Thunder Execute Down The Stretch

As anyone who follows the NBA closely can attest, there are a fair number of close games every season in which the victorious team did not ‘win’ the game per say as much as the beaten team ‘lost’ it. The distinction is subtle, but meaningful – through poor execution, lack of discipline, or overall lowly performance, one team sabotages themselves and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.

As much as Lakers fans’ own self-importance might drive them to say that the Lakers lost on Thursday night in game three of their opening round series, they would be mistaken. It does a disservice to the tremendous determination, and execution, of the Thunder to say that the Lakers beat themselves.

Make no mistake Laker fans, the youngsters from Oklahoma City won this game. The Thunder’s success is owed to themselves alone and as a result they are now squarely back in this series.

That is not to say that Los Angeles performed flawlessly. The truth is far from it, actually. The laundry list of what the Lakers could have done better is a long one, and it reads the same as it often does after a loss.

A sample of that list would read as follows: they did not go inside to Pau Gasol enough on offense; their transition defense was awful (the Thunder were +16 in fast break points); they did not prevent second-chance opportunities; Derrick Fisher was a pylon on defense; they did not get to the line enough (Oklahoma was +17 from the charity stripe); and Kobe’s hero complex got the better of him for the first part of the fourth quarter.

Yet, none of those reasons is truly why Los Angeles lost on Thursday night. They actually did a remarkable job of weathering the Thunder’s incredible rally in the third and fourth, and put themselves squarely in a position to steal the game back for themselves.

Once it was clear Bryant could not get quality looks against Kevin Durant, the Lakers’ captain finally became a facilitator and was willing to trust his teammates, who delivered a number of timely shots in kind (though it would be nice if Ron Artest would have a look at his feet when shooting threes now and then…). With Fisher and Lamar Odom hitting big shot after big shot, it appeared as those Los Angeles’ veteran savvy might just push them over the top.

This is where the Thunder rose the challenge though, and in effect where they grew up as a team before our eyes. Every time a Laker hit a crowd-quieting three down the stretch, Russell Westbrook would answer with a sensational play at the other end. Every time the defending champs looked poised to lock down defensively, Durant would attack the lane and get to the line.

The Thunder might have started the game off uptight and a little anxious, but their remarkable home crowd carried them until they got their legs. And from there they did the rest.

Jeff Green showed himself to be the complete player we all know him to be. Moreover, James Harden finally got the lid off the basket and reminded us all the offensive threat he poses. These two, along with the stingy defensive presence that is continually provided by the Oklahoma pivots, gave Westbrook and Durant the help they did not have in Los Angeles, and as a result they were victorious.

A 8-1 run to close the third quarter capped off what was the Thunder’s first 30 points quarter of the series. During that stretch the Laker did not just miss shots – the Thunder made them miss. There is a difference.

Laker supporters no doubt should still feel confident. Los Angeles needs only to win on Saturday to take an insurmountable three-to-one lead in the series. They certainly have every reason to expect that Bryant will not shoot so poorly down the stretch again, and should feel good that Gasol continues to have his offense rolling.

But they must also not fall into the trap in thinking that their squad handed the Thunder this win. There was no quarter asked for, and none given. Durant and his team earned this victory. They did it through having defense create early offense, a commitment to getting to the line, and a belief in themselves that they would hit big shots when necessary.

That is a blueprint the Lakers might want to have a look at themselves if they plan on going back to Los Angeles still leading this series.