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Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Five things to watch for in LAL-OKC game five

By Andy Kamenetzky

The rubber match, as the popular jargon goes. The Thunder enter the contest with Mr. Mo clearly on their side, but he's a fickle son of a &%^$, capable of being swayed. While I think the purple and gold will pull it out tonight, I'd be lying if I claimed any clue what to expect tonight. But I do have an idea of what I'll be watching for. Here are five items guaranteed to occupy my eyeballs and brain once the ball is jumped:

1) Rookie reserve guard James Harden was a game three X-factor, described by Kevin Durant as the reason the Thunder got their first win of the playoffs. His eighteen points didn't simply best the contributions of the entire Lakers bench. They represented 18 more points than his game one and two totals combined. Like Bluto's GPA in "Animal House," Harden was working a zero-point-zero. Game four's 15 points, five rebounds and four assists solidified how well the youngster plays on friendly turf. But we're still in the "seeing is believing" stage when it comes to a duplication in L.A., which happens to be the kid's homeland. This adds an extra wrinkle, as young/rookie bench players often struggle on the road, particularly in front of their family friends. If Harden's unable to get it going, I don't see his bench cohorts picking up the scoring slack.  It'll be interesting to see if he's broken through.

2) Along those same lines, it's no surprise the Thunder were jump started at the Ford Center. That place is a freakin' madhouse. The crowd is loud, rowdy and ferociously supportive of their team (and without even being jerks in the process). And while I can often take or leave mascots, their bison is absolutely incredible. Dude's a Renaissance buffalo. In game four alone, he played drums, roller bladed, performance skits in the stands, threw T-shirts into the upper deck with accuracy. As I Tweeted, he was a Dos Equis away from being The Most Interesting Mascot in the World. All in all, I was really impressed by the Thunder faithful and the atmosphere they created.

Unfortunately, it makes you wonder if they've created too good of a thing. It's now up to the Thunder maintain the mindset and poise of a home team while playing in a hostile environment. Nick Collison pointed out to me OKC's 23-18 road record as evidence of their ability to get it done outside the 405, but Jeff Green didn't deny the hurdle in place:

"We're not gonna have our fans. We gotta bring the energy somehow all 48 minutes. We gotta find a way to continue to attack them and to continue to bring the effort and energy without our fans behind us. As you can see the last two games, they're our extra boost. So we gotta continue to make the effort to get the loose balls, dive to the floor, try to keep them off the boards."

The proof will be in the pudding, but if the bare bones objective to protect one's house, until the Thunder prove they can burglarize someone else's pad, it remains "Advantage: Lakers."

By the way, if you happen to be taking in the game at Staples, your outdoor voice has been requested.

3) I've said it roughly one zillion times during this series, getting the ball inside remains (as well it should) the Lakers' game plan. So many things fell apart during the game four drubbing, the Lakers' success while working down low was actually overshadowed. While OKC's fronting bigs and sagging guards have made entry passes an admirably challenging issue for the Lakers, should the Lakers remain patient and diligent, I'm confident this obstacle can be regularly overcome and even more regularly neutralized into hay. The painted area must stay on the Lakers' radar. Period.

But that's not necessarily the end of the story. Assuming it's going inside to Pau, I'd like to see him attacking more off the dribble. Yes, he can drain the mid-range jumper or the ambidextrous hook off the catch, but I haven't seen enough of him putting the ball on the floor and driving the lane. Put the onus on Green, a young player not likely to get a ton of referee love on the road, to pursuit without fouling. Make the OKC defenders move their feet. Pau's got the skill set. It needs to be utilized more often.

Same note for Lamar Odom, by the way, despite how his inclination to hang out on the perimeter. There were several possessions I noticed a lane available, but the southpaw opted instead to pull up. There's no reason for Odom to spend so much time popping long J's when most defenders, much less those on the OKC roster, struggle to stick him while taking it to the hole. We saw some signs of life offered while attacking in game four, albeit often in pursuit of ultimately meaningless points in a contest well out of reach. The Lakers need LO to get going in a desperate way. The guy's always been at his best going strong. Now's the time to rediscover his roots.

If Lamar needs any motivation beyond the desire to avoid a 3-2 hole or get Phil to stop riding him, a sixth place showing in the Sixth Man of the Year award voting could do the trick.

4) It's been well established by now the Lakers are the slower, less athletic. They're the old guys. It is what it is, and it can't be changed. But assuming they're not decrepit, you know what else old people are? Grouchy. Irascible. Mean. Cats who wouldn't hesitate to knock someone around. Which brings me to OKC's ventures into the lane.  Would it kill the Lakers to make them a little more, shall we say, physically taxing? If a foul is ultimately necessary, I'd prefer something of a harder variety. As I always say, get your money's worth. Nothing dirty. I'd never condone trying to injure a player. But there needs to be a price paid for a pilgrimage towards their basket. As of now, the toll remains staggeringly inexpensive.

Playoff basketball is supposed to be physical and the veteran Lakers are the bigger, stronger team. Time they started acting like such a crew.

5) Ron Artest, if you're reading this, remember that pull-up three in transition you took during the second half of game four as your team was attempting to make a run? That wasn't just the single worst shot of the entire series. It's guaranteed to remain so. Trust me. The crown is yours. Congrats.

With this honor now secured, I urge/beg you to be more selective in your choices. This applies to everyone for reasons I've explained now roughly a zillion times -cutting down OKC's transition opportunities, slow the tempo to your advantage, etc., making the Thunder work in the half court, etc.- but it REALLY applies to a guy shooting 13 percent from behind the arc, and seem disinclined to stop bombing. I understand the instinct, since your bad left thumb has created difficulties finishing at the rim. But if treys remain the first choice, please make sure they're quality shots. Nothing off balance. Nothing with a multitude of seconds remaining on the clock. Nothing where your teammates aren't in the right spot. Your award-winning shot was a microcosm of everything the Lakers don't want to be doing against OKC.