Defense was the constant for Lakers
Though L.A. had moments of doubt, it knew what it would take to win the series
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The first leg of the Los Angeles Lakers' championship defense was accomplished with defense.
The Lakers were able to thump out the Thunder in six grueling games not by the baskets they scored, but by the potential baskets they prevented.
In the Lakers' thrilling 95-94 win Friday to close out the series and earn a date with the Utah Jazz to begin the second round Sunday at Staples Center, Los Angeles held Oklahoma City to a paltry 36.5 percent shooting from the field and handcuffed Thunder star Kevin Durant -- the youngest player in NBA history to win the scoring title -- to 26 points on 5-for-23 shooting (21.7 percent).
"Defensively, we feel like we're extremely solid," Lakers star Kobe Bryant said. "We went against a team, they had some stallions over there, man. They really do. They just get up and down the floor and they're very unique in that way. We won't see another team that athletic the rest of the way. All in all, I think our defense is solid."
Bryant, who struggled with knee, ankle and finger injuries that limited his offensive output all series long, came through in Game 6 with 32 points on 12-for-25 shooting -- hitting 9 of his last 12 shots -- and tied Lakers legend Elgin Baylor for the most consecutive 30-point games in potential closeout games on the road (with six), passing Michael Jordan, who had five from 1988-90.
But as masterful as Bryant was on offense Friday, it was his decision to guard Russell Westbrook before Game 5 that turned the series around, and it was a rebound by L.A.'s Pau Gasol, who cleaned up Bryant's potential game winner with a half-second left that clinched it for the Lakers.
Defense and rebounding.
After a 39-point loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, the only analysis worth remembering that a near-catatonic Bryant would offer to reporters was if you want to take home the hardware, you have to get stops and you have to get rebounds.
Bryant took the lesson he learned from the suffocating defensive schemes of Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau with him to the Beijing Olympics later that summer, unofficially adopting the title as the modern-day minister of defense for Team USA, once grinding a simple drill in a U.S. practice to a halt by repeatedly poking the ball away from O.J. Mayo before Mayo could make the pass required to initiate the exercise.
"Defensively, they present a lot of problems," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after witnessing his team rendered completely inept in its half-court offense. Oklahoma City had seven 24-second violations in the six-game series because the Lakers' defense was so suffocating that, at times, it wouldn't even allow the Thunder to get a shot off.
"I've said it many times in this series, you talk about the triangle and you talk about the greatness of Kobe Bryant, but the team, their defense, it bothers you," Brooks continued. "At times it becomes intimidating because you get by your man and you have a couple of 7-footers that are protecting the basket, and they're very good at protecting the paint."
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As much as Bryant's defense on Westbrook changed the series -- Westbrook averaged 21.8 points on 55.2 percent shooting in Games 1-4 and only 18 points on 33.3 percent in Games 5-6 with Bryant guarding him -- it was Ron Artest's vigilant harassing of Durant that never let the Thunder find their comfort zone.
Artest was asked why the Lakers had such tremendous success with Durant, holding him to 25 points on 35 percent shooting in the series when he averaged 30.1 points on 47.6 percent shooting in the regular season.
"I guess you're looking at him," Artest said with a smile.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said the hope going into the series was to hold two of the Thunder's four main scorers -- Durant, Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Harden -- in check. The Lakers ended up going 4-for-4 after they made the adjustment on Westbrook. For the series, Oklahoma City shot 39.1 percent.
The other goal was to limit the Thunder's transition opportunities, and after being outscored 72-17 through the first four games in fast-break situations, the margin was a much more manageable 20-12 deficit in the final two games once the Lakers made it a priority to get back on defense.
And then there's the rebounding.
In every game, the team that won the battle of the boards won the game.
The Thunder and Lakers were tied 42-42 on the glass when Gasol got his tip-in with 0.5 second left in Game 6, giving the Lakers the rebounding margin and the winning basket.
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"Pau didn't quit on the play," Bryant said of Gasol, who had 18 rebounds Friday. "He just kept playing. He's done that numerous times, even in the playoffs last year on big possessions. I've missed a couple shots and he's right there to follow it up. Obviously, it saved the game for us."
And defense saved the series.
With Andrew Bynum returning to the lineup after an injury layoff, Bryant fighting through injuries, Lamar Odom going "MIA" (according to Jackson), Artest not being able to hit a shot to save his life (finishing 6-for-32 on 3-pointers) and the Lakers' bench being mostly absent until surprisingly outscoring the Thunder's reserves 30-16 in Game 6, defense was the constant.
"I think it just gave us a chance," Gasol said.
That's all you can ask for. Survive and advance, defend to defend your championship.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Information from Alvin Anol from ESPN Stats & Research and the Elias Sports Bureau contributed to this report.