May 19, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers small forward Metta World Peace (15), and Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden (13) and Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) battle for the ball in the second half of game four of the Western Conference semi finals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Staples Center. Thunder won 103-100. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers face the Oklahoma City Thunder with their season on the line. A loss will mean a quick and ignominious exit for a team that is not built for 2nd round losses. A win will mean a reprieve of their judgment for at least 48 hours. The odds are not in their favor. Last year, the Lakers came to a shameful end on the opponent's home floor, the result of a shocking and unexpected sweep. This year, for all of their possible issues with team chemistry, attitude, and depth, the Lakers have at least proven to have more fight in them than last year's squad. But that fight hasn't been fully harnessed, and has spilled over into fighting with each other as well as the opponent.
After Game 4, we highlighted how various Lakers, chiefly Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, seemed ready to point fingers at each other in the wake of yet another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. As is often the case in these situations, both players had points brimming with merit: Pau Gasol does need to be more aggressive and be ready to shoot in all circumstances when he is passed the ball in late game situations. And that one turnover was not the reason Game 4 was lost, since it was just one failed possession in a sequence filled with them. Kobe's efforts in quarters 1-3 put the Lakers in great position to get the needed win on Saturday, but his poor 4th quarter is as much to blame for the loss of the lead as any other factor. So both players were right, but both players were also wrong, because this is the worst possible time for the team to be doing anything remotely resembling in-fighting.
The Lakers' opponent in this series is the Oklahoma City Thunder, and they are a fine, fine team. In Game 4, we saw just how difficult the Thunder can be to beat when both of their stars are in a groove. It's interesting to note that despite the fact that the Lakers were in great position to win Game 4, if you were to tell me in advance that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would shoot a combined 57% from the floor en route to 68 points, I would have been sure that the Lakers would lose the contest. Game 4 and Game 2 are both similar, in that the Lakers lost a game they should have won because they executed poorly down the stretch. But in Game 4, the Thunder won the game at least in equal measure to how much LA lost it, because their stars were unstoppable down the stretch and the Lakers just couldn't keep it together. What's the take away in all this? Even if the Lakers play right, the Thunder can still beat them. Even if the Lakers play well, the Thunder can still beat them. Which makes beating them once at home, to say nothing of three straight times overall, a very difficult task.
The only way the Lakers have a shot at a victory, or three, is to make sure that the object of their aggression is the right target. The team must know who their enemy is, and not waste any energy on the potential enemies within. We've been banging the drum all series long that the team needs to be at their best to have a chance, and the Lakers have delivered at times. But they have also picked exactly the wrong times to stop delivering, and its left the Lakers in a very similar position to last year: on the brink of an early exit in the NBA playoffs.
Can the Lakers pull off the unexpected? We'll know soon enough. But if they are not united in directing all of their fight at the right target, then the answer has already been given.