May 16, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) is fouled by Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace (15) during the second half in game two of the Western Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE
To say that Game 2 was a disaster would be underselling what it means for the Lakers. True, a series doesn't really begin until a road team wins, but that platitude looks far less relevant when the Lakers have to play a back-to-back against a bunch of young legs, and were just beaten in a game during which they really tried to win. The Lakers gave away a seven point lead in the final two minutes in just about the worst way possible: repeatably shooting themselves in the foot. It would be one thing to be beaten by heroics from Kevin Durant, but it is especially disheartening when your own failures are to blame. For the previous 46 minutes, the Lakers brought the requisite effort required to rebound from their Game 1 annihilation and take control of the series heading back to L.A. You simply can't give anything away to a team as good as the Thunder, and the Lakers provided them with a bigger gift than anything they did in the first round against Denver. If the Lakers are going to come back in this series, the most likely method is simply by taking the next four games in a row: get momentum at home, beat the Thunder in OKC, and finish them in Game 6. The sheer improbability of that statement is fairly evident on its face.
- The defense -- If anything will keep the Lakers in this series, it was the kind of defensive effort they brought on Wednesday evening. For the first time in a long while, the Lakers were actively forcing turnovers via players getting in the passing lanes or from pressure being exerted on ballhandlers off the pick-and-roll. Good hedges were being made, penetration deterred, and the defensive boards taken care of for the most part. Mike Brown deserves tremendous credit for making his defensive acumen, long an informed ability rather than a visible one, apparent on the court after OKC's shellacking of the Lakers' defensive schemes in Game 1. No doubt OKC will adjust, but as we noted from the start of the series, the lack of frontcourt scorers OKC possesses gives the bigs great freedom in helping on perimeter players and only Serge Ibaka has somewhat hurt the Lakers in this regard. It may not be enough to stave off a defeat in this series, but a similar defensive effort as in Game 2 at least gives the Lakers a fighting chance for the remainder of the playoffs.
- Metta World Peace -- One can usually assign a solid defensive outing to two players: MWP or Andrew Bynum. In the case of Wednesday, both were especially good. MWP in particular was a terror, stripping balls left and right from ballhandlers and playing spectacular positional defense. Kevin Durant surrendered four turnovers by himself, which was the same number of turnovers the Lakers forced during the entirety of Game 1. MWP's offense was erratic, notably his bizarre attempts to try shooting over Durant, a failing proposition for someone with no lift whatsoever, but his defensive performance was something that will keep the Lakers in this series. Durant is by far a better player than the one MWP dominated in 2010, but he still remains as effective on him as any player in the league.
- Andrew Bynum -- Bynum wasn't always comfortable on offense in Game 2, as Kendrick Perkins did a much better job steering him towards help, also known as Serge Ibaka's long arms. If Perkins is taking the baseline away, it would behoove Bynum to break that fadeaway out of his arsenal, as Perkins lacks the length to bother the shot and it would reopen his favored move towards the baseline away from the teeth of the Thunder defense. Bynum's defensive effort was miles better than it was in Game 1, as he stayed closer to the action on the pick-and-roll and several shots that were open for the Thunder in the previous game were suddenly eclipsed by Bynum's long arms. With the offensive "threats" at the opposing center position being Perkins and Nazr Mohammed, Bynum will have to continue to work off them to help on OKC's superb perimeter players, and at least for Game 2, it was a winning strategy.
- Pau Gasol -- After a no show in Game 1, Pau brought far more fire in Game 2, aggressively attacking the rim, and even showing an effective hook shot, something that has been bereft from his post arsenal for a while. He still needs to bring more of that high post passing that has greased the wheels of the Lakers' offense for so long, but for the most part, he was a solid performer in Game 2. Although he often surrendered open shots on the baseline to Ibaka in favor of helping on ballhandlers on the pick-and-roll, it was definitely the strategy the Lakers need to follow and for the most part, it was largely effective. For this series to have any sort of additional longevity, Bynum and Gasol need to dominate their counterparts in the Thunder frontcourt, and they did so in Game 2.
- Honorable mention goes to Jordan Hill, who had a very effective game that was otherwise sidelined by foul trouble. Displaying his trademark athleticism and nose for the ball, he single-handledly kept possessions alive despite occasional offensive ruts. His enthusiasm for midrange jumpers is something that is not altogether unwelcome -- since he hit a decent percentage throughout the regular season -- and it increases his overall utility on the floor, but thus far in a Lakers' uniform, he has been surprisingly inaccurate on them. One can hope he turns that around in the immediate future, particularly since it makes pairing him with Bynum a much more natural fit.
- Kobe Bryant -- We often assign blame to a player for a single failure during an individual possession that led to a loss down the stretch. It is rare that an entire symphony of errors is the cause, but that was the case for Kobe, as he coughed up a pair of turnovers, although Steve Blake is credited with one of them, and missed his two shots in crunch time. Even outside of this disaster, he was much too willing to let loose from behind the arc -- six missed threes -- and has to start working off the curl action that he was so effective on earlier in the season. Going directly at Thabo Sefolosha, who has shown very ounce of his defensive chops this series, is a pointless venture, as Kobe's bad handle and lack of burst just mean that it ends in an unnecessarily difficult shot or a turnover. On defense, Kobe was part of the overall effort that resulted in so many Thunder turnovers, but his offensive performance has to be the thing that stands out from the Game 2 debacle.
- Ramon Sessions -- Sessions' struggles at this point can't be merely assigned to him not being utilized correctly in the offense, as he appears to have simply lost a good deal of confidence in his game. The previously spot-on perimeter shooting is absent and his aggressiveness has been all but neutered. Yes, he looks bad in part because he inexplicably is being asked to stand on the wing and throw entry passes as basically a triangle guard, but the tentativeness every time he touches the ball tells enough about where he is right now. Even if his shot isn't falling, he still needs to attack the Thunder off the dribble and force Russell Westbrook to work on defense, as simply by attacking and probing, he'll open up opportunities for other players.
- Steve Blake -- Of course, it would be remiss to make Blake the scapegoat for Game 2 since he had a wide open look that simply didn't go down. Westbrook's head was turned completely away from him, and he had all the time in the world to gather himself and shoot a wide open three as soon as possible and keep the possibility for an offensive rebound alive. Additionally, Blake showed grit on defense checking Westbrook, and he had some nice hustle plays for rebounds and loose balls down the stretch. Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that he coughed the ball up three times -- although one of those was on Kobe -- missed four of his five shots, and didn't throw any dimes. The point guard position is a basically the biggest liability for the Lakers in the playoffs at the moment and that needs to change if the Lakers are interested in extending this series.
- (Dis)honorable mention goes to Matt Barnes, whose role has understandably been limited in this series. With MWP required to check Durant, there are precious few minutes available at the three and it is doubtful that that situation changes unless MWP gets into foul trouble. Still, Barnes' run might have been longer if he hadn't picked up a trio of fouls to start the second quarter, which helped grease OKC's offense for the remainder of the half. While he isn't going to get a good deal of minutes, he at least needs to be effective in those minutes and keep the offense humming with his cutting and activity.