Thanks to last night's contest, a thrilling 95-94 victory in OKC, the Los Angeles Lakers have defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder and moved on to the 2nd round of the playoffs. In searching my mind for final thoughts regarding this series, one word keeps popping to the fore: Thanks. The Lakers should be thankful that the Thunder were their first round playoff opponent. They should be thankful they ran up against the most athletic team in the playoffs. They should be thankful that this year's 1st round playoff opponent was so violently different than they were. The Thunder were the yang to the Lakers' yin, and unlike both Utah last year and Denver the year before, the Thunder managed to bring out the absolute best in the Lakers from Day 1. Why did the Thunder have their attention from the start? Because OKC's combination of match-ups, athleticism, and ability might make them the most challenging team the Lakers face in the Western Conference playoffs.
On an individual level, we should all be thankful as fans because we got to witness one of the great crowd experiences of the past NBA decade. Make no mistake, this was "We Believe" all over again. The only difference was that OKC was never able to steal one on the road, and the Lakers had the championship moxie to overcome it in the end. That the Thunder ended up on the wrong side of the series should not tarnish this experience for their fans in the slightest. For some, concerns and anger about how this Thunder team found itself in OKC still remain, and may never go away. But there can be absolutely no doubt that Oklahoma City deserves a basketball team. The OKC crowd was so fantastic that they even shamed the Staples Center faithful into waking up two rounds ahead of schedule and providing a bit of home court advantage in the other direction for the pivotal game 5.
In previewing the series, everyone knew defense would be the story, and we were not disappointed (unless defense disappoints you). In 4 out of the 6 games, one team or the other was held under 1 point per possession. In game 2, both teams were nearly under that threshold. For the Thunder, it was a team effort. Thabo Sefalosha and Kevin Durant took turns checking Bryant, and Bryant was indeed checked, although its unclear whether the OKC defense played as big a role as Kobe's ailing body. OKC's bigs off the bench, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, were both spectacular in different ways defensively. Ibaka can seemingly block any shot he wants, while Collison's rotations were beyond perfect. Just about the only thing the Thunder bigs couldn't do well on the defensive end was prevent Pau and Drew from playing volleyball on the rim. To be fair, there aren't many teams in the league that can prevent it.
The Lakers defensive performance had much more personification. Ron Artest is the only name you need think about when it comes to the Laker defense. He could have gone 0-10 in every single game in the series (and sadly, he wasn't far off) and still be worth the mid level exception salary that gets sent his way. His defense on Kevin Durant was that spectacular. For the season, Durant shot 48% from the field, and 37% from 3 pt range. For this series, he shot 35% from the field, and 28% from 3, good for an eFG under 40%. I'm not foolish enough to suggest it was all Ron's doing, as Durant definitely seemed to be tight throughout the series. But Artest's defensive presence was absolutely the defining factor of the series. Artest's purpose in life seems to be clogging up offenses. If only he didn't do it on both sides of the ball.
Outside of Artest, there aren't many defensive story lines for L.A. because there didn't need to be. The Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook, and the drop off between those two offensively and everyone else on the roster is startling. We've already been over Artest on Durant, and the Lakers didn't really stop Westbrook. Kobe did a good job in game 5, less so in game 6, and the rest of the Thunder were too busy shooting themselves in the foot. Jeff Green had a series to forget, and James Harden's on again-off again play didn't do the team many favors either. Don't even get me started on Thabo Sefalosha, the Thunder's response to Ron Artest. Thabo couldn't match Ron Ron on either end of the court, and that's a pretty sad statement due to the offensive implications. If the rest of the OKC supporting cast could bring it consistently on that end of the court, this series would be going 7 (or might have ended in Thunder glory last night)
Another major story line of the series, which I'd much prefer to ignore, is the free throw disparity. While I celebrate OKC's crowd for a special viewing experience, watching the refs continually provide those fans with reason to cheer was a stomach churning enterprise. On the average, OKC shot 10 more free throws than L.A. did, but that by itself is not evidence of "foul" play. What does stand out is the free throw disparity in Home/Away contests. In Los Angeles, over three games, the Lakers shot 4 more free throws than the Thunder. In OKC, the Thunder shot 59 more free throws than the Lakers. With such a large degree of separation between the officiating in games at Staples vs those at the Ford Center, I feel comfortable proclaiming that one of those teams was getting screwed. Obviously, I think that team was the Lakers, but the who doesn't matter nearly as much as the what, and the what (that officiating changed so dramatically between locations) is undeniable. I don't get down with conspiracies so much as I'm willing to recognize that refs are human and can be swayed by the desire to please instead of anger the 18K rabid fans surrounding them. And I have a message to Lakers Nation: Get used to it. There might not be a team in the league with a bigger home vs. away discrepancy in officiating than Round 2's opponent.
