Lakers debate whether they can replicate same energy in Game 6 against Oklahoma City
The Lakers had heard all the chatter about how they no longer appeared to look like the superior team against Oklahoma City. They were too beat up, too old, too slow, too lazy and too disinterested to contend against the eighth-seeded Thunder, whose development quickly grew with each game in the first-round matchup.
Instead of letting that become the prewritten storyline, the Lakers changed the script in Game 5, charging out in front of a supportive crowd at Staples Center and imposing their will in a 111-87 victory Tuesday against Oklahoma City. They stormed out to an early lead and sustained it thanks to dominance in the paint, Kobe Bryant's suffocating defense on Russell Westbrook, Ron Artest's effectiveness on offense and an efficient contribution from Lamar Odom. How to explain the sudden contrast between Game 4 and 5?
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson wished it were part of his coaching motivation, but he found that tactic ineffective for the latter part of the season. Instead, the answer seemed rather simple.
Said Jackson: "It was just raw energy. That's all there it was to it."
That's why it should be interesting to see how everything plays out in Game 6 on Friday in Oklahoma City. The Lakers haven't secured a road win there all series and hadn't picked up a victory at Ford Center since Nov. 3 in a 101-98 overtime victory. And in all the games this series, the home crowd has surely made a difference, with the electricity at Ford Center overwhelming the Lakers during the Thunder's late-game rally in Game 3 as well as OKC's early dominance in Game 4. And the buzz around Staples Center in Game 5 seemed to lift the Lakers just when it appeared they were playing sluggishly.
This isn't a make-or-break game for the Lakers. Should they need it, the seventh and deciding game would take place Sunday at Staples Center. And history appears to be on the Lakers' side, with Jackson's teams going 44-0 after winning Game 1, the Lakers going 39-1 after winning the first two contests and the Lakers finishing 17-0 after winning Game 5 at home. Still, the Lakers would surely like to end this series sooner rather than later.
"We don't want to try to stretch this out," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said, "and give them another chance."
That sounds all well and good, but that just leads to more questions as to how the Lakers can duplicate the same energy in Game 5 when they have acknowledged that most of that drive sprang from a strong sense of urgency after allowing the Thunder to tie the series. I detailed earlier this month that the Lakers had struggled this season in capitalizing on signature wins. Surely the playoffs are a different animal since they feature the same opponent in a series and sometimes a team must grind out a win rather than worry about the team's development.
Nonetheless, each game in the Lakers-Thunder series has had distinguishable qualities. The Lakers secured Game 1 mostly because of building an early first-quarter lead, involving Bynum and Gasol inside and Artest locking down on Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant. They took Game 2 because of an early lead and then a resurgent Bryant in the fourth quarter. The Lakers lost Game 3 thanks to the Lakers' reserves allowing OKC to rally late in the third, the team's failure to get production inside and Bryant trying to play hero in the fourth quarter. Game 4 featured nothing positive from the Lakers, and Game 5 featured nothing positive from the Thunder.What will happen in Game 6? Who knows, but the Lakers know the necessary ingredients to put the series away.
"We have the tendency to think we're so good, but our backs were against the wall and we showed up," Bynum said of the Lakers' Game 5 performance. "I just think we have to take this energy and just start it from the beginning of games and we'll be all right. We won't have to wait until we're down by 15 or down by 10 to pick it up."
There are also questions about what type of adjustments the Thunder will make to counter the Lakers.
Bryant kept Westbrook to 15 points on only four of 13 shooting, a plan Jackson said he'd keep for Game 6. But he anticipates OKC will run more pick-and-rolls for Westbrook to counter Bryant's defense. And then there's the factor that Westbrook may not have foreseen going up against Bryant.
Said Bryant: "He was probably surprised."
The Thunder wasn't surprised with the Lakers' dominating inside presence in Game 5 led by Gasol (25 points) and Bynum (21). After all, the Lakers are 41-14 when both of them are in the lineup. That's why the Thunder spent much of Games 2, 3 and 4 collapsing in the lane anytime the Lakers had the ball as close to the free-throw line. But constant penetration through passing, not dribbling, made the difference for the big men's resurgence. Still, even with Gasol's playoff consistency (19.8 points on 56.1% shooting), Bynum is still gradually becoming better conditioned after missing the final 13 games of the regular season because of a strained left Achilles tendon.
Some factors may differ in Game 6 from the rest of the series. They include the team's free-throw trips (31 attempts in Game 5 compared with a combined 40 in Games 3 and 4), the ability to limit the Thunder in transition points (OKC recorded seven fastbreak points after recording 72 in the first four games) and Artest (scoring 14 points on six of 11 shooting after shooting 12 of 39 in the first four games). That's why Lakers guard Derek Fisher believes the outcome in Game 6 will go beyond just sustaining the same energy and effort.
"There's too many variables and too many things that change, game to game," Fisher said. "Friday night's game won't be about a lack of sense of urgency, focus or concentration or any of those things. It'll be a matter of what happens in the game."
-- Mark Medina
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