(Your turn. Any thoughts, comments or stories? Send it in. firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s insight comes from reader Jay.)
A lot is made of the advantage the Lakers have inside against the Thunder, and its an obvious and valid point to make. There aren’t honestly any teams in the league that can match up with Bynum and Gasol physically, but with the Thunder it does a real number on them because Jeff Green is so important to what they do and he just doesn’t have any chance against Gasol.
This is what led Brooks to try the big lineup in the 4th quarter of the first two games. I honestly thought it was a great idea at the time…get one of your premier players (and possibly your best big-moment guy) on the court in crunch time without having to get mauled every time down the court. I thought it was the kind of thing you have to do in the playoffs…change your rotations to match your opponent and also to acknowledge how different the fourth quarter of playoff games are. But sometimes you try to solve one problem and create another one.
Jeff, God bless him, just can’t guard Kobe. And Kobe knows it. His energy level when Green is on him is totally different. He’s able to get wherever he wants on the floor and just gets those big eyes. So I assumed that after 2 games where it obviously wasn’t working, Brooks would decide to use Thabo similarly to how Phil uses Artest…he would play when Kobe played. But Brooks showed exactly why he deserved that Coach of the Year award. He refused to concede offense in the fourth, knowing that the team is just too easy to guard when Thabo, Collison and Ibaka are all in the game together. So he stayed with Harden, but made the switch and put KD on the Mamba.
The second I saw Durant on him and realized it wasn’t a cross-match situation something inside me thought, “This could work…could this work?” And of course it did. Kobe and Phil weren’t ready to deal with KD’s length. If I remember right, Kobe got his first FG in the 4th early on with a tough fade away on Harden, then got his second (and final) FG in the last minute when Russell matadored in transition. So, unless I am just totally wrong, Kobe never scored on Durant. And if the fourth quarter of Game 2 had gone similarly to how it did in Game 1, Brooks might have stayed with Green on him again. But Kobe went berserk in the fourth and made it clear, beyond any doubt, that the lineup wasn’t going to get it done.
But thats not the only reason Game 2 made Game 3 possible. The other reason (the main reason, actually) was the 17 blocked shots. I personally think the single most underrated, un-written about strength of the Thunder this season is how they have defended the post. They do such a fantastic job of fronting the post that its really, REALLY difficult to get the ball inside. And not just because of the guy doing the fronting. Its the way the team is so committed to it (again, Brooks coaching these guys to their strengths).
The opposite big sinks down and makes it clear that a lob is going to be really tough. If they bring that big into the high post and try to use high-low action, the guard up top (Westbrook especially) does a great job of sinking and cutting that pass off. And whoever guards the ball on the wing does a great job of always (seriously, they’re so consistently good at this) at pressuring the ball “away” from the post. But as good as they are at it, teams are still gonna get the ball in there if they’re committed to it, and when they do there has to be help inside. And that’s where those 17 blocks come into play. To have to be as patient and disciplined as you have to be to post feed against the way the Thunder guard the post, only to get 17 shots sent back did something to the Laker’s mentally. If you remember, OKC lost Game 2 because of Kobe in the fourth.
They weren’t able to exploit their interior advantage, Kobe did it by attacking, getting comfortable shots and by penetrating. But he isn’t going to do that all game, right? So what was the carry-over? LA took 31 3-pointers. You know that wasn’t their gameplan either. I just think that through 3 games, the Thunder have made it so damned difficult for them to exploit their advantage inside, that LA is gradually checking out mentally. You can see it gradually shifting from Game 1 until tonight…they’re just becoming less and less willing to force it in there.
So where does that leave us going to Game 4? Well, I think we are going to see 2 major differences on Saturday. First of all, Phil and Kobe will be ready for the KD matchup. I’m gonna guess that they’ll try more screen game and less iso plays. Regardless, both Kobe and the rest of the Lakers will have a better idea of how to attack that matchup. So, Brooks is gonna have to have something else ready. And that’s where he’ll have to earn that award again, because I’m not sure what the right move is.
The other thing I think will be big is that I fully expect LA to get back to force feeding the ball inside. They might have been gradually checking out, but Phil is going to have their full attention now. He will be armed with those 31 3-point attempts in a loss. They are going to be better at it in Game 4, to be sure. So what has to happen? Well, I think if the Thunder are going to make this a series and get another home game, they’re going to have to win the first quarter.
Dictating the pace of play and putting some scoreboard pressure on LA is going to be the best way to discourage a methodical Laker attack. LA has been able to dictate the pace of this series by taking such control in the first quarter of all three games. Like I said, if OKC has real aspirations for this series then they’re gonna have to step up and win the first quarter on Saturday night.