Los Angeles won Game 2 in their first-round series against Oklahoma City on Tuesday night. On the surface, Lakers fans should be thrilled: Kobe Bryant gave a dominant performance, Pau Gasol played like a superstar, they held back a valiant opponent, and they now hold what traditionally has been an insurmountable lead in a series.
But that is not how anyone really paying attention should see things.
If the Lakers hope to win this series, they had best take care of the Thunder quickly, and as decisively as possible. If this series returns to Los Angeles next Tuesday tied at two games a piece, the Lakers will be in a world of trouble. The longer the Lakers let Oklahoma City stay alive, the comfortable the Thunder will be on the playoff stage, and the more dangerous they will be.
This Oklahoma City team is on the verge of something great, and all they need is one false step by the defending champs to get the momentum going. I have little doubt the Thunder will be better at home. If Los Angeles wants us to take seriously their plans to repeat as champion, they had better show their mettle by stealing one of the next two games on the road – if they give the Thunder an inch, the youngster will take a mile.
They work much harder than the Lakers, their competitive fire burns brighter, and they have fresher legs. The longer this series goes, the harder Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and company will be to put away.
Perhaps Kobe Bryant knows this. Perhaps that is why he was able to centre himself and find more balance in his jump shot in the second half Tuesday night. Perhaps that is why he reached back to give us a vintage performance in the fourth quarter that rivaled the display LeBron James gave the NBA world on Monday.
He knows that the Thunder are not a team to play around with. As does Pau Gasol, whose dominant post performance and tremendously efficient offense was a thing of beauty in game two. Whether or not the rest of their team understands all this though is debatable.
The Lakers seem to be extending just enough energy and mental focus to win, and not an ounce more. If they think they can ‘save themselves’ for a later round, they had better wake up to the reality that is before them – the one in which Westbrook can get to the rim at will, the one where Durant’s confidence and shooting touch continues to improve with every passing quarter, and the one where Scott Brooks has willed his team to overachieve and outwork their more talented opponent. In that reality, the Lakers are vulnerable, even up two games to none.
As for the game itself, we saw Bryant have much better elevation on his shot, leading to better looks early on. Even if he failed to convert everything, he was able to create a better rhythm than in game one, and that showed late in the game.
We also saw Bryant get back to the grimace and gritting of his teeth he was so fond of last spring, as well as the respect he has for the Thunder’s defenders, even patting Thabo Sefolosha on the back in the third quarter after a good defensive play. He still forced the issue too much early on, but at least he had fresh enough legs let him get into the lane late in the game instead of settling for deep, contested threes.
Meanwhile, Gasol played like a star for much of the game. The Spaniard made a number of big baskets and hauled in important rebounds when it mattered most, with none more important than his defensive rebound with seven seconds to go after a missed go-ahead three by Durant.
Speaking of that shot, it proved that the Thunder are not afraid, and serves as a great example of precisely why this core group of players could relatively soon compete for a title. Down two, with the shot clock turned off, on the road, Durant went for a three to win. He wanted to steal this game outright from the Lakers, not send it to overtime and leave it to chance. That in itself is the hallmark of a competitor of the highest order.
Durant certainly had help. The series has turned into Russell Westbrook’s official Coming Out Party, and one wonders if the Thunder would have rolled to an easy victory had he not gotten into early foul trouble.
He and Durant, and the shot-blocking wonder that is Serge Ibaka, have the Lakers attention. At the start of the third quarter, after two bad shots by an increasing useless Derrick Fisher, Los Angeles went inside to Bynum off a flash-cut to the mid-post, where he performed beautiful high-low action to Gasol for an easy dunk. It was a sign that the team recognizes that they need to be more focused and run their offense better to beat the Thunder. Why they aren’t able to do execute like that more often is anyone’s guess.
So now the series shifts to Oklahoma, where the Thunder’s considerable home fanbase will surely be chomping at the bit to experience a home playoff victory. They have a team that can give that to them, and maybe more.
The Lakers might be up two games and in a good position, but you are crazy if you think they should feel comfortable.