Commentary

Next time, Thunder might not miss

Originally Published: April 22, 2010
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant and Kevin DurantStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesKobe scored 39 points to will the Lakers to a Game 2 win ... but why was it so close to begin with?

Only the perpetually conflicted Lakers could force themselves to rely on their savvy to prevail at the end of a game because they weren't playing intelligently for the first three quarters.

Close games should favor the Lakers. Their stack of combined playoff games towers over the Thunder's, and they've shown a better ability to squeeze out narrow victories over the course of the season. The Lakers were 11-7 in games decided by three points or less, whereas the Thunder were 7-11. Two of those 18 games were against each other, both won by the Lakers.

It probably shows up best at the defensive end. The Lakers are better at recognizing their opponents' offensive sets and positioning themselves to take away the first option. Oklahoma City lost in Utah recently because the players guessed wrong on a Jazz out-of-bounds play and left Deron Williams open for the winning jump shot. (That and the officials missing a foul call on a 3-point attempt by Jeff Green at the buzzer.)

Conversely, the Lakers were all over a late-game play for Durant on Tuesday night, as detailed here on nbaplaybook.com. Pau Gasol knew where Durant was headed and jumped into a spot to draw an offensive foul on him.

It wasn't that the Lakers executed with Stockton-Malone precision, but they weren't as prone to making mistakes. Oklahoma City had two turnovers and an offensive basket interference in the final 2:10.

Kobe Bryant mixed his pet moves developed over the years with the knowledge gained over the course of the game. After getting four shots blocked near the rim, he stopped trying to go inside. None of his attempts in the final minutes came from closer than 14 feet. He needed a way to get to the free throw line without entering the lane, so he resorted to his old stop and pump-fake. Nick Collison and Green both fell for it, and Bryant made four free throws, sandwiched around a pull-up jumper.

That was enough to allow the Lakers to overcome three missed free throws, a missed layup and another blocked shot in the final 77 seconds of the game, thanks to missed 3-pointers by Durant and Green in the final 10 seconds.

What were the Thunder doing within a shot of victory or overtime in the first place? They played hard and showed resilience, two traits that have been there throughout the season. But the Lakers didn't exploit the best thing they have going for them: their height advantage.

When they force-fed Andrew Bynum and Gasol in the opening quarter of the series, they looked dominant. Then they stopped. They went from an open fire hose to a leaky faucet. If Bynum got the ball it was simply by occasional afterthought.

Two of his first three shots in Game 2 were putbacks that came off offensive rebounds. When the Lakers did actually pass to him he was out of dunking range, leading him to turnovers or awkward shots.

There were stretches when Gasol had Green on him, a three-inch height advantage for the Spanish center. The Lakers went to that matchup only once, even though it got them a basket the lone time they tried.

One reason the Lakers have looked so bad in April was that Bryant still took the most shots even though he wasn't making them. That brought a challenge from Phil Jackson. "He's got to adjust his style to ours," Jackson said before Game 2. "Either the proficiency has to increase or he's got to be a playmaker."

Bryant chose option A. It worked because he made more than 40 percent of his shots for the first time since March 31. But it was a narrow victory. Now that Bryant has shown he still has a big-time playoff performance in him, he needs to save it for a time when the Lakers really need it, against an opponent that isn't overmatched in the low post.

Unless the Lakers are really eager to prove their superiority in the clutch. But one of these times, the Thunder's 3-pointer is going in.