It's not easy being Green, but hopefully, it's starting to get a little easier.
Kevin Durant guarding Kobe Bryant. Russell Westbrook in transition. James Harden's electric game 3 performance. Even reserve center Serge Ibaka (seven blocks in game two). Every member of the Thunder's young core has found a way to put a stamp on their maiden foray into the playoffs.
Except power forward Jeff Green.
Green entered game four shooting 29 percent from the field. According to Elias, that meant owning the sixth lowest field goal percentage of anybody in the playoffs with 15 or more field goal attempts.
Oddly enough, teammate Thabo Sefolosha (.250) ranked lower by the same measurement than Green, but the Swiss swingman is used more of a defensive stopper than source of scoring.
We miss him quite a bit, quite frankly," said Scott Brooks before the game. "Throughout the series, he's been open. Russell (Westbrook) and myself have to do a better job of finding him opportunities to get the ball in his hands. I believe in Jeff and he's helped us get to this point. We just have to do a better job of getting him opportunities to help us offensively.
Over the first half, Green did little to ease his coach's concern. The opportunities clearly presented themselves, but the results weren't much different. Despite leading the team with eleven field goal attempts and four tries from behind the line, he wrapped up 21:22 worth of run with just five points on a pair of made baskets. Save a terrific play where, while lying on his back along the baseline, he saved a loose ball from going out of bounds off a teammate and created a new possession converted into two OKC points, everything before intermission appeared to be another non-factor game in the works.
Looks can be deceiving.
While Green's second half didn't constitute a true breakout, it was better. Green added 10 points on three-of-five shooting from the floor and went to the line four times. Two of his points came after missing badly on a three-pointer, but beat every flatfooted Laker to nab the offensive rebound, which he converted into a layup. Charges were drawn against Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol.
"I stuck with it," nodded Green. "I continued to be aggressive and continued to attack the rim. I didn't get the calls in the first half, but I stayed with it and my shot began to fall."
In the end, as long as Green plays in a way he deems acceptable, he can live with the shots being stubborn about dropping. When his appearance was described as unconcerned, he confirmed body language as fact.
"Yeah, man," smiled the Georgetown product. "I just gotta let the shots fall the way they may. I'm still confident in my shots. If they go in, they go in. If they don't, they don't. There's always another shot that's gonna come. But I gotta keep attacking. I gotta keep being aggressive. I can't get down on myself because my shots are not falling."
Thunder don't need any charity at the stripe
For a team comprised of youngsters, the Thunder shoot free throws like a crew of graybeard veterans. Oklahoma City has continually displayed an ability to draw fouls, their latest victory a prime example, but their aggressiveness would only amount to so much without the ability to convert. However, the eight-seed upstarts, who ranked second in the league last season with an 80.5 percent clip as a team, made good on Saturday's bountiful charity stripe trips.
The Thunder went to the line 48 times, a total one might describe as jaw dropping (especially if you're a Laker fan). But their use of the opportunity was arguably even more impressive. 42 of their free throws were converted, Kevin Durant the only OKC player who missed more than once (nine-for-11). Of course, Durant will probably be forgiven for his slacker performance, considering his 90 percent mark on the regular season and TK in the playoffs.
During the playoffs, they've raised their team percentage to 82.5 percent.
By comparison, the Lakers, a veteran team whose core players have been to the NBA finals anywhere from two and six times, made a miserable 60.7 percent of their free throws. Save D.J. Mbenga (who shot only one in all), nobody from L.A. managed to go without a miss.
Protect the paint
When the opening round series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder began, conventional wisdom stated the defending champion's front court tandem of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom would dominate each game and prove too overwhelming for the eight-seed's smaller bigs. The first three games have demonstrated why games are neither played on paper nor left purely to conventional wisdom to decide a winner.
The Lakers have become more perimeter-oriented than expected (31 three-pointers in Game 3 alone) while experiencing trouble getting the ball inside. As a result, Odom has been invisible throughout the series, Bynum's impact has decreased since an explosive game one, and Gasol has remained consistently effective, but increasingly underutilized.
The Thunder entered the series with a goal protecting the paint.
"We're just trying to prevent the bigs from getting the ball," said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks before Saturday's game.
"That's one of the strengths they have as a team. They're skilled. Gasol's as good a passer as anybody. Bynum's as strong and as forceful as anybody down there. We just try to limit their touches. That offense is well designed and it has a good flow to it if you let them play with freedom. We want to have good ball pressure and we want to keep their bigs from getting the ball where they can do damage.
We want to just make them make tough jump shots. If we can keep them out of the paint, keep them off the free throw line and keep them from having a big three point shooting night and make them make tough two's, we've done our job. The Lakers are good enough to beat you that way and we all understand that, but we have to make sure they do beat us that way. Not their way."
If the Lakers' inability to destroy the Thunder's interior is catching people by surprise, likely so is reserve power forward Nick Collison's impact by doing the proverbial "little things." Help defense. Drawing charges. Being a fly in the ointment with his energy. For many, his role in the series may catch them off guard, but in Brooks' eyes, it's simply a matter of people seeing what Collison has done every game.
"It's just more eyes on him," said Brooks. "It's the playoffs, so you analyze every player every possession. I never look at Nick's stat sheet. I don't even look at his rebounds. I look at how he impacts the game with his toughness, his smarts, with his ability to get into the lane to get charges. He sets great screens to free up our shooters. You look at his stats and they're just average. Six points, six rebounds. But he does so many winning things that we need every tonight out there. He does it. He brings it. No matter how bad he's banged up, he gives everything he has.
Those are the things we're building our team on. Do whatever it takes. Leave it on the floor. Nick is the poster boy for that."
Viva El Spaniard!
Laker fans were extremely excited when Gasol was traded to L.A. from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008, but apparently so were residents not part of the Laker nation.
Take Russell Westbrook, who played high school basketball for Leuzinger in Lawndale and spent two seasons at UCLA for example. While he didn't dislike the Lakers, he rooted the Memphis Grizzlies and was a bigger fan of Gasol than Bryant.
"A lot of people would never guess it," smiled Westbrook.