Lakers lack mental focus in 110-89 Game 4 loss to Thunder
The Lakers entered Game 4 pledging to work the ball inside more. But that doesn't mean the post remained exempt from rebounding the ball.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant entered Game 4 pledging to involve his teammates more on offense. But that doesn't mean abstaining from shooting the entire first quarter.
The Lakers entered Game 4 pledging to play much differently against Oklahoma City than it did in their Game 3 loss. But that doesn't mean tanking in the game right away instead of allowing the Thunder to rally from a poor start.
The Lakers' 110-89 loss Saturday to the Thunder not only tied the first-round series to 2-2 and extended the series at least to six games. It revealed that the Lakers are perfectly vulnerable to losing in the first round to Oklahoma City, a feat that would mark the first time an eighth seed would beat a No. 1 seed after trailing 2-0 in a best-of-seven first-round series. Surely, the Lakers can very well treat this like last season's semifinal against Houston where they tested whether talent alone can trump work ethic and attitude, while driving the sanity level of every Lakers fan through the roof. But with the Lakers matching up against a talented, speedy and workmanlike Thunder team, it's a formula that could lead to disastrous results.
Really, you could fast forward or rewind to any part of the game to highlight the Lakers' deficiencies. But there were several plays in the first quarter that continued to plague the Lakers all game long. And to think this took place just at the beginning of the game, when the outcome was still within reach.
On one possession, Lakers center Andrew Bynum received an entry pass from Lakers guard Derek Fisher, met a double team and missed an open layup. Neither Bynum nor Lakers forward Pau Gasol made an effort to grab the rebound, leading Oklahoma City foward Kevin Durant to lead the break, driving past Ron Artest by the perimeter and ending the play with a one-handed slam. The next play went like this: Bryant fed Gasol inside. Durant blocked his layup. Thunder forward Jeff Green led the break, fed an entry pass to center Nenad Krstic and then secured the loose ball after Bryant denied the pass. OKC guard Russell Westbrook reset the offense at the top of the key, ran off a screen Krstic set on Fisher and passed to an open Green on the far corner. His three-pointer rimmed out, but Krstic cleaned the glass over an apathetic and unattentive Gasol and Bynum and converted on the putback. And on the next play? Bryant led the offense down the floor and passed the ball to Artest on the far corner. But Durant swipedthe ball before quickly feeding it to Westbrook. He dumped the ball to Durant at the top of the key before finishing with another one-handed dunk.
The Lakers' execution problems continued throughout the quarter. On one play, Lakers forward Lamar Odom threw a pass outside to Artest, who drove the lane and missed a layup. Oklahoma reserve forward James Harden grabbed the rebound over Gasol. Though the Lakers stopped Harden from running the break, they didn't stop the Thunder from scoring. Green missed a layup, but essentially grabbed the rebound from Gasol while lying on the ground flat on his back. Westbrook reset the offense and then pulled up for an elbow 18-footer. Odom ended one possession with a missed 17-footer and followed on the other end by allowing Serge Ibaka to rebound a shot over his back for the tip in. With 21 seconds remaining, Jordan Farmar forced and missed a 19-footer and paid for it. After Harden grabbed the board over Artest, Westbrook drained a shot over Farmar just before time expired.
The Lakers trailed 29-17 at that point in what represented their worst quarter of the series so far. Consider the difference between the Lakers' first-quarter starts in the first three games compared to their start in Game 4, including points (26.7, 17), points allowed (17.7, 29), field-goal percentage (51.5%, 36.4%) and opponent field-goal percentage (30%, 52.6%). And unfortunately for the Lakers, that was only the beginning in what became such a disastrous game that the starters sat out for most of the fourth quarter after trailing 88-64.
There are those that will suggest this is proof that the Lakers worrying about establishing an inside game instead of allowing Bryant to run free serves as a misguided strategy. Bynum and Gasol each scored 13 points on five of 10 shooting and the team scored 44 points in the paint. But Bynum and Gasol proved more detrimental by allowing the Thunder to beat them to the boards 50-43, overall, and 13-10 on the offensive end.
Though it's good that Bryant made a concerted effort to get his teammates involved, that doesn't mean he should've remained absent from the offense the entire first quarter. This isn't a black or white issue where the suggestion that Bryant should not force so many shots means he should shoot zero shots. Yet, his first attempt didn't come until the 9:06 mark in the second quarter and he finished with only 12 points on five of 10 shooting.
The Lakers may lament Oklahoma City's ability to get to the free-throw line and its 42 of 48 finish from the stripe. But with the Lakers only converting on 17 of 28 free-throws, who knows what drawing trips to the line would have really done for them.
The Lakers may also struggle finding a solution from the Thunder converting on 24 fast-break points, a common problem they've handled for the entire season. But preventive measures such as better shot selection, grabbing rebounds and not having the entire starting lineup end up with negative plus-minus ratings should offset that.
There's many things you can conclude from this loss. You can argue the Lakers got one bad performance out of their system and that everyone should give credit to Oklahoma City for the effort it's giving. But that's really just masking the Lakers' poor effort. No, this isn't a lack of urgency issue. The Lakers have been trying since the last month. But with all those periods of neglect during the dog days in sharpening team chemistry, it's games like these that expose the Lakers' weakness in maintaining mental focus when things don't work out right away. The result leaves the Thunder hungrier, more determined and more confident it can beat the Lakers, which now have to go through Oklahoma City again in Game 6 to secure the series.
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Photo: Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha is about to take a rebound away from Lakers power forward Pau Gasol in the first half of Game 4 on Saturday night. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times