Match Review: Los Angeles Lakers vs Oklahoma City Thunder
Well, the pundits, while drawing up their prediction and expectations from the 2012-13 season, had circled the match against the Thunder and the Lakers as a very special and important match. The Lakers, with their off-season additions, were expected to be the trend-setters in the West and many savants believed that showtime had truly returned back to the city of Los Angeles.
6 weeks into the season, and the story seems to have migrated very far from its dream script. The Lakers have had to play under three different coaches, endure a tedious series where they had their two stars in Gasol and Nash side-lined due to injuries. Suddenly, there were no more smiles around the Lakers squad, and rumors about a grumpy Kobe and altercations between Superman and Bryant started running the rounds. The hype and expectations were at brobdingnagian levels, and if the city of Los Angeles was famed for cherishing its heroes for their foils, they were more than ready to castigate them for their follies.
The last match might have been a rare bright spark for the Lakers as they notched up only their second road-win of the season. Kobe got to 30,000 points and the Lakers beat the inexperienced Hornets comprehensively. However, the humbling loss against the Rockets, when they let the opposition overturn a 12 point deficit to win the game, is still pretty fresh in their minds. The defense isn’t working well enough despite the team boasting of the likes of Howard, MWP and Bryant. They are shooting a dismal percentage from the Free Throw line and with the hack-a-Dwight proving to be a sure winning strategy; teams have been able to cut down on the clutch shooting of Bryant, by forcing Howard to shoot Free Throws deep into the 4th quarter. The disappointments were there, the disgruntlement was apparent and there was not much of a happy feeling in the camp. The Thunder couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Lakers.
The team from Oklahoma is on a dream run of form, winning their last six games en route to scripting a 15-4 record in the league. The departure of James Harden was expected to hurt the Thunder, but the team seems to have fared better without the reigning NBA 6th man of the year. Harden’s loss left a huge void which was seen by many to be a major challenge for the Thunder, but it also opened up a window for the players like Westbrook, Kevin Martin and Eric Maynor to take on the responsibility and expand their repertoire even further. And the trio did deliver, especially Westbrook, who is having the best season of his career so far. Westbrook may be often castigated as a ball-hogger and a player who tries to do too much on his own, but this season he has showcased the desire and ability to share the ball and create plays, averaging over 8 dimes a game. 7th in the league in assists and 5th in scoring, the supremely talented guard is truly earning his stripes this season. The Thunder is leading the league in points, Field Goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. With such a rich vein of form, the Thunder was expected to easily dispatch the injury-ridden Laker outfit.
The match started with the Thunder winning the tip, and even before the Lakers could settle into the defensive set Westbrook had already scored on a three off the dribble. Duhon looked perplexed and the shot set the tone for what proved to be a truly spectacular performance. Westbrook was pretty much the story of the first quarter, torching Duhon and the Lakers with 4 three pointers as well as a defiant throw-down at the rim. His best plays included a 4-point opportunity against Duhon and the buzzer beating three to close the first quarter. With Durant shooting only a single shot in the first quarter, Westbrook was the Thunder’s go-to guy as he scored off almost everything he put up, finishing with 17 points for the quarter. For the Lakers, the only bright spark was the play of Howard who grabbed up 10 rebounds in the first quarter itself and showed a desire to post-up on Perkins and create plays for his teammates. He created many open three point shots for the Lakers as well as hand-off many passes to the baseline cutters in MWP and Duhon. Jamison also had a pretty efficient start to the game scoring 6 points and making some very intelligent cuts to the rim. Most importantly he was stretching the floor and keeping Ibaka away from the paint, thus opening up the lane for the Lakers. The Lakers had a pretty good first quarter, getting to the paint and feeding off Howard. The tempo was to D’Antoni’s liking and the Lakers managed to push the ball, space the floor and get some easy buckets. The turnovers and the transition defense were still woeful but somehow the Lakers managed to hold on to a one-point lead by the end of the first quarter.
If D’Antoni saw some positives in the first quarter, then the second and the third quarter was nothing but a pure frustrating 24 minutes for D’Antoni. The passing and floor spacing was nowhere to be seen, as the Lakers conceded several turnovers and with Duhon and Morris struggling with their playmaking duties, the offense seemed to have lost all direction. The players seemed confused on the court, specially the second string who struggled to create a shot for themselves and were craving for Bryant to come up and relieve them of the misery. On the other end, Collison was doing what he does best, as his blue-collared high energy brand of basketball killed the Lakers. He finished the game with 13 points and 7 rebounds in 16 minutes, but his most crucial contribution was in the 4 charges he drew as well as the numerous off-ball screens he set for Durant. Durant was the major benefiter as he scored 14 points in the 2nd quarter and had a very efficient game with 36 points on 10-19 shooting as well as shooting 14-16 from the free throw line.