The Lakers offensive performance in this series actually delivered some rays of hope for the overall goal. Sure, they ended up at only 1.06 points per possession for the series overall, but the Thunder are a very good defensive team, so there's no shame in that. The hope comes from the quiet emergence of offensive game for two players who I was not sure could be counted on for the postseason, two players that I've been speaking ill of for a long, long time: Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher. Shannon's been on my shit list all season, because I identified a propensity for chucking bad perimeter shots while almost everyone else was still ogling over his latest Youtube sensation. If credit is to be given when due, I owe Shannon an apology, or at the very least a run of praise. Shannon's decisions in this series were MUCH stronger than they have been in the regular season, and he hit some huge shots to stem the tide of energy coming from that Sea of Blue last night.
As for Fisher, well, I can't believe I'm saying this, but Derek Fisher justified his place on the court in this series. Yes, RW killed him whenever we had the displeasure of seeing the two matched up. Fisher's defense was poor the whole series. But Fisher's defense has always been bad, at least for the past two years. What makes his defense so unbearable is the decision making, shot selection, and overall performance that led him to a dreadful eFG of 45% on the year. And while the term small sample size can't be used enough, Fisher's shooting in the postseason so far has been tremendous. He only shot 43% from the field (because he continues to take and miss stupid, stupid PUJIT's), but he shot 47% from 3 for the series, and ended up with an eFG higher than everyone but Andrew Bynum and the inconsequential Josh Powell.
I said before the playoffs that the Lakers would need a little luck, in the form of 1-3 players getting hot from the outside, to win the title this season. It's early, but so far Fisher is providing the spark, and the Lakers are getting the 3 pt results they need. The overall 3 pt shooting isn't great at 33%, but it's better than the Lakers were stroking it to end the regular season, and if you take out Game 4's dismal 4-22 performance, it jumps up to 36%. A Laker team shooting 36% from 3, and all the additional spacing it entails, might just return to being the favorite in this postseason.
So far, I haven't spent a word talking about our bigs, and that's because they didn't play quite the role we would have envisioned them at the start of the series. Pau and Drew both played well,but it was a combination of spectacular in some games and mediocre-to-good in others. LO had himself a rough series, but provided spark in the close out last night. Pau was a beast for much of the series, and ended up with 18 and 12. Drew came back from his Achilles much stronger than we might have anticipated, and should look to build on his 12 and 9, with an extremely important 2 blocks per. One can only hope that his latest injury, a hyper-extended knee suffered in the 3rd quarter last night, won't hinder him going forward, because we need him to be Drew.
So, Round 1 is in the books. There will probably come a time when the Thunder and Lakers play a playoff series that has some "passing the torch" feel to it. But the Thunder aren't ready to ascend just yet, and the Lakers have no plans to descend anytime soon. Up next is the Utah Jazz, with a short turnaround for tomorrow's 12:30 Game 1 tip-off. Looking across the Western Conference, the Lakers seem primed to make the Finals, as all the remaining teams have been ones that the Lakers have had success against.
So be thankful for the Thunder. Before the series, I spoke about how young teams in this situation can respond to the pressure one of two ways. Either they freeze up, or they play like they don't know what's at stake. The truth is that OKC did both at the same time. All across the roster, you could see guys wilting under the playoff pressure. Harden, Green, even Durant struggled to deal with it. But they also never gave up, no matter the circumstances, no matter how many times the Lakers jabbed at them. If this team can be held together, with some small additions at key positions, they'll be around this time of year for a very long time. Be thankful for them, because they play the game right, watching them is a joy even for the other team's fans, and because they may be the toughest out the Lakers face until June.