Lakers are in it for the long haul
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The first three games of the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder's first-round series have been so close that if you break it down by the 12 quarters the teams have played, the Lakers have won five, the Thunder have won five and the other two were ties.
Even though Los Angeles is the No. 1-seeded team in the Western Conference facing off against No. 8 Oklahoma City, and only three times has a No. 8 toppled a No. 1, Kobe Bryant is expecting to play a lot more basketball against the Thunder this postseason.
"I'm not surprised at all [how close it's been]," Bryant said before the team's practice Friday at the Ford Center. "That's what they do."
When asked whether he hoped for a short series to rest his various injuries -- he missed nine games in the regular season -- before the start of the second round, the 14-year veteran said, "That's not going to happen.
"This is a dogfight," Bryant continued. "I'm not going to sit here and say the series is going to be over in five [games] or six [games]. We got a fight, man. We got a serious fight on our hands."
Bryant wasn't the first person on the team to say he thought the Thunder could push the Lakers to the brink. In his pregame comments before Game 1, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he would be trying to manage the amount of minutes his players stay on the floor against Oklahoma City because, "We're playing seven games in 13 days."
Whether Jackson was just aware of the schedule or wary of the prospect of a long series is unknown, but Bryant insisted the Lakers knew what they were getting themselves into.
"Right from the start, we knew it was going to be tough," Bryant said. "These kids ain't rolling over, they're here to play. They're here to win, and they have the talent to be able to do it."
Bryant's co-captain, starting point guard Derek Fisher, seemed surprised when he heard Bryant's thoughts on a long series.
"So all of the sudden it goes from four to seven, after one game?" Fisher asked. "That's how it works, is it?"
Fisher said the second-round series L.A. had against Utah in 2008 (it went six games, and the Jazz tied it 2-2 after the Lakers led 2-0) and against Houston in 2009 (it went seven games even though Yao Ming went out after Game 2 because of a foot injury) taught him not to expect a short series against any opponent.
"If you try to kind of predict and get locked into what you think it should be and what could have happened, that's how you allow one loss to turn into three or four losses because you get all bent out of shape because an NBA team beat you one time," Fisher said. "Duh, that's going to happen sometimes. It's those teams that have the ability to take that punch, recalibrate, figure things out, and then come back and punch them back, those are the champions.
"It used to be OK to win your home games and the team that had home-court advantage, as long as you won your four games at home, everybody was like, 'All right, cool.' But at some point in the last five or 10 years, it became like, you can win your home games and then lose a road game at some point -- in the playoffs -- against teams that have won 50-plus games and everybody is like, 'Oh my God, what's wrong?' So you just got to keep playing and keep believing that you're not going to be turned away from your goal just because you're met by some setbacks and adversity. You just keep chugging away."
The three times a No. 8-seeded team beat a No. 1 were when the Denver Nuggets beat the Seattle SuperSonics (3-2) in 1994, when the New York Knicks beat the Miami Heat (3-2) in 1999 and when the Golden State Warriors beat the Dallas Mavericks (4-2) in 2007. The Thunder can make up for their franchise's letdown in '94 with a win 16 years later, but Pau Gasol says that will happen only if the Lakers let it happen.
"I think a lot of it is on us," Gasol said. "We have the majority of the control in this series, but obviously, they're a talented, competitive team and they're going to do their best to make sure they give themselves a better chance to stay in the series and even win it if we allow them to. To me, it's just a matter of us allowing them to do what they want to do, instead of us imposing our will."
The inside men
It requires simple math to figure out the one adjustment the Lakers can make between Game 3 and Game 4 to give themselves a better chance of winning. On Thursday, they took 31 3-pointers as a team and made 10 (32.3 percent) and their starting frontcourt of Gasol and Andrew Bynum took 21 shots and made 13 (61.9 percent).
So, what's the game plan for Saturday? More paint, less perimeter.
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The Thunder perimeter players are sagging off the Lakers on the wings, conceding a long shot if it can thwart a look inside. Russell Westbrook is playing a rover between the basket and the foul line extended, making it difficult for Gasol and Bynum to play their high-low game from those spots. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City big men are fronting the Lakers on the blocks, preventing direct passes into the post. If all that weren't effective enough already, Nick Collison has drawn five charges through the first three games, stopping L.A. from using penetration to create dump-off opportunities for its big men.
"You mix up your game, you can still penetrate, swing the ball and attack," Bryant assured. "We know how to handle that."
Bryant said the issue is getting Bynum and Gasol in proper position early in the shot clock before the offense gets "mucked up" and the Lakers "wind up taking bail-out shots and crashing to the rim and Collison is in there taking charges."
Jackson says he believes the responsibility falls on the perimeter players, not the guys in the post.
"I think we have to have willing passers," Jackson said. "I think some of our passers are afraid to make the plays, and that has something to do with the length of their team and their quickness."
Gasol said it comes down to realizing the importance of taking advantage of the opportunity down low.
"We have to make sure we understand that we have to do what it takes to get the ball in there," Gasol said. "We have two guys that are very effective inside that can make plays and force fouls and create that penetration and create that inside-out game, so, you have to consistently try to go to that. Consciously try to get the ball there and try to develop.
"We need to shoot a good percentage, shoot more shots in the paint than outside the paint."
If you're keeping score at home, that was Bryant blaming the big guys, Jackson blaming the passers and Gasol blaming the shooters. Bynum threw everybody under his blame umbrella.
"The whole offense, the offense as a whole, we need to work together, and we're not doing that," Bynum said. "Sometimes we just throw it to one person, let them go to work and everybody just gets into that instead of moving the ball around, swinging it from one side to the other when it's going to be wide open on the backside."
Why a 2-0 lead is good and bad
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the past five playoff series the Lakers led 2-0, L.A. lost Game 3 but went on to win the series. It happened to the Lakers last season in the Finals against Orlando and in the first round against Utah.
After dropping a close Game 3 against the Jazz, in a game when Bryant shot particularly poorly, Bryant smoked a cigar to rid himself of the "stench" of the loss. The Lakers went on to win Game 4 by 14 points, and Bryant had 38 points on 16-for-24 shooting.
Bryant planned to do the same this year with a friend.
"I got a couple in my room," Bryant said. "Me and Elvis [Presley] will smoke one together."
The Lakers are staying at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City, which allegedly is haunted. Bryant said he believed in the supernatural presence in the place.
"Well, yeah, I mean, I had a good conversation with Elvis last night," Bryant said. "So yeah, I do believe."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.