Ideally, the Thunder would have been up two games to none while they made their way back home, but obviously that did not happen. Instead, the Lakers won the first two games of the series and most casual observers, and a lot of die hard Oklahoma City fans, have already written this first round off as a learning experience for the young team. I am here to tell you, that is a big mistake.
Most veteran basketball analysts like to say that a playoff series does not truly begin until someone loses on the home floor. That has not happened. So far, the Thunder have lost two games that they were, even if they could not be labeled as playoff virgins, supposed to lose. Let me say that again: They were SUPPOSED to lose those two games.
Anyone who predicted the team would steal one in Los Angeles, was either overly optimistic, or else trying to sell some newspapers by being contrary. The Thunder went into one of the toughest venues in professional basketball to get their first taste of playoff basketball and did so against the team that has most recently lifted the championship trophy. As expected, they showed up looking timid and overwhelmed. They missed shots they normally make, made mental errors, and allowed their emotions to negatively effect their play.
Even so, they barely lost. Laker fans, even though they are, should not be overly confident after the play of their team. The defending champs with the best record in the Western Conference lost three out of the four quarters in game one and barely squeaked by in game two despite the Thunder’s best matchup advantage missing half the game with foul trouble. Now they lose home court for the next two games.
Of course, game three is a MUST WIN for Oklahoma City if they even hope to make a splash and if they pull that off, game four is almost as important. For that to happen, though, the Thunder do not have to play a great deal better. To win they simply need a couple of these things to happen:
DURANT NEEDS TO BE DURANT
K.D. was the team’s leading scorer in both games in Los Angeles, but did anyone watch his performance and think he even played to the level we have become accustomed to over the past couple of months? As much as the Laker Nation wants to believe that their investment in Ron Artest is finally starting to pay off, the truth is more likely that Durant simply wilted a bit under the bright spotlight. Think about it, the media has been incredibly focused on the young superstar, Laker coach Phil Jackson has been playing mind games with him, and no one is harder on Durant than Durant.
Well, he is back home now, has had a chance to breathe, and took the Lakers’ best punch already. If he bounces back and puts together a complete game like he had been doing night in and night out leading up to the playoffs, the Lakers will also have to improve their play.
WESTBROOK NEEDS TO PLAY FORTY MINUTES
In game one, it took Westbrook until late in the third quarter to realize he needs to stop doing everything I have been pleading with him to do since he was drafted by the Thunder. If Westbrook ever needed to take a “me-first” attitude, this is the series. He is the most athletic player on the floor, and he is being guarded by an old man (Derek Fisher) and a slow footed pretty boy (Jordan Farmar). Whenever Russell wants to get to the basket, he can. And if he gets to the basket, he either gets OKC easy points, or else he puts the Laker bigs (the guys that everyone is scared of) in position to get in foul trouble.
It was too late to change the outcome of game one, but in game two Westbrook came out with the confidence that he could take the game over. He basically came out with the same attitude he had in the Rookie-Sophomore game that no one could guard him and he was going to put up forty points. Then, he let that confidence get the best of him and he did that thing where he drops his shoulder to create space. Fisher, the crafty veteran that he is, exaggerated the contact to make it look like Westbrook had shot him with a twelve gague, and the Thunder point guard picked up his second foul. He missed a good chunk of the first half after that and while he was on the bench, OKC went from a two point lead to an eleven point deficit.
One player that has not looked even remotely intimidated is Serge Ibaka. Remember, the media has harped on the Lakers’ height advantage and how they are impossible to stop down low. Maybe it is because he isn’t too good with the English, but Serge doesn’t seem to have picked up on the hype. When Ibaka has been in the game, he has been the best low post player on the floor. Seven (SEVEN!) blocks in 28 minutes in game two at the same time that Nick Collison and Nenad Krstic were looking frustrated and lost on the floor.
Monkeying with the starting lineup this late in the season is probably a bad idea, but I would love to see Serge check in early in the first quarter. The Thunder need him to come out and set the tone early, whereas in the first two games, Ibaka has played only three minutes during the first stanza.
JAMES HARDEN NEEDS TO SHOW A PULSE
Harden has done a lot to improve my opinion of him since I campaigned vigorously against him being the #3 overall pick last Summer. His play has made me basically stop pining for Ricky Rubio (who I still believe will be a superstar in the NBA) and even come to some peace that the Thunder won’t even make a play at signing J.J. Redick this Summer (for those who have followed me a while, that’s a huge statement).
These past two games have undone most of that good will.
The rookie has played like a rookie. His first two playoff outings have been very much like his only NCAA tournament experience, meaning he was on the floor but did nothing to make that apparent. In 26 minutes of playing time spread over the two games, the only statistics the shooting guard has to show for the experience are one rebound, one assist, four fouls, and a turnover. He has missed every shot he has taken.
Considering that he averaged almost ten points a game in his rookie campaign, it isn’t too much to expect he will start making a contribution.
JEFF GREEN NEEDS TO SHOW UP
You won’t find a bigger Green supporter than me, but his play in the first two games has been atrocious. He has made only 26% of his shots from the floor. You can’t even elaborate on that number it is so bad.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t take too much for him to improve upon that, and if he improves just a little…or if anyone I have mentioned in these sections improves just a little…the Thunder can easily go back to L.A. tied. And if they go back to L.A. tied, with confidence, this is a series.