As amazing as it was to experience Game 3 and then marvel at the stunning woodshed performance of Game 4, one thought has still remained in the back of my mind, hanging thick and stifling in the air like a dense fog refusing to lift in the face of morning’s light.
They have to win in Los Angeles. The Thunder must steal a game in the Staples Center to win the series.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still celebrating the Thunder holding serve at home just as hard as anyone else, especially with all of the love that the team is receiving nationally, the hype and marvel that the deafening fans and the rocking Thunderdome have sparked across the NBA landscape, and the reality that after four games with the defending champs, this series is all tied up and we’re now looking at a best of three matchup where anything can happen.
But just like Kevin Durant said when Ric Bucher commented that he didn’t seem very surprised or enthusiastic at what the team was able to accomplish in Game 4, “This is a seven game series.”
The time for confetti and shouts of joy ended Sunday morning (or more likely Sunday night, after all, that 21 point demolition deserved an extra half day to savor and celebrate on the Sabbath) because despite the euphoria and electricity permeating the OKC area and probably the entire state/country of Thunder fans, those two games are over and they served their purpose. The Thunder protected their house. And now they have to make like a thief in the night and steal a victory away from the Lakers in Los Angeles.
Like Clark noted rather prophetically last week, nothing changes in a playoff series until the home team loses on their own floor. So even though the momentum has shifted and the Thunder are the clear aggressors in this matchup moving forward, everything is realistically as it should be.
But that’s where things get interesting because as daunting as it may seem for the Thunder to pickup a win in LA, recent history shows that it’s not near as formiddable a task as you might think it is.
Let’s get down to business right from the get-go and acknowledge that this Thunder team has never won in the Staples Center in Los Angeles against the Lakers. Ouch. That one stings a little bit–until you realize that the last three times the Thunder has played the Lakers in LA, the Lakers average margin of victory has been a paltry 4.66 points.
Yes, a two possession game. So let me repeat an answer I gave to a Laker fan who posted on the site that he/she saw no proof for why the Thunder could win Game 3 in OKC (how’s that looking now?) because no matter how close the scores might have been, the Thunder still lost games 1 and 2 in LA: Do we really have to discuss how a close and competitive game is an indicator that the teams were fairly evenly matched where both had an opportunity to win it, especially since the visiting team had a three point shot bounce out when they were down by two with seconds remaining?
As crazy as it sounds, the Thunder have come A LOT closer to beating the Lakers in LA in the last three games than the Lakers have at beating the Thunder in OKC (OKC’s average margin of victory in the last 3 meetings in the Thunderdome–try 14 points).
But that’s the problem. The Lakers don’t have to win in OKC to advance and win this series. So the question remains, if the Thunder have proven that they canwin in LA, how can they take that next step and actually claim a victory and either steal homecourt advantage for Game 6, or win the do-or-die event that would be Game 7?
Well, for starters, Westbrook will need to continue being the biggest mismatch and most dominant player in the series (how many of you would have prognosticated that one before the first round?).
Westbrook’s stats in the series are almost absurd: 21.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists to only 1.5 turnovers, 1 steal a game, while shooting 55.2% from the field, 100% from 3PT land (I know, right?) and an extremely impressive 91.3% from the free throw line…in only 34.5 minutes a game.
To be blunt, Westbrook has been the biggest mismatch and most efficient player on either team since the series started, even when he was sidelined with foul trouble in Game 2. For the Thunder to sneak one away in LA, Russell will need to continue his stellar and inspirational play. And selfishly, I’d really appreciate another poster on the newest Kardashian family member.
Secondly, Durant will have to keep making an impact on both ends of the floor, especially if his shot is struggling. Yes, in four games he’s shooting 38.4 from the field and only 25% from deep, but he’s still getting to the line 10+ times, converting 85.4% of those and still notching 26.8 points per contest, with one of the best perimeter defenders the league has seen in the last decade draped all over him.
But the best part about Durant? 9.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game. He’s getting it done in whatever way he can to will his team to victory and you can’t ask for much more than that.
Except I’m going to. KD, please, just take a little better care of the ball as those 4.5 turnovers a game could be the difference between escaping LA without getting snake bit (somebody please see what I did there) or taking a great series to seven games but ultimately falling short. Really all Durant needs to do is play to his strengths and not try to do too much, since most of his turnovers are self-inflicted wounds where he’s trying to create for others and forcing it instead of allowing Russell or Maynor or even Harden to do that for him.
Speaking of Harden and Maynor, how do you like em’ now?! Ibaka and Collison have been steady throughout and I don’t want to minimalize the impact they’ve had on this series because without them, this could be REALLY ugly (Air Congo and Ground Charge-Taker unite!), but it is blindingly clear that this is a completely different Thunder team when James Harden is making his shots and attacking with ferocity. The numbers are startling if you compare the games in LA and OKC since Harden did very little in the two losses in LA, but that’s kind of the point. In the two losses, Harden scored an average of 0 points while shooting 0% from, um, anywhere, grabbed .5 rebounds and notched .5 assists to .5 turnovers.
In the Thunder’s wins in OKC, Harden is averaging 16.5 points on 53.5% shooting from the field and 62.5% from three point range, 5 rebounds, 3.5 assists to only .5 turnovers. I mean, wow, right? And Harden’s impact directly affects Eric Maynor’s ability to run the offense for the second unit because Maynor excels at getting his second unit teammates open looks initially and then taking advantage of the defense’s focus on Harden, Ibaka, etc to then free himself up for clutch buckets.
In other words, the ENTIRE bench for the Thunder has to continue performing like they can and have the past two games if this team is going to have a legitimate shot to swing the series their way.
And finally, and most importantly, the suffocating defense absolutely must continue to hound, bother, frustrate, you name it, the Laker offense. The numbers are downright staggering. The Lakers have been held to only 91.75 points per game on 41.3% FG and 28.9% 3 PT shooting (and even though Phil Jackson marveled at the Thunder’s free throw shooting defense in Game 4, I can’t really give them credit for the Lakers shooting only 69.1% from the line in the series). LA is only grabbing 12 offensive rebounds a game and even more shocking, only 31 defensive rebounds despite having an obvious size advantage against the Thunder (who are grabbing 33 defensive rebounds a game despite being one of the league’s worst defensive rebounding teams in the regular season).
Even more shocking? The Thunder continue blocking 2.5 more shots per game than the much larger Lakers. And yet the Lakers are winning almost every other statistical category other than defensive rebounds, 3PT%, steals and the most important one, POINTS PER GAME. So what does that tell you?
Quite simply, the Thunder defense is the biggest and most influential X-Factor in this series. More than Westbrook, Durant and every other bench player or starter that this team needs to play well, the defense will determine if this team has a shot to stun the NBA universe and knock off the defending champs. We’ve almost taken it for granted, but the defensive intensity and relentlessness must continue at this downright debilitating pace for the Thunder to have a realistic shot at winning this series because the Lakers have their own list about “if only” so-and-so played better or they contributed more or limited their turnovers or the Thunder’s fast break points, etc, etc.
The Thunder defense is keeping a potent Lakers attack at bay right now and that’s how it will have to stay if they are to harness all of this positive momentum and confidence. The belief they’ve earned on the court that they not only deserve to be here, but actually are able to beat the defending champions and move on to the next round.
When it comes down to it, all you can hope for in the playoffs is to have a chance, when the clock is winding down and everything is tied up, a chance to control your own destiny and to be the one to make a play that can win the game and the series.
And right now that is exactly what the Thunder have going into tomorrow night. How bout that?