Game 2 was quite the contrast from Game 1, which makes one wonder: Did the Lakers figure something out or was it simply the Thunder playing a bad game? And what does it mean as the series shifts to Los Angeles. Obviously the Lakers are keen to protect Staples Center and unless the Thunder are fully prepared, it could be a difficult Game 3 to win. What’s the most important factor going in and what happens tonight?
1. Fill in the Blank: The most important aspect to Game 3 is _______.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Tempo. The Thunder want to run, the Lakers do not. Pretty simple, pretty straightforward. Game 1 was played in stark contrast to Game 2, and the Lakers got the game slowed to how they want it. Grind out halfcourt possessions, with fewer touches for the Thunder, which means less shots for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Thunder don’t necessarily need transition points, but a more frantic pace certainly is preferable.
Patrick James, Daily Thunder: The Lakers’ mindset. The Thunder are the better team and are going to win the series. But despite taking two types of gut punches in two games in Oklahoma City, the Lakers are still plenty good enough to make this a long series. Still, there’s massive mental checkout potential for the Lakers right now. The guy who has been their best player during this series — Andrew Bynum, not No. 24 — is not exactly a pillar of emotional stability. If the Thunder takes a decent lead and quiets the crowd, and the Lakers respond by quitting, this thing will be over by bedtime tomorrow. How fiercely the Lakers choose to fight back tonight is the biggest wildcard.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue and Gold: It’d be easy to say defense or overall execution, but I’m going with role player production. Even though this series doesn’t lack star power, it’s often the contributions from the less heralded players that can be the difference. In Game 1 Cook hit some big shots and Sefolosha was perfect from the field, both of which gave OKC a boost. In Game 2, Jordan Hill had a positive impact for the Lakers defensively and on the backboards. The Lakers’ role players typically play a lot better at home and if they can provide a spark it would be huge for them, just as it would be for OKC if Fisher, Cook, or Mohammed can hit shots, grab that extra rebound, or help get a key stop.
Young: I have a feeling the popular answer will be “both,” because it’s pretty obvious that OKC didn’t play well and that the Lakers played better. Bad question, whoever wrote it. But I do think the Lakers made a very solid switch in how they defended Westbrook in the pick-and-roll. He was bottled up and funneled to the rim instead of backed off of and allowed a jumper any time he wanted it.
James: I know this is cheating, but both. The Thunder’s shooting percentage was a combination of two things: a regression to the mean after a blistering Game 1 and an over-reliance on jump shots. But the Lakers also made two key adjustments that contributed: slowing the game down and having post players show much higher up the floor to disrupt Russell Westbrook’s (and the team’s) midrange game. Steve Blake in particular was letting the ball roll as far as it could before touching it, allowing the game clock to run while the shot clock wasn’t, and the Lakers used up most of the 24 seconds each time down the floor. Bynum and friends gave the Thunder the choice of longer jump shots or driving, and OKC too often chose the jump shot. But if the Thunder can avoid the wild swings and just shoot near their season percentage, OKC has a chance to win both games in L.A.
Soriano: A little of both, I think. The Lakers’ bigs did a better job of stepping up higher on OKC’s P&R actions and clogging the lane on off ball screens which certainly contributed to the Thunder’s struggles. However, Westbrook and Harden also missed some shots they’re capable of making – as they showed in Game 1. I expect the Thunder will have some adjustments for the Lakers’ Game 2 approach while also expecting the Lakers to try and further refine what they did in Game 2. It will be interesting to see which team’s adjustments win out.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder win Game 3.
Young: Fiction. I picked the series to go five games and if there’s one for the Lakers to win, it would be this one. If they don’t win tonight, I’d say the chances of a sweep are right around 99 percent. The Lakers showed last postseason they aren’t opposed to quitting, and certainly don’t want to travel to Oklahoma City just for their own funeral in Game 5. But there’s something to play for tonight. Win this one and there’s a glimmer of hope remaining.
James: Fact. I have no reason to doubt OKC’s mental toughness right now, and I think the Thunder smell blood. I was less sure of things going into Game 3 against the Mavericks, but four wins later, I no longer harbor the fears I have that the jitters and offensive stagnation that marked late-game stretches in last year’s conference finals remain a factor this season. The Thunder can’t go 16-0 through the playoffs, obviously, but this is a tough team. And in this series, the Thunder is also the better team. OKC will prove it once again tonight.
Soriano: Fiction, though I say that tepidly. This game is as close to a series clincher as there can be as no team has ever come back down 3-0. I expect the Lakers to throw the kitchen sink at OKC in terms of energy, execution, and in riding their best players as long as they need to. OKC is so good they may be able to overcome all that and still win, but I think the Lakers force a game 5 with a win tonight.