Lakers bring playoff intensity in 87-79 Game 1 victory over Oklahoma City but lack consistent execution
All week long, the Lakers shifted their mindset toward holding a playoff mentality.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson held longer and more physically demanding practices, and arrived at Staples Center on Sunday wearing his 2009 championship ring, a custom he follows during the postseason that involves wearing the ring of the last championship he's won. Lakers guard Derek Fisher held a team meeting Thursday evening and stressed for the team to stay unified during the team's playoff run. The team went out to dinner Friday night to lighten the mood, with Lakers forward Pau Gasol collecting the tab just like he did prior to last season's playoffs. And Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Lakers center Andrew Bynum practiced for the first time this week after Bryant missed four of the last five games and Bynum sat out the past 13 games to ensure better health for the playoffs.
With the anticipation rising and the team's mindset changing, Lakers forward Lamar Odom tossed and turned throughout the wee hours Sunday morning. He went to bed as early as 11 p.m. the previous night, but visions of the Lakers' playoff run kept dancing in his head, so much that he woke up at 6 a.m. before eventually getting up at 7:30 a.m. Odom laid on his bed envisioning great things, even if the Lakers entered the postseason losing eight of their last 12 games and maintained they couldn't suddenly turn on that playoff switch.
The electric Staples Center crowd and the message displayed during player introductions seemed to confirm what Odom had earlier envisioned. While Lawrence Tanter ticked off the starting lineup, a message across the Lakers' highlight reel read this. "Our time to inspire. Our time for strength, for trust, for sacrifice. To make history it's time to defend."
Said Odom: "We've been ready for today's game since October."
The Lakers' 87-79 Game 1 victory Sunday over the Oklahoma City Thunder in their first-round matchup initially appeared the team answered that question on whether they are on their way to reaching that goal in winning the franchise's 16th NBA championship. The team's experience and sharper effort proved to be the difference in the first quarter against an inexperienced Thunder team that initially played tentative and tight. The Lakers ended the first-quarter with a 22-13 lead that featured the elements that make the Lakers so dangerous with balance and strong communication on defense. The Lakers' play quickly changed, however, with the Thunder creeping to within single digits multiple times throughout the game, a lead that didn't become completely secure until the bench reserves kept the lead intact in the early fourth quarter.
The Lakers' outcome never really appeared in question and they never lost their lead, but the performance raised questions on how consistently the Lakers can maintain their level of play.
"We eked the game out," Jackson said.
The Lakers' effort never seemed to be in question. Instead, the Lakers' performance featured a mixed bag in various departments that made it difficult to decipher really what to make of the game beyond the fact the Lakers own a 1-0 lead. It at least provided comfort for the fans that Jackson has a 44-0 mark when his teams win Game 1 of a playoff series.
"We could’ve definitely played a lot better," Bryant said. "At this stage, you really just have to win games. It doesn’t matter how we win them. We obviously have to do much better and we will do better. But still it’s better to squeak one out."
Below are the highlights of the good and the bad (after the jump)
Bryant's poor shooting
Bryant appeared two hours to the game to work on his shooting, a custom he had frequently followed this season whenever he went through a shooting slump. He believed more repetition and continuous tinkering with the splint on his fractured right index finger could provide the necessary ingredient to end the funk.
The circumstances this time were much different. Though he had shot 21 of 70 in the last three games he played, he had sat out the last two contests of the regular season to rest the assorted amount of injuries, including his fractured right index finger, sprained left ankle and sore right knee. But Bryant soon found out the practice wouldn't pay off, scoring a team-high 21 points on six of 19 shooting and a seven of 12 effort from the free-throw line.
"I think it’s a rhythm problem," Jackson said. "I think it's a lack of playing in the last month or so. I think it'll come through."
Bryant pointed to his fractured index finger worsening and arguing that it has given him "less margin for error." But there was another factor that pointed to the poor shooting numbers. Bryant tried directing the offense and hit the open man, but Ron Artest (seven points on three of 11 shooting) and Derek Fisher (11 points on four of 12 shooting) didn't make shots. That often propelled him to create his own shot with varying degrees of success.
