- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Something stunk even worse than the Lakers' play Saturday.
Kobe Bryant lit up a cigar that was far from the victory variety as he made his way from his postgame news conference to the team bus down an empty hallway at the Ford Center, walking with a slight limp as he chatted with Nike executive Lynn Merritt in between puffs.
It's a habit Bryant revealed in the first round of last postseason, smoking a stogie after a clunker in Utah before bouncing back with dominant games to close out the series, but as the thick smoke hung in the air it seemed to personify the cloud of doubt that suddenly hangs over the Los Angeles Lakers rather than a cleansing ritual.
The question on everyone's minds when the postseason started was whether the Los Angeles Lakers could put all the minor disappointments from the regular season behind them and emerge having accomplished their major goal, becoming the 2009-10 NBA champions.
After their 110-87 Game 4 loss to the Thunder on Saturday -- a beat-down that should be embarrassing to their team and troubling to their fans -- forget the Finals. The question now becomes: Will they even get out of the first round?
Lakers coach Phil Jackson called it a "pretty good meltdown," Derek Fisher called it a "good old-fashioned butt whooping" and Bryant said they were "busted up pretty well."
Everything that went wrong for the Lakers can be summed up in one play early in the second quarter with the Lakers down by 13, when Shannon Brown got a steal and raced down the court with a clear path to the hoop.
What would have been a sure jaw-dropping jam if this were the first half of the regular season -- back when Brown was building a slam-dunk contest campaign and the team was streamrolling inexperienced competition such as Oklahoma City -- became a comedy of errors when Brown, who has been playing with a painfully sprained right thumb on his dominant hand, lost the handle with little defensive pressure and turned the ball over.
Analyzing the play, wart by wart, reveals just how ugly things are for the defending champions right now as they head back to Los Angeles tied 2-2.
First of all, there was the scoring margin at the time. L.A. fell down by double digits midway through the first quarter when it said its goal coming into the game was to take the crowd out of it early by jumping out to a quick lead. Oklahoma City would go on to lead by an obscene 29 points before settling on the 21-point win.
Then, there's the fact it was a rare fast-break opportunity squandered by the Lakers. After L.A. was dominated in transition points through the first three games by a combined 48-15 margin, the Thunder outscored the Lakers by an even more ridiculous 24-2 in Game 4.
Also, Brown's thumb is a minor ailment compared to all the other injuries the Lakers are lugging around against the young and spry Thunder team. After the game, Bryant admitted his right knee is affecting his ability to drive to the hoop, and that's in addition to a fractured finger that's hurting his shooting stroke and an injured left ankle that's slowing down his lateral movement. Don't forget Lamar Odom's left shoulder or Ron Artest's left thumb and right index finger, either.
Plus, remember Brown is a bench player on a secondary unit that has been called out already this series by its coach and its supposed leader, Odom. The reserve group was futile once again, being outscored 43-35, even though it received ample playing time because four of the Lakers' five starters sat on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.
I guess the play could have been worse. Brown could have pulled up for an ill-advised 3-pointer like Artest did in the third quarter and the Lakers trailing by 19. Jackson said before the game that better shot selection was at the top of his list of things to improve and Artest went out and shot 0-for-4 from deep, dipping his total to 3-for-23 for the series, and the team followed suit, going 4-for-22.
If you were to make a list of everything the Lakers have going for them right now versus everything the Thunder have as their advantage with the best-of-seven series now coming down to a best-of-three, the only three facets of the game L.A. can legitimately claim in its favor are size, experience and home-court advantage. Oklahoma City's endless plusses read like a Rhodes Scholar's résumé, as they hold the edge in athleticism, intensity, defensive prowess, fast-break buckets, rebounding and the all-important, yet immeasurable quality of confidence right now.
What good is size if the Lakers spent two days working on feeding the post and seemingly forgot how to defend? What good is experience if your team doesn't seem as if it has learned any lessons through four games of the series? And what good is home-court advantage if the Thunder are so thoroughly outplaying the Lakers right now that a Game 7 at Staples Center seems only about as guaranteed as Artest's actually making a 3-point shot.
"We're playing good defense," Jackson offered before the game as the one positive thing he could point to about his team. But the first Lakers player to speak in the locker room after the game, Andrew Bynum, opened his comments by saying, "We didn't play any defense from the start."
On Friday, Bryant said the series had become a dogfight and he wouldn't be surprised if it went the distance, sounding like an aging boxer knowing he has no knockout punch left in his arsenal and hoping to make it through 12 rounds and win by decision.
On Saturday, Bryant was like the cornerman who throws in the towel when his boxer is being bludgeoned, leaving the bench midway through the fourth quarter and heading to the locker room to get a head start on his treatment, unable to watch the massacre anymore.
"Experience helps in all aspects of life," Odom said. "Sometimes you go through things like a car accident and you know what to do -- call the insurance company, get the car fixed -- so, we've been in this type of car accident before."
But in the past, they had a healthy Bryant as their safety belt, able to save them from the most grim of situations.
If the Lakers keep making the same mistakes and expect Bryant to bail them out when he just doesn't have it in him like he used to, their season will go down in flames.
The best thing that cigar of Bryant's can do is remind his teammates there's always smoke before fire.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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