Lakers may need to grind out wins to secure series against Oklahoma City
Former Lakers Coach Pat Riley often argued the playoffs didn't start until one of the teams stole a road game. That's either the most comforting or most delusional thought to tell Lakers fans now.
That's because Lakers are tied 2-2 with eighth-seeded Oklahoma City, and the latest loss didn't exactly go down to the wire. The Lakers lost 110-89 Saturday to the Thunder in a game that featured zero redeeming qualities from the defending champions. The fact that the Thunder has played pretty competitively with the Lakers isn't a huge surprise. OK, I did predict the Lakers would win the series in five, and that's obviously not going to happen. And I didn't expect any Oklahoma City wins to feature severe beatdowns. But because of the Thunder's youth and talent level and the Lakers' inconsistency, it's not at all surprising this series has become far more intriguing than your typical No. 1 versus No. 8 first-round matchup.
The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry makes a pretty strong case in explaining why the Thunder currently controls the series, with many of the items becoming a constant source of frustration for Lakers fans, including the OKC's athleticism, its defense, OKC guard Russell Westbrook, its free throws and its confidence. After reading the list, it really did get me wondering if the Lakers are capable of limiting those threats when they haven't been able to do so this series.
The Lakers may have home-court advantage, but that's a false luxury to have considering that their Game 1 and Game 2 victories didn't exactly come in convincing fashion. The Lakers' benefited mostly from a strong start in Game 1 and Ron Artest's strong defense on Kevin Durant, while the Thunder appeared sluggish and tight, perhaps because this was the team's first playoff game. But OKC made it competitive in the final three quarters. In Game 2, it took Lakers guard Kobe Bryant to go on a tear, scoring 15 fourth-quarter points to bail out the team, something he's done too many times this season.
At this point for the Lakers, it's not a matter of who controls the series and plays the best. The fact that the Lakers lack any long-term consistency and cohesiveness may bite them sooner or later. And the fact the team neglected on sharpening its play during the latter half of the season means there should be no sympathy given to the Lakers if they fall short in defending their title. But for the sake of simply advancing to the next round, the Lakers need to worry more about finding ways to grind out a win than in making it pretty.
That doesn't mean the Lakers shouldn't amp up their intensity in practice Monday and try to play their best basketball, beginning Tuesday in Game 5 at Staples Center. But let's face it. The Lakers have tried reworking their foundation and sharpening their play for the last month, and inconsistency still looms. In the regular season, I deemed it more important that the team actually shows marked improvement in all phases of their play rather than worrying about racking up wins. But the complete opposite approach is necessary in the postseason because wins are what dictates whether a team advances to the next round, not whether they put on an astounding performance.
If that means Bryant needs to bail out his team, let him fire away. Just make sure that happens if Bryant's shot is there and Durant isn't targeting him as a marked man. If that means the Lakers need to relentlessly feed the post, then let Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol do their thing inside. Just make sure Oklahoma City isn't denying penetration and constantly double-teaming the bigs. If that means the game hinges on Artest limiting Durant to the point that he gets himself in foul trouble down the stretch, so be it. Artest isn't an asset on offense anyway. If that means Lakers forward Lamar Odom needs to have another candy fix to find his energy, let him chomp on Skittles, M&Ms and the like. Just make sure his sugar high doesn't come crashing down.
The bottom line is the Lakers have too many problems, but not enough time to fix them. Grinding out wins doesn't suddenly erase the Lakers' long-term issues in later rounds in the postseason, but it'll at least prevent a first-round playoff exit.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Kobe Bryant, reacting after a call went against the Lakers in Game 1 against the Thunder, is playing through injuries that make it difficult for him to perform up to his All-Star standards. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times