Lakers have strong record in close-out games
But really, the Lakers should get it over with, for several reasons. Although the Lakers are healthier than they were toward the end of the season, Kobe Bryant (finger, left ankle, right knee), Andrew Bynum (right knee), Lamar Odom (right knee, left shoulder) and Ron Artest (left shoulder, left thumb) will never turn down recovery time. It'll also prevent possible injuries with an extended series. And it would give the Lakers extra time to look ahead at the Suns.
Fortunately for the Lakers, they've had a strong record in closeout games. They went 4-1 during last year's title run. Though Oklahoma City gave the Lakers trouble in the first round, they eliminated them in their first close-out opportunity with a 95-94 Game 6 victory. With the Lakers playing Game 4 tonight against the Jazz, the Lakers have a clear blueprint that will close out the series.
Putting the game away early
All but one of the closeout games last season featured the Lakers deciding the game early. The only exception entailed a 95-80 Game 6 loss to the Houston Rockets in the West semifinals, after allowing Houston to storm out to a 17-1 lead and missing their first eight shots of the game.
The Lakers pulled a role reversal in the other contests. Perhaps capturing the Lakers' complacency against Houston all too well, the Lakers responded to their Game 6 loss with an imposing 89-70 Game 7 and series-clinching win over Houston. The Lakers never trailed, Houston missed its first 12 shots and before you knew it, the Lakers' leads ballooned from 10 in the first quarter to 20 by halftime to as many as 31 in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers only needed one attempt to close out their playoff series last year again Utah, Denver and Orlando. But they followed a similar formula. In the Lakers' 119-92 Game 6 victory over Denver, the Lakers closed the first half with a 53-40 lead, thanks to a 12-3 run that featured Kobe Bryant scoring seven of those points. The Lakers' fate never appeared in doubt, with their shooting (57.3%) and 24 made free-throws largely dictating the tone the entire game.
The same thing happened in the Lakers' Game 5 99-86 title clinching victory over the Orlando Magic. They went on a 16-0 run in the second half, where Trevor Ariza scored seven points and Derek Fisher had five in a span of four minutes and 25 seconds. The Magic managed to cut the Lakers' lead to five in the third quarter, but Lamar Odom made two consecutive three-pointers to put the game out of reach.
Even if their 95-94 Game 6 victory over Oklahoma City this season didn't feature the same dominance, the Lakers still featured key contributions. It appeared the Lakers would go to Game 7 when Bryant's 13-footer from the wing hit the rim and bounced to the right side. But Lakers forward Pau Gasol's putback with five-tenths of a second remaining clinched the Lakers' victory.
Various players made key plays in the final minutes to ensure the Lakers' victory. After Kevin Durant's layup gave the Thunder a 94-91 lead with 2:30 remaining -- Oklahoma City's largest lead of the night -- Gasol set a high screen on Durant, Bryant drove to the far corner and made a pull-up jumper, cutting the gap to 94-93 with 2:11 left in the game. On the next possession, Odom blocked Nick Collison's putback, a play that marked Odom's third block of the game and stopped the Thunder from answering. Two possessions later, Odom grabbed the rebound off Westbrook's missed three-pointer, keeping the Lakers within striking distance, trailing 94-93 with just a minute remaining in the contest.
In the Lakers' blowouts in close-out games, those contributions came from everyone. The Lakers' closeout win over Utah last year featured Bryant (31 points) and Odom (26 points and 15 rebounds). The Lakers' series-clinching victory over Houston showcased balance with Gasol (21 points, 18 rebounds), Ariza (15 points), Andrew Bynum (14 points) and Bryant (14 points) leading the charge. The Lakers' dominance over Denver included more of the same with Bryant (35 points, 10 assists) leading the way along with a three-tiered effort from Gasol (20 points, 12 rebounds), Odom (20 points, eight rebounds) and Luke Walton (10 points, three assists). And the Lakers' championship clinching win showcased Bryant's dominance (30 points, six rebounds and five assists) and the frontline's assistance, with Gasol and Odom combining for 31 points and 25 rebounds.
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Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom has his shot in the lane blocked by Utah forward Paul Millsap in Game 3 on Saturday night. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.Photo: Utah guard C.J. Miles fouls Lakers power forward Pau Gasol on shot attempt in Game 3 on Saturday night. Gasol would finish with a workmanlike 14 points and 17 rebounds. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17) gives a leaping bump to power forward Pau Gasol as they celebrate taking a 95-94 lead after Gasol's put back of a Kobe Bryant miss with less than a second to play Friday night in Oklahoma City. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times