OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 16: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots over James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 16, 2012 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Thunder beat the Lakers 77-75. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
In the wake of the Los Angeles Lakers' devastating Game 2 defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, after the tears had been shed and the rubble that was our hopes and dreams had been cleared, the more optimistic members of Lakers Nation began the process of putting a positive spin on the night's events. The argument goes a little something like this: The Lakers were destroyed by the Thunder in Game 1, and for 46 minutes were clearly the better team in Game 2. After 48 minutes of basketball, it looked as if the Lakers didn't even belong on the same court, but after 96 minutes, the Lakers could very well have been tied if not for some very unfortunate finishing. The Game 2 loss hurts, it hurts bad, but the bottom line is that the Lakers made significant progress from one game to the next. If they can improve just a little bit more, games will be won and the series will up for grabs. By winning the first two games at home, the OKC Thunder have not done anything "unexpected" and the Lakers still have opportunities to turn the tide in their favor.
it's a tempting argument to make, and to listen to. There are solid pieces of evidence that support it - the ease with which OKC scored points in Game 1 was significantly weakened in Game 2, especially in a 2nd half in which, save for a few easy buckets at exactly the wrong time, the Laker defense completely stymied the Thunder offense for 22 out of 24 minutes. Whereas the Lakers looked unprepared, tired, and slow on Monday, they looked big, imposing, and active on Wednesday. The Lakers were this close to winning a game in which they shot 39% from the field, and only 13% from 3 pt range. They most certainly made progress. That is a fact.
It is also a fallacy. There is no such thing as progress in the NBA playoffs. There are only wins and losses, and the Lakers just let an amazing chance to win a game slip through their fingers.
Playoff basketball is about many things, but there are three main criteria that usually define any seven game series between NBA squads: Talent, match-ups, and adjustments. The talent aspect is set in stone, and it is usually the easiest to figure. In fact, it is often reflected right there in the seeding that precedes each team's name. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the more talented team in this series. Their stars are as effective, if not more, than the Lakers' stars, they are younger and faster, and they are supported by a stronger cast of role players. There's a very good reason why the Thunder were six games better than the Lakers in the regular season.
Match-ups are a bit more difficult. Unless the talent gap between the two teams is overwhelming, both teams in a playoff series will usually have match-ups that they can exploit. The Thunder, for example, have one of the fastest players in the league in Russell Westbrook, and the Lakers will often struggle to contain him, especially in the high pick and roll. Meanwhile, the Lakers have a significant size advantage inside, with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol towering over their respective counterparts. Because of the interactive nature of all these competing dynamics, determining which team has the overall match-up advantage is a little bit more difficult, but the match-ups themselves are also set in stone. What is not set in stone is which team does a better job exploiting their match up advantages, and limiting their opponents'.
That's where adjustments come in. Whether from game to game or from quarter to quarter, a coach's and team's ability to adjust to what the other team is doing is a critical part of any playoff series. If one team does a good job exploiting a troublesome match-up, its up to the other team to figure out how to prevent it. Once the other team has a solution, its the first team's job to un-solve it by switching things up. This back and forth, act-and-react process is what playoff basketball is all about. This is where progress is made. This is where the Lakers made progress from Game 1 to Game 2, doing a much better job of limiting the effectiveness of the Thunder's high screen and roll actions, challenging mid range shots from Durant and Westbrook. So why, if the Lakers clearly made progress in defending the Thunder from one game to the next, is there no such thing as progress in the playoffs?
Because there is only one measure of progress, and that is to win the game in which the progress is made. Normally, the world is not so black and white. Normally, there is a gray area in which there are positive aspects to performance, even if the overall result wasn't the desired outcome. But in the playoffs, this progress, this benefit from adjustments which have been made, disappears at the final buzzer. Each game is its own blank slate. After a Game 2 in which the Lakers did a good job at limiting the Thunder's offense, the onus is now on the Thunder to make progress and figure out how to combat the defensive success the Lakers found. At this point, we have no idea whether the Thunder will be successful in doing so. We don't know whether the Lakers have found a defensive strategy and activity that will be effective for the rest of the series, or whether Game 2 was just a blip for the Thunder as they recover their offensive form. If the Thunder can't figure things out, then the Lakers will indeed have made progress, but the only, ONLY, measurement of said progress will be victory.
Victory is the only progress, because there is a fourth criteria to determining winners and losers in the playoffs that has not yet been mentioned - execution. After the talent has risen to the top, and the match-ups are being exploited, and the adjustments are made to limit/accentuate those match-ups, basketball still remains a game in which one must execute an action. Yesterday's game hinged on a failed execution, as Steve Blake's three point attempt - the result of a fantastic adjustment on the part of Metta World Peace and the coaching staff to get Blake a wide open shot. Blake's failed execution is not to be blamed, because it is just one event in a game that contains hundreds and thousands of other events. But, at the end of the day, no matter how much better a team is, no matter how much better their match-ups are, and how much better those match-ups are exploited, all of these aspects are being added together to give the team a great position with which to have better, easier execution. Execution is the ultimate X-factor. It must be present in order to provide meaning to all the other criteria, but it can not be controlled in any meaningful way.
Which brings us back to the main point. There is a very real possibility that some, or all, of the progress made by the Lakers from Game 1 to Game 2 of this playoff series comes down to a seismic shift in the unquantifiable - the execution of the OKC Thunder. The Thunder's execution in Game 1 was phenomenal, off the charts, unsustainable. Was Game 2 their regression to the mean? Or was it their regression way past the mean to the opposite end of the spectrum? For that matter, the Lakers' execution, which wasn't very good overall, and downright deplorable in the final minutes, certainly has room for improvement. Which team's execution will improve more in Game 3? That's an impossible question to answer.
What's not impossible to answer is which team has the most talent. That would be the OKC Thunder. Which team has the easier match-ups to exploit? It would seem to be the OKC Thunder. Which team has the edge in making adjustments? This is unknown. The Lakers did a good job with adjustments in Game 2. The Thunder will be measured on this aspect in Game 3 (they literally had no adjustments to make from Game 1 to Game 2). Add it all up, and you are left right back where we started this series, with the Lakers as firm underdogs against a team that is faster, younger, and more talented. The only difference is that the Lakers must now get the better of OKC four times in five games to advance.
Basketball is a funny game, with an infinite number of little events, each one an opportunity to go one way or another, that are summed up in 48 minutes of action, in roughly 80-100 points per team. You can never know how many of these events will go one team's way or another, what percentage of good or bad bounces each team will have. All you can do is establish a baseline based on talent, match-ups, and adjustments, and hope for the best execution possible. Sometimes, you get lucky and things fall in your favor, and other times, you don't.
I can't help but fight the feeling that the Lakers just got lucky, that they caught the Thunder on a night in which their execution % just didn't measure up. In those devastating final minutes, the Lakers coughed the opportunity up, and find themselves way, way behind, instead of on equal footing. Maybe the Thunder got even luckier, because the Lakers execution was similarly poor, but that's not the point. The point is that the baseline, that fictional place where execution occurs at exactly the levels you would expect based on past performance, firmly indicates that the Lakers are at a disadvantage. The Lakers did a good job of making adjustments in Game 2, creating an atmosphere in which it was much more difficult for the Thunder to execute.
But they did not make progress. The progress was erased by the overall result, because there is no progress in defeat.