We continue with our conference semifinal team previews!
Beat Denver in the first round, 4-3.
Seed: #3 (West)
Stat Leaders: Kobe Bryant (27.9 PPG, 1.2 SPG), Andrew Bynum (11.8 RPG, 1.9 BPG), Ramon Sessions (5.5 APG).
Opponent: #2 Oklahoma City Thunder, 47-19
Record Against Them This Season: 1-2
Writers: Andy and Brian Kamenetzky (@ESPNLandOLakers)
Web Site: Land O’Lakers
No rest for the weary. The Lakers just beat the Nuggets a couple of days ago in an exciting seven-gamer. Tonight, their series with the Oklahoma City Thunder starts. I grab the Kamenetzky Brothers from ESPN L.A. once again to talk about this series and what happened with Denver earlier.
Well, well, well. Lakers in 7 from the both of you guys. You weren’t surprised, I’m sure. Right?
ANDY: On a surface level, I resembled Nostradamus, and don’t get me wrong, I’ll gladly take the accolades. But truth be told, I pictured a series shifting back and forth between teams exchanging punches while unable to gain a firm advantage, rather than the Lakers losing control of matters. Denver was largely the better team between Games 3 and 6, and a serious regrouping on the Lakers’ part was required to advance. So I guess if this series were a movie, I figured out who the killer was before it even started, but was way off on how he actually did the killing.
BRIAN: Not in the number of games (I got one right! I got one right!) but in how they got there. I was expecting them to trade more punches, to go back and forth. Instead, it was the Lakers dominating the start of the series, then Denver the next part, before they combined for that epic Game 7. What I didn’t anticipate was the lack of intensity in Game 5 at Staples, and to a lesser degree, Game 6 in Denver. I didn’t expect Bynum’s commitment to wax and wane the way it did, and I certainly didn’t expect Gasol to play as poorly as he did in Game 6. It was interesting to get an early peek at all the offeseason doomsday implications. The irony is now, the Lakers can enter this round with less pressure, because nobody expects them to win, even if they play well. Underdog status might serve them well.
From a scale of 1-10… 10 being really, really, really worried… how worried are you about the production of both Bynum and Gasol?
A: Maybe a 7 for Drew, 5 for Pau.
Drew’s worry-meter is higher because he’s such a wild card in reacting toward adversity. At times, he’s able to brilliantly handle offensive struggles, whether during the 30 rebound game against San Antonio or Games 1 and 7 against Denver. Other times, however, he responds by disengaging from the action, especially defensively, and the Lakers suffer badly for it. The issue isn’t Drew not comprehending his potential impact. He absolutely gets it, and has said all the right things many times before. However, the inability to conquer a myopic perspective is a recurrent theme, and believing requires seeing, so to speak.
Pau gets a greater benefit of the doubt as the more consistent, dedicated, team-oriented player. That’s not to say he’s immune to faltering. He needs to avoid periodically shrinking into the background and occasionally force the issue when his number isn’t called. If Gasol doesn’t like being in the high post so much, put the ball on the floor and/or roll to the basket after setting a screen. And his rebounding needs to be better and his defense more consistent against OKC vs. Denver. But generally speaking, I feel like you know what you’re getting with Pau.
B: 4. Bynum played great in Game 7, showing the sort of investment defensively without which it’s much harder for the Lakers to win. But because his most impactful contributions come on that end of the floor, it’s more about his willingness to play D on every trip than anything the Thunder might do. You’d like to think playing hard on every trip is a given, but with Bynum it hasn’t been. Hopefully he learned something again Saturday about the value of playing hard — he said as much after the game — but he’s said such things before. We’re in show-not-tell territory with him. If a marquee, ultra-sexy matchup with a team like OKC doesn’t bring out consistency in that regard, I’m not sure what will. Gasol, on the other hand, lets himself get absorbed into games. He played with serious snap and decisiveness in the first two games, pretty well in the next two, then poorly in 5 and 6 before his outstanding Game 7. Where Bynum needs more often to think of the team, Gasol needs to remember himself, and refuse to blend into the background. I expect both to be good in the series.
Have we ever seen Kobe Bryant do this? The facilitator in a Game 7! What did that tell you?
A: Kobe, you’re all growns up and you’re all growns up and you’re all growns up!
All joking aside, this wasn’t necessarily anything we haven’t seen before. In the second half of Game 7 against Boston, Kobe finally started moving the ball again, and great things happened forthwith. And he’s demonstrated trust in teammates countless times in the past. There is extensive precedent at hand. Having said that, Bryant’s also entered “takeover” mode plenty of times when I didn’t (and frankly, shouldn’t have) expect it, and his usage rate has skyrocketed over the last two seasons. Thus, I was a admittedly concerned about Kobe deciding from the outset he was gonna put this thing to bed as a one-mamba gang. But Kobe said after Game 6 he couldn’t carry this team every night, and to his credit, let his teammates give credence to his own words in a terrific display of leadership. Kobe remains one seriously handy fella to have on your side during a series, but the bottom line is without balanced contributions, the Lakers’ playoff shelf life is limited at best.