"He made plays," Jackson said. "I like the fact that he made plays. He made things happen."
Ron Artest's defense on Kevin Durant
This matchup seemed the most intriguing entering the series for several reasons. Jackson had suggested earlier in the week that Durant, the league's leader in points (30.1) and free-throw attempts per game (10.2), benefitted from officiating calls. It also served as an opportunity for Artest to justify why the Lakers signed him to a five-year deal worth $33 million.
Artest held Durant to 24 points on seven of 24 shooting, a performance that isn't typical but one that allowed him to showcase his worth on a big stage. In fact, Artest has provided plenty of these performances. After battling inconsistency partly because of his plantar fasciitis, Artest has held several marquee players under their season averages this season, including Pacers forward Danny Granger, Denver's Carmelo Anthony, Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, Dallas' Shawn Marion, Memphis' Rudy Gay, Boston's Paul Pierce and Golden State's Corey Maggette. And in the Lakers' 3-1 season series against Oklahoma City, Artest held Durant to an average of 25.8 points per contest, his fourth-lowest total against any opponent.
"If somebody else did that, they’d be happy," Artest said. "But I've been guarding the best player my whole career."
The performance didn't come without its challenges with Artest collecting five personal fouls. But the defensive intensity extended to the rest of the team, where it maintained strong discipline during half-court sets in switching on help D and constantly communicating with each other.
"If you don’t notice what Ron does on the court, you don’t know basketball," Odom said. "We’ve seen him at Houston [last year]. They took us to seven games."
Andrew Bynum's strong return
There were plenty of signs that suggested Bynum could successfully phase back into the lineup. He reported no pain during the past two days of practice and he believed he had the endurance level to withstand his own once he stepped on the court. Yet, even with Jackson expressing encouragement immediately after those practices, he only hoped Bynum could last 24 minutes against the Thunder. He lasted much longer than that, playing 30 minutes, posting 13 points and even getting in a tussle with Jeff Green, an incident Jackson said was justified and an incident Bryant claimed not to remember.
"Conditioning for me, especially in the first quarter, was tough just coming back," Bynum said. "But I think it's going to get better."
Catching up to speed after a major injury had long been a challenge for Bynum. But not this time, with Bryant concluding Bynum's quick adjustment was rooted in the fact that he wasn't "second guessing," and allowing the psychological component that comes with having an injury affect his play. The Lakers certainly understand the value of that. Bynum and Lakers forward Pau Gasol scored on average 62% of the team's points in the three games leading up to Bynum's injury. The Lakers are also 39-12 whenever Gasol and Bynum are both in the lineup, with the two combining Sunday for 22 points on 13 of 24 shooting.
"He wasn’t compensating," Bryant said. "He was running and he was running well. He wasn’t favoring one side or the other. He was sprinting and jumping. He wasn’t thinking about it or second guessing exploding to the basket and what might happen. He was just playing."
Lakers' poor transition defense
The Lakers long knew the Thunder's speed and youth could prove wonders in the open court. But the Lakers did very little to counteract that speed with Russell Westbrook burning the Lakers' D, particularly Derek Fisher, with 23 points and the Thunder scoring 14 points in transition. Bryant admitted a few lapses, Gasol also acknowledged a few mistakes, such as when Jackson berated him in the second quarter for not getting back while protesting with the referees and the Lakers failed to mark on rotations.
"Have a little bit of a cushion," Bryant offered as a solution when I asked him how the team can limit the Thunder's transition opportunities moving forward. "They’re really fast. They all run like deers. To get a step on us, I’m not catching Westbrook. You have to have a couple steps on them."
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Photo: Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant shields the ball from the reach of Lakers forward Ron Artest during a drive in Sunday's game. Credit: Wally Skalij/ Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant throws down a dunk against Oklahoma City in the first half Sunday. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum throws down a dunk over Thunder center Nenad Krstic during Game 1 of their Western Conference playoff series on Sunday. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times