How do you win 46 minutes of a game and still...lose the game? The Los Angeles Lakers answered that question tonight. After a plodding, physical slugfest run at a significantly slower pace than Monday's massacre in Oklahoma City, the Thunder came from 7 points down with a little over two minutes left in the game and went on a 9-0 run to win in devastating fashion.
Where do you start pointing fingers for those two minutes? Is it at Kobe for an awful turnover in the middle of the rally, or for his two misses to end the game? Or is it at Steve Blake for missing his shot, wide-open in the corner for three? Is it at John Kuester and Mike Brown for drawing up a play that only served to take time off the clock when they were both down a point and with OKC having a foul to give?
Just an hour after the game ended, aside from being a devastated Laker fan crying into his Magic Johnson jersey, clutching his favorite Chick Hearn bobblehead, I'm still trying to figure out exactly how we lost that game.
Even though the score didn't always reflect this statement, the Lakers were winning this game for the first 46 minutes. After watching the Thunder light up them up possession after possession on Monday in a contest that belonged more on a speedway than a basketball court, LA controlled the pace of the game on both side of the rock. Defensively, the Lakers put much more pressure on the ball, illiciting more turnovers from the Thunder in the first 14 minutes of the game than in all of Game 1. Metta World Peace used his size and strength to push the lanky Kevin Durant all over the court, limiting his touches and aggressiveness. His three steals, combined with Kobe's four, disrupted a OKC perimeter game that absolutely torched the Lakers. Durant, Harden and Westbrook were noticeably perturbed that LA's defenders, both inside the lane and out, were a step quicker and nastier than they were on Monday. The Lakers won the rebounding battle 41-36 (11-6 offensive) and guarded the pick and roll to much more effectiveness tonight, slowing a rambunctious Thunder attack to a mere 34 points in the paint, as opposed to 48 in Game 1.
All in all, the Lakers played with the type of vigor and energy they lacked just two days ago. The closeouts were more crisp, rotations better settled and post defense swarming. The Lakers made this a slow-down, physical contest, the style of play they had excelled at and won with since their infamous punking at the hands of the 2008 Boston Celtics. LA knew how to be just rough enough to bother the Thunder, and yet, not set off a refereeing crew that seemed all to happy to blow the whistle. Conversely, the young Thunder kept on making silly fouls in the second and third quarter, annoyed and overzealously attacking a Lakers team that was pushing them around all game long. This was exactly the type of game they Lakers had to play to win. It had to be slowed down, ugly and tight in the last few minutes. After all, the vaunted Lakers halfcourt attack would take care of close games in the playoffs, right? That's what we've been hearing from the coaching staff and player all year long, ad naseum. The Lakers did this for 46 full minutes, and even though it wasn't a wire to wire victory, with two minutes left in the game, it sure as hell felt like one.
The problem is, that with two minutes left in the game, the Lakers allowed the Thunder to play Thunder Basketball.
With two minutes left, Kobe Bryant picked a bad time to show his age, carelessly throwing away the ball to Durant, and grazing the rim on two tough shots. With two minutes left, James Harden and Kevin Durant woke up from their game-long slumber, ran the game at the pace they wanted and sunk every shot they had missed all night long. With two minutes left, the Lakers coaching staff didn't take a time out to control a game that had spun out of control more wildly than the heads did of all the Lakers players. With two minutes left, the Lakers choked in the biggest moment of the season, in the game they had to have.
Going forward, what does Mike Brown say to his team? They dominated the second half almost (key word: almost) to completion. They frustrated the Thunder into taking bad shots or turning the ball over, controlled the glass and owned their opponents physically. How do you tell a team that did nearly everything they were supposed to do to play just a little bit better? The Lakers scratched and clawed for nearly the whole game, but in the last two minutes, let their guard down and allowed an bunch of supremely talented, energetic newcomers play the way that lets them win. The Thunder played Thunder Basketball for only two minutes of the game, and still won. That's how good this Thunder team is.
The Lakers weren't perfect - see Ramon Sessions' stat line, Metta's adventures with field goal attempts and Matt Barnes' ghost of a performance - but they were certainly good enough to win this game, and for a moment, looked good enough to win this series.
As our own Dexter Fishmore tweeted earlier this evening: "Season's on the line right here. If the Lakers don't survive this collapse, it's over." He might not be wrong. But the Lakers had to have this game. Even in a close loss, this isn't one that anyone easily shakes. Let's hope I'm wrong too.