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Bynum Returns Strong, Lakers Snag Game One


We suspected this wouldn't be pretty. The Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder have some transcendently talented offensive stars, but the season-long identity of both teams has been grounded in their defensive play. To their own selves the Lakers and Thunder were true on Sunday afternoon, as they kicked off their first-round playoff series with a clutchy, clangy Game One. The Lakers prevailed, 87 to 79, a final score that warms the hearts of anyone nostalgic for the Knicks-Heat playoff series of the late ‘90s. Jeff