The major problem behind the Lakers demise was their abysmal defensive intensity. The problems with transition defense was clearly evident, and with the Lakers conceding 17 turnovers, the Thunder were quick to capitalize with the fast break points or to score off a semi-transition three pointer. Overall, the Thunder shot an astounding 48% from the field and 52% from beyond the arc. The Thunder had piled on 67 points by half-time and at one point led the Lakers by 19 points. The Lakers didn’t close out on the Thunder quick enough, and were always found waiting on their energy and intensity in transition situations. MWP struggled in the game and wasn’t able to do a good enough job on Durant as he went on a scoring spree. Not surprisingly, D’Antoni chose to close the game out with Kobe playing the SF and guarding Durant.
A major share of the criticism also needs to be levied on Coach Mike D’Antoni, whose management of the minutes and player rotations was horrendous to say the least. Duhon was struggling with his defensive assignments and with Westbrook playing the way he did, D’Antoni would have been better advised to allow someone like Morris a longer run in the first two quarters. Morris is a much better defensive player, and a far more attack-minded guard, someone who would have forced Westbrook to take harder shots and also made him work on the defensive end of the floor. I am not saying that Morris is some offensive wizard, but he does like to get into some pick-and-roll situations and this would have benefited the Lakers far more than the erratic shooting ability of Duhon. Duhon was a no-presence on the offensive end, and virtually left Westbrook with almost nothing to do on the defensive end of the floor. As a result, he remained fresh and finished with 33 points while playing 41 minutes. Further on, with MWP struggling against Durant, D’Antoni could have given Ebanks a longer run. In their last play-off encounter against the Thunder, Ebanks had proved to be the Lakers best defensive weapon against Durant, and D’Antoni could have flirted with that history and experience of Ebanks. Ebanks only got 9 minutes in the whole game, and with MWP lacking the foot speed to keep up with Durant, he conveniently shot his way to 36 points.
Maybe the only bright spark for the Lakers was the performance of their leader Kobe Bryant. Bryant was matched up against the supreme defensive player in Sefolosha, and struggled for major portions of the first half. Sefolosha denied Bryant any easy mid-range post-up opportunity and with their leader struggling, the Lakers seemed headed for a blow-out. However, the black mamba would persevere, scoring many a signature impossible shots in a virtuoso performance for the Lakers. Bryant had a very impressive game, amassing 35 points on 11-24 shooting while also handing out 7 assists. Kobe was made to work for every single thing, and had to score off many an impossible looking shots. He shot threes over double-teams, forced off-balanced fade-aways and made quite a few of them. Bryant tried to create and hand off dimes, but with the team having a bad shooting night he was forced to take on matters into his own hands.
Howard also ended with 23 points and with Bryant led an improbable Laker come-back. With 40.5 seconds left in the game, Duhon hit a clutch three to cut the lead down to just five points. And it was after that Mike D’Antoni took over the Lakers, snuffing out any chance of a shock come from behind win. The Lakers allowed Westbrook to leisurely dribble the ball for 20 seconds before fouling him. They didn’t try to force a steal or put any pressure on him. They could have fouled Perkins but they choose to foul the Thunder’s best free throw shooter. Westbrook made both his shots, and with 20.7 seconds left D’Antoni called a timeout. Off the timeout, D’Antoni called a great play that led to a corner three by Bryant. Mr. Clutch did it again, and the possibility of a comeback loomed large. On the next in-bound play, the Lakers fouled Durant, who made both his free-throws. The clock read 12.7 seconds, as D’Antoni called another time-out. The whole arena knew who would have the ball, when D’Antoni would choose to step up with a counter move, a fake punch by drawing up a play for Meeks. You have the greatest clutch shooter of the last decade and draw up a play that doesn’t get him involved. As a Laker fan, this infuriates me because even though Meeks may have made got you 6 points in the 4th quarter and scored 17 points, still you never give up the luxury of having a Kobe Bryant. Meeks rose up and ended up shooting an air-ball, pretty much summing up the Lakers campaign so far.
The Thunder were more than happy at the comfortable win, relieved that Kobe didn’t do his thing or rather wasn’t allowed to. They notched up a 7th consecutive win and the expectation from the franchise is steadily rising. The Lakers on the other hand are struggling to get the bad taste out of their system, and the disappointments and disgruntlements are apparent. They might still be betting on the comebacks of a Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, but neither of the two can do much to solve the Lakers biggest nemesis: – Transition defense. Some problems may be resolved when the duo does come back, but Mike D’Antoni has a real job on his hands if he wishes to turn this insuperable congregation into legitimate title contenders.