Lakers' rebound starts with rebounds
Can the Lakers rebound?
It's a specific and literal question, and an over-arching and philosophical one as well.
We'll start with the specifics.
As the Lakers look ahead to a pivotal Game 5 on Tuesday at the Staples Center with their first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder tied 2-2, Los Angeles will have to control the boards if it wants to take back control of the series.
The team that has held the rebounding edge has won every game. The Lakers averaged 6.5 more rebounds than the Thunder in their wins in Games 1 and 2, and the Thunder averaged 10.5 more rebounds than the Lakers in their wins in Games 3 and 4.
The one supposed advantage the Lakers had coming into the series was the size of their frontcourt -- the 7-foot Pau Gasol matching up against the 6-foot-9 Jeff Green, and the 7-foot Andrew Bynum facing the 7-foot but perimeter-oriented Nenad Krstic -- and while Gasol and Bynum have matched or surpassed their regular-season rebounding rates (Gasol is averaging 11.0 after 11.3 during the year, and Bynum is up to 9.8 from 8.3), the rest of the Lakers haven't pursued the ball.
"It's a huge problem," Kobe Bryant said. "The way you win championships is defending and rebounding and those two games [in Oklahoma City], we gave up too many easy points -- fast-break points, points in the paint -- and they outrebounded us. That's just not going to get it done."
Added Gasol: "They were more energized, they were after the ball, they were more aggressive on the boards, and we lost those battles."
The rebounding was so discouraging in Oklahoma City that the team literally put a lid on one of the side baskets Monday to practice chasing down caroms.
After Game 4, Derek Fisher admitted he needs to do a better job of boxing out Russell Westbrook because the 21-year old guard, who is averaging 6.5 boards in the series (up from 4.9 in the regular season), attacks the glass every possession.
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"A lot of that are loose balls that are bouncing out and rebounds coming long," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Their guards are picking it up, their wings are picking it up. We just have to react a little bit better to the ball and track them down."
Jackson wants to turn that aggressiveness against the Thunder. If Oklahoma City is going to send five guys to the offensive glass, the Lakers might only rely on four -- but make sure they're in the perfect position -- and then leak the fifth man out toward half-court in anticipation of an outlet pass.
"What I told this team is Oklahoma is inconsiderate so much of our team speed that they'll throw all five of their guys at the board without defensive balance and we're unable to take advantage of it," Jackson said after practice Monday. "The same thing at the other end of the court, they'll throw all their guys at both ends to rebound offensively and to rebound defensively. So they think that our team speed isn't enough to break them back the other way. We can do a couple things about that. We know that we can do that and we'll take advantage of it."
The player who could turn the fortunes around for himself, his team and the rebounding edge is Lamar Odom.
The Lakers' sixth man has been abysmal in the series, averaging just 7.8 points on 40.6 percent shooting after going for 10.8 on 46.3 percent shooting during the regular season. His rebounding has been even more lacking, averaging just 6.5 boards per game against the Thunder after pulling down 9.8 per game in the regular season.
But with his Stretch Armstrong arms and rebounding knack -- he grabbed 15 or more rebounds nine times during the regular season -- returning to his strength on the glass could get the rest of his game going.
"For Lamar, his effort on the glass is really what gets him going," Bryant said in Oklahoma City. "Getting offensive rebounds, defensive boards is what he does."
On the philosophical side of things, there are some stats out there that might be expected to put Lakers fans at ease. Historically, the Lakers are 18-0 all-time in the playoffs in Game 5 at home when the series is tied 2-2, going 2-0 last year in that situation against Houston and Denver. And Jackson is 44-0 in his career with the Bulls and Lakers when holding a 2-0 lead in best-of-seven or best-of-five series.
But those numbers are as relevant to the Lakers' current situation as the streak that died this season of the Lakers never losing three games in a row since Gasol joined the team in February 2008. The Lakers dropped all three legs of a three-game road trip through Miami, Charlotte and Orlando in early March.
"I think you just have to go with what's here," Jackson said at Tuesday's shootaround. "The guys that have been here know that they can do it, and they know what it's like and what it takes."
Win tonight and the Lakers will be one win from putting this Thunder scare behind them. Lose and it will put them one loss away from the season getting away from them, just like one of those rebounds they didn't track down.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com