Free throws a major issue for Lakers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- One can point to plenty of facets as the reason the Thunder were able to come away with the win in Game 4 -- bench play, fast-break points, turnovers, rebounding -- but perhaps none of them illustrates the 21-point loss for the Lakers more concretely than Oklahoma City's 25-point advantage at the free throw line.
The unguarded 15-foot shot has been a recurring cast member in the first four games of this dramatic best-of-seven series so far.
The story from the free throw line in Game 1 for the Lakers was Kobe Bryant making only 7 of 12 attempts. In Game 2, the focus was the sheer number of attempts for both teams, with L.A. taking 32 and Oklahoma City taking 33. The Game 3 free throw tale was the Thunder's uneven 34-12 advantage in attempts and the fact that Bryant didn't shoot one. Game 4 had the worst elements of Game 1 (the Lakers missed 11 of their 28 attempts) and Game 3 (Oklahoma City had 20 more attempts than Los Angeles).
The 42 made free throws for Oklahoma City are the second-most freebies made against Los Angeles in a postseason game. The Boston Celtics made 43 against the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals, and L.A. lost that game, too.
"We make our foul shots, and we're OK in that ballgame," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We're down maybe five points or seven points if we make our free throws, like professional players should do."
Pau Gasol, a 79 percent free throw shooter during the regular season, was 3-of-6. Derek Fisher, who made 85.6 percent of his tries during the season, missed both attempts Saturday. Lamar Odom, who shot 69.3 percent, also missed his two attempts.
Although Jackson called the free throw disparity in Game 3 the "key factor" to the outcome, Lakers forward Ron Artest said the Thunder deserved their trips to the line Saturday.
"They were aggressive," Artest said. "You know, no excuses."
Before the game, Jackson called Bryant "an attack player" and spoke of plans to have Bryant penetrate the paint more often the way he did by going coast to coast to cut the Thunder's lead to two points with 12 seconds left in Game 3. So it was odd to see the 12-time All-Star zig when Jackson said the plan was to zag. Bryant did not attempt a single shot in the first quarter, and the Lakers trailed by 12.
"I was managing the game exactly how I wanted to," Bryant said. "Unfortunately, it got away from us by them getting out in transition and getting those buckets; I wasn't able to do what I normally am able to do at the end of the game, closing things out and things like that. But I felt pretty good about the way I was managing it."
Bryant finished with 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting and dished out a team-high four assists. Bryant, who had shot just 36.8 percent in the first three games of the series and 30 percent in the final three games he played in the regular season, reached the 50 percent shooting plateau for the first time since March 31.
"He wanted to get everybody involved in the game," Jackson said of Bryant's unselfish first quarter. "It was OK."
Bryant admitted that his right knee, which had caused him to sit out two games at the end of the season, was affecting his ability to drive to the basket. He left the bench midway through the fourth quarter to receive a leg massage in the locker room.
"I have to do a boatload of treatment, so it's important for me to get in there and do it early, get ready for this flight, get home and get back on it," Bryant said.
Although several Lakers players talked after the game about the experience they can lean on from the second-round series against the Houston Rockets last season that unexpectedly went to Game 7, Andrew Bynum was not in the mood to find anything positive about Saturday's blowout.
"We just stopped playing hard," Bynum said. "After they got up 20, we were like, 'Ah, let's go back to L.A.' That's just not going to work.
"They're playing hard; they're playing harder than us. They want it more. That's all it is. It has to be."
Looking for Lamar
Odom vowed to attack in Game 4, admitting, "I think I'm just a little too lackadaisical offensively," at the team's Saturday shootaround.
But when game time arrived, that attack mode turned into blind ambition as Odom went 2-for-7 from the field in the first half (matching his shot total from all of Game 3, when he went 3-for-7), was blocked at the rim one possession, missed a 3-pointer on another and came up empty on two free throws on another. He got something going late in the third quarter, but only after the team was down by 20. Odom finished with 12 points on 6-for-12 shooting and six rebounds.
"My team was down by 20; I'll be able to determine [if I can step up my contribution] in a close game," Odom said. "If I went 12-for-12, we still would lose."
Before the game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Odom was "as good as any bench player in this league," but it was the Oklahoma City bench that outscored Odom and the Lakers' reserves 43-35 in the game, spurred by James Harden's 15 points. Harden, a rookie who went to Arizona State and Artesia High in Lakewood, averaged 16.5 points in Games 3 and 4 after going scoreless in the first two games in Los Angeles.
Whenever the Lakers were struggling at executing the offense while reserve forward Luke Walton sat out for 53 games during the regular season because of a strained lower back, players would tell reporters they were looking forward to Walton's return as a sign of hope for getting the triangle back on track.
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The seven-year veteran has been back in the lineup since April 4 but has yet to make much of an impact outside of a nine-point showing against Sacramento in the Lakers' penultimate game of the regular season.
Walton was scoreless through the first three games of this series, averaging 1.0 assists in just 4.3 minutes per game. He played 8 minutes, 33 seconds in Game 4, but his most notable contribution was picking up a technical foul 18 seconds after checking in late in the fourth quarter with L.A. already down by 22.
"I can't wait to help this team out," Walton said before the game. "I know [Jackson] loves that Ron [Artest] on [Kevin] Durant matchup, and Durant plays 30-something minutes a game, so it's been tough getting minutes in there, but I'm waiting. I'm waiting patiently and anxiously."
Last year, Walton was used sparingly in the first three games of the first round against Utah before coming up big in Game 4 with 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in a 14-point win for the Lakers.
"I'm watching the matchups out there and looking for opportunities to use him on the floor," Jackson said about his plans to use Walton in the series against the Thunder.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.