start for the Lakers, the Thunder dominated (I'm avoiding any Thunder/roll combos at this point) in every facet of the game save turnovers committed and "absorbing monumental tail kickings," not exactly the most aspirational categories in a box score.

Here are six takeaways ...

1. The Lakers looked like a team without time to fully prepare

The Lakers are not as good as Oklahoma City and therefore needed every available edge in order to compete effectively. They needed to be on the same page in every aspect of the game. This opportunity went out the door when the Lakers botched Game 5 against Denver last week. Now, having played every other day since, with flights in between, not only did the Lakers tax their legs, they short-circuited prep time. Both were in play on Monday night as the Lakers lost big on the execution end of things.

Defensively, the Lakers were inconsistent in their pick-and-roll coverages. Sometimes they pressured the ball, other times they didn't. They tried to back off shooters including Kevin Durant (25/8/4), who had too many midrange J's without a hand in the face. Russell Westbrook (27/9) also was conceded a ton of elbow J's off the high screen, a reasonable strategy until he starts canning them and establishes a rhythm. Then something had to change, but it didn't. The big men, generally speaking, tried to contest, helpers generally tried to help. Unfortunately, the Lakers were so scattered and disorganized and OKC was so hot, it didn't really matter. No wonder Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were on the bench well after the game, still talking through coverages.

That the Lakers were actually working hard (though not at all efficiently) on their end probably isn't all that comforting. At least against Denver they could play the "if we try" card after Games 5 and 6. Other discouraging signs: The Lakers used Kobe on Westbrook a ton on Monday, and it didn't work.

Offensively, the Lakers weren't any better. The ball movement wasn't good, and they didn't generate a ton away from the ball, either. At times, the Lakers effectively used Bynum on the block, helping him to 20 points on 7-of-12 from the floor. He and Gasol were both aggressive on the offensive glass. But as the game went along and the deficit grew, the Lakers naturally started gravitating away from the post. That's not something that will serve them well going forward.

More than anything, though, the Lakers didn't seem like they had a cogent plan to score in Game 1. Credit some solid defense from the Thunder, who locked down the Lakers in their three regular-season meetings, and tentative play from the Lakers. One big factor there.

2. Ramon Sessions didn't provide anything

This was a killer, in part because 1-for-7 for two points isn't going to get it done, but also because Sessions' ineffectiveness required the Lakers to put Gasol into more of a facilitating role at the top of the key. Fine for making passes, but not ideal because it tends to sap his aggressiveness as a scorer and limit his flexibility in the offense. Sessions was a blend of mediocre-to-bad through most of the Denver series. He simply can't be a non-factor against the Thunder if the Lakers are going to be competitive.

3. Steve Blake didn't, either, and nor did his bench mates

After pouring in 19 points in relief of Sessions ON Saturday night in Game 7, Blake was scoreless Tuesday, on only one field-goal attempt. For those of you unwilling to do the math, it means the Lakers got one bucket from their point guards. Among other reserves, Jordan Hill was efforting something fierce in the first half, but made as many mistakes as he did positive contributions. Matt Barnes hit a couple meaningless 3-pointers in the third (meaningless in terms of the scoreboard -- Barnes needed a couple shots to fall after a horrible series against Denver), but did little else.

The Lakers' bench won't outscore OKC's in most games in this series. They may not outscore James Harden in some. But they have to be a factor in one form or another. Impact can come in plenty of ways beyond scoring, but it has to come.

4. Turnovers and free throws hurt

In the regular season, no team in the NBA was better at playing D without fouling than L.A., which sported the league's best opponent's FT/FGA ratio. Conversely, no team in the NBA was more effective earning free throws than Oklahoma City. Something, as they say, had to give, and Tuesday it was the Lakers. Oklahoma City was able to get to the stripe, reaching the mid-20's in attempts before the end of the third. Meanwhile, the Lakers gave the ball away too much, not only robbing them of opportunities to score but giving OKC easy looks and points in return. Moreover, they failed completely to take advantage of a Thunder team that in the regular season turned the ball over more than any team in the NBA. OKC finished with four.

The Lakers did manage to keep OKC's transition game relatively quiet, but it won't matter if they can't keep them off the line, or give them freebies off their own mistakes.

5. Kobe Bryant is working too hard for his looks

In the regular season, the Thunder put a lid on Bryant's shooting, and nothing changed on Monday night. Of his 18 shots -- seven of which went down -- only a handful were clean looks reasonably classified as "easy." Generally, he had a hand (or hands) in his face or was left on isolation island. A few times they managed to get Kobe looks on the move, but not nearly often enough. One more thing that needs to change heading into Wednesday night.

6. Mike Brown should have pulled his starters far earlier.

The Lakers have played a ton of games in a short period, and face a daunting schedule going forward. His primary weapons shouldn't have been on the floor down 30 in the third, and Gasol certainly shouldn't have been on the floor in the fourth. They needed legs for Game 2 more than anything. Brown mismanaged the situation.