Oklahoma City At L.A. Lakers, Game 3, 10:30 p.m. EDT
If the Los Angeles Lakers can just shake the memory of the disastrous final two minutes of Game 2, they’ll find plenty of reasons in the first 46 minutes to be encouraged about their chances this weekend against Oklahoma City.
After blowing a seven-point lead and the chance to steal homecourt advantage from the powerful Thunder on Wednesday night, the third-seeded Lakers’ fate will be decided rapidly at Staples Center, with back-to-back games Friday and Saturday. Oklahoma City leads the series 2-0, and could earn its second straight trip to the Western Conference finals Saturday night.
The Lakers have now lost four of their last five playoff games since taking a 3-1 lead in the first round against Denver, but they imposed their favored style on Game 2 until their late collapse. Los Angeles locked down Russell Westbrook, limited Kevin Durant with double-teams and thwarted the Thunder’s transition game, holding Oklahoma City to its lowest scoring total of the entire season.
None of it helped when the Lakers allowed nine unanswered points to close the 77-75 loss, but at least they know shutting down the Thunder is possible.
“It’s a tough loss, yes, but the biggest thing for us is that we found some things out defensively that we feel like we can do that’s effective,” Kobe Bryant said. “They did a great job. It was a great comeback by them the last two minutes or whatever it is. They got themselves a gritty win. Now it’s on us to go back home and protect our home court.”
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks emerged from the thriller excited about the resilience of his young team, which improved to 6-0 in the postseason. In their third playoff run together, the Thunder have figured out how to keep their cool when their opponents are losing it – even Bryant and his small core of championship-tested teammates.
The Lakers managed just four points in the final 6:43, all on baskets by Andrew Bynum. Bryant missed his final five shots. Metta World Peace made multiple mistakes. Pau Gasol didn’t even take a shot, and Steve Blake missed the biggest one of all: That open 3-pointer in the corner with 3 seconds left.
If not for the Lakers’ game effort in Game 2, overconfidence would appear to be Oklahoma City’s toughest opponent so far in the playoffs.
“We’ve had some success (in) this playoffs so far, but it doesn’t really guarantee the next game results if you don’t get the good effort and good energy and teamwork,” Brooks said Thursday before the Thunder flew to the West Coast. “You have to have confidence in it, but you can’t become complacent and cocky with it. You have to understand that you have to respect your opponent, and they’re going to throw a lot of things at us, and you have to be prepared.”
Although the Thunder’s offense was less than impressive in Game 2, Bryant has been unable to assert control against Oklahoma City’s defense.
Durant, James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha have taken turns guarding Bryant in Brooks’ plan to keep Kobe uncomfortable by throwing multiple defensive looks at him, sometimes on each possession. So far, it’s working: The NBA’s second-leading scorer behind Durant has managed just 20 points in each of the first two games on 16-for-43 shooting, and Bryant is a dismal 1 for 9 on 3-pointers.
“There’s not a lot of 6-10 guys that you would throw on Kobe,” Brooks said of Durant, who played solid defense on Bryant in the fourth quarter of Game 2. “He’s a guy that can guard multiple positions, and it’s definitely a different look when you’re used to a guy 6-3, 6-4, and all of a sudden 6-10 comes on you.”
Although Bryant isn’t at his game-changing peak, he has been awfully good at home in recent months. Yet Bryant and the veteran Lakers also might be running out of energy. When the back-to-back weekend ends, the Lakers will have played 11 playoff games in 21 days, a product of their inability to finish off Denver quickly.
“It hurts bad, but the reality of it is we play Friday,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. “It’s a seven-game series, so we’ve got to go protect our home court. We’ve got to go get two wins in L.A. It’s as simple as that. You feel sorry for the flight, but once we land, we’re all grown men. We get paid good money. We have a good life. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to shake this off and move on to the next play, and our guys will.”
The Lakers were among the NBA’s best home teams for the first three months of the shortened season, but stumbled late, culminating in a lifeless loss to the Nuggets in Game 5 last round. The Lakers and their crowd rebounded for an energetic victory in Game 7, but Los Angeles also lost two second-round home games last season against Dallas.
Los Angeles prefers a slower tempo, both for its lack of team speed and its preference for playing a half-court game built around 7-footers Bynum and Gasol. Brooks also said the Lakers used elements of the triangle offense in Game 2, going back to the principles of the offensive scheme promoted by 11-time NBA champion coach Phil Jackson.
“They were throwing a lot of that in their sets, so we were ready for that,” Brooks said. “Our guys did a good job defending it.”