Lakers try to combat Thunder speed

Updated: April 27, 2010, 12:18 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin and Brian Kamenetzky | ESPNLosAngeles.com

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- After the first game of the Los Angeles Lakers' first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kobe Bryant said the Lakers were like elephants trying to keep up with the deer-like Thunder.

Oklahoma City has outscored Los Angeles 72-17 in fastbreak points through the first four games of the series, but the elephants aren't conceding the footrace to the deer just yet.

"We got to get our [butts] back [on defense]," Bryant said after practice Monday. "Their speed is remarkable. We're obviously not as fast as they are, nowhere near it, but we have to do a much better job of protecting the paint and not allowing them to get so many easy points in transition."

Limiting the Thunder's transition opportunities is the Lakers' top priority heading into Tuesday's Game 5 after an extensive film session before practice Monday revealed Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Co. beating them down the court time and again.

Pau Gasol thinks that Los Angeles can make up for any lack of speed by getting a head start through recognizing the moment it needs to get back.

[+] EnlargePau Gasol
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesPau Gasol wants the Lakers to work on their transition defense and move more quickly to rebounded balls.
"You got to react quicker when you're on the other end," Gasol said. "No matter what, you got to sprint every single time. You can't take a second, you can't take half a second, you just got to react quicker than they do. They might be a little faster for the most part, but if we react quicker and we're in position faster than they [are], we'll have a better chance."

Apart from just preaching about upping the hustle, Lakers coach Phil Jackson has been singing a modified version of "Dem Bones" all series long. The foot bone connected to the leg bone and the transition defense connected to the offensive execution.

"Some of that has to do with the shots we're taking and the turnovers we're committing, so, we can do a better job there," Jackson said.

As adept as the Thunder are at finishing fastbreaks, they are equally inept at consistently scoring against the Lakers in a half-court setting.

"If we get back and stop this team and keep them in front of us and make them beat us in the half-court game, we'll be all right," Andrew Bynum said. "They're just getting too many run-outs and consequently, they're warming up. Guys get layups and guys get hot. That's how it starts."

Injury updates

Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic, who hasn't played since severely spraining his left ankle in L.A.'s regular-season finale against the Clippers, met the media Monday afternoon able to walk -- albeit slowly and with a pronounced limp -- without the aid of crutches.

"It's definitely getting better," Vujacic said of the injury. "I'm excited to be back in a few weeks. Hopefully two."

Asked if he'd be ready to play if the Lakers advance past the Thunder into the second round, Vujacic hedged on his availability but lobbied for a more optimistic framing of the question. "If there is," he asked? "Let's be [optimistic]. [If] a second round comes, we'll take it one game at a time. But it's not up to me. It's up to the training staff and how fast I'm going to heal."

The Lakers have put no timetable on his return.

Vujacic, who averaged 2.8 points and 8.6 minutes per game in the regular season, said watching the series in street clothes has been tough, particularly when the team struggles. But he believes the Lakers adjust accordingly and learn from their losses.

"They'll take care of it," Vujacic said. "It wasn't easy to play in Oklahoma, but now we know what to expect when we go there, and hopefully we go there leading the series."

While Vujacic's news was encouraging, another Laker experienced an injury setback over the weekend. Backup center D.J. Mbenga was forced to undergo a second laser surgery on his left eye to repair two small retinal holes Sunday. Mbenga will be evaluated Tuesday and will not play in Game 5, even if medically cleared.

Mbenga originally suffered damage to his eye in practice April 17, and following the surgery was unavailable for Game 1, taking place the next day. Mbenga was cleared to play for Game 2. Lakers spokesman John Black said that additional surgical procedures are a common occurrence for the eye injury that Mbenga sustained.

Black also clarified what specifically ails the most important right index finger in Los Angeles.

Black said the avulsion fracture Bryant suffered Dec. 11 against Minnesota has healed, but Bryant has developed an arthritic knuckle in the finger. Regardless, Bryant will continue to play with the digit heavily taped.

Home sweet home

After experiencing raucous crowds at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, the Lakers wouldn't mind if the Staples Center faithful turned up the volume for Game 5.

"[Lakers fans should] make sure that they come out and give us as much energy as the OKC players get from their crowd," Bynum said. "You can see it on TV. If we get that energy boost, we'll be fine."

The Thunder had back-to-back sellouts for the first NBA playoff games in franchise history since moving to Oklahoma City.

"We need everybody to be with us at this particular time," Gasol said. "We're going to get it done on the floor, but it's good if our fans support us in Game 5 and give us all they have because it's a crucial victory [to get], a crucial game for us."

The Thunder handed out blue T-shirts for everybody in the stands for Game 3 and white T-shirts for Game 4.

"They were fired up," Gasol said. "Some cities are like that. I think here people are accustomed to playoffs and rings and success, so it might be a little different atmosphere. When we were there, people were just crazy about what they were experiencing because it was the first time in the history for them and you could tell. You could tell that's what was in the air."

Jackson said the crowd shouldn't have anything to do with it.

"You're not going to be winning because of your home court," Jackson said. "It's nice to have home-court advantage, it's nice to have the noise on your side but you have to play the game, it's as simple as that."

Derek Fisher said that the best way for Lakers fans to burn off the nervous energy they have from their team dropping two straight games to a No. 8 seed is to make their voices heard Tuesday.

"My suggestion is that everybody that is worried and concerned to go buy a ticket [if they can] to come and make a heck of a lot of noise, yell at us really hard to box out and play defense and maybe that will help you ease some of your concern," Fisher said.

They said it

"He had a couple non-Kobe games, but that happens," Ron Artest said Monday about Bryant's performance so far this series. Artest shot just 2-for-9 in Game 4, after going 3-for-11 in Game 1 and 2-for-10 in Game 2, making his 5-for-10 showing in Game 3 a "non-Ron game" by the same logic.

This and that

Artest shaved his platinum blond hairdo and purple goatee, going with a simple shorn head and black mustache for Game 5.

"It's nothing special," Artest said when asked about the new look.

Lakers reserve forward Josh Powell missed the team's practice to be with his wife, Lauren, to witness the birth of his son, Joshua Dominique Rajae Powell Jr., born at 10:25 a.m. Monday morning, checking in at seven pounds, 13 ounces and 22.5 inches.

The team was given the day off Sunday and most of the players used it to forget about basketball for a little while.

"The consensus is, from what I could pick up at least, is that guys kind of took a step back from the whole thing," Fisher said.

Several players cited the Lakers' struggles in the second round of the 2009 playoffs as something they can draw on against Oklahoma City, but their coach doesn't see it that way.

"There's nothing that you can carry forward from [the Rockets series] that will help us in this particular series," Jackson said. "This is a different team, different personnel."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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