B: He understands he can’t win this alone. Taking contested jumpers with four hands in his face isn’t going to put enough points on the board, and he’s not the guy who can beat that sort of attention play in and play out anymore. For Kobe to play like this isn’t all that unprecedented (at least not in the regular season) and he’s given others big shots in the playoffs before (see Ron Artest in the 2010 Finals), so I wasn’t shocked to see him stay in that role through the fourth quarter. Still, you never know. He’s tried to take over games before when he shouldn’t. It was great fun to watch. I wonder what would have happened had Kobe’s faith not been so quickly rewarded, but in the end it doesn’t matter.
The Lakers against the Thunder. Please give me the keys to a Lakers series win!
A: Taking care of the ball: Beyond not being able to afford empty possessions against a team as prolific as OKC, the Thunder are ridiculous in transition. And for those who didn’t get the memo, the Lakers are quite vulnerable against fast teams on the move. The Lakers didn’t cough up the ball too often against Denver, but can’t let up now.
Metta World Peace guarding Kevin Durant: During 2010 and 2011, the Lakers have enjoyed a lot of success against OKC, and that’s in large part because MWP often destroyed Durant while checking him. Absolutely owned the scoring machine. However, Durant seems to have gotten the hang of the matchup a little more this season. Maybe that’s him turning a corner in this matchup. Maybe it’s the byproduct of MWP playing himself into shape. But if The Durantula can’t be held down to a reasonable standard, the Lakers have big problem on their hands.
Kobe guarding Westbrook: How effective can 24 be in a matchup inevitable to take place? Yes, he did a phenomenal job against the kid in the double OT win, but at the same time, his work was made easier by Harden in the locker room nursing a concussion. Without the Bearded One alongside him, Westbrook is a less effective player, especially in crunchtime, which by extension makes him an easier cover. And even if Kobe’s up to the task (and he LOVES challenges like these), will it drain him from providing the necessary offense? Remember, he’ll checked all game by Thabo Sefsolosha and Harden, both quite capable of making him work. Not that Kobe doesn’t bust his butt in every series, but this one could really require some blood, sweat and tears.
Don’t leave Derek Fisher open in crucial moments.
Not that any Laker should require this memo, but still…
B: A few for the Lakers:
-Floor balance. In the same way the Lakers had to mind their shot selection against Denver, they have to do the same against OKC. Good shots in the rhythm of the offense, allowing non-shooters to get back on defense and stop transition.
-Intensity. They simply can’t afford any lulls, like those occurring against Denver. The Thunder are too good. If the Lakers aren’t engaged in every moment of the series, they’re not going to win. Given the mileage on their collective odometer, I do wonder if they have the stamina to grind through seven games against OKC in that style, but I don’t see the alternative.
-Hit open jumpers. The Thunder will likely steal a page from the George Karl playbook, and try first to take away the paint. Because Thabo Sefolosha (along with James Harden) give them a credible defender against Kobe, there isn’t a need to double him on the perimeter. That leaves them the option to sag another player down on Gasol or Bynum in the post. Guys like Metta World Peace and Ramon Sessions will get open looks, and they have to either attack the basket against them or shoot with confidence.
A few for the Thunder:
-Run, run, run. The Lakers aren’t a good transition team defensively, and OKC is very effective. Plus, the Lakers have just wrapped a long, intense series, and by Game 4 will have played a ton of games in a relatively short period. Run ’em, and test those Lakers legs. Even if it’s not effective early, the Thunder could see benefits as the series goes on by wearing the Lakers down early.
-Get to the line. The Thunder got to the line more per FGA than any team in the league this year. The Lakers were tops in keeping the opposition off the line, and did a great job of that against Denver. If OKC can crack that code, they’ll have a leg up against L.A.’s defense.
-Pressure Gasol. Pau’s value for the Lakers is more as a facilitator of the offense than a scorer (though they need that, for sure). When he’s able to survey a defense, Pau can pick them apart, sometimes playing more a point guard’s role than Sessions does. Crowd him, and force the ball from his hands.
A: I hate to say it, but Thunder in 5. I actually think it will be more legitimately competitive than a typical five game set, with some close games in the mix. And if the Lakers play continuously at the top of their game, maybe they can make this legitimately interesting. Perhaps even shocking. But I just feel like the Lakers’ margin for error is very small. At full strength, the Thunder have beaten up the Lakers. They’ve played like the better team all season, and I don’t expect that to change.
B: Thunder in six.
Anything else you want to say.
A: I’d love to be inside the heads of Kobe and Derek Fisher during any scattered possessions matched up against each other. Talk about your twisted psychology!
B: This one could be a lot of fun, but in the end, L.A.’s margin for error is just too small to win. Too many things have to go right.
PHOTO CREDITS: 1) Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images. 2) Mark J. Terrill/AP. 3) Stephen Dunn/Getty Images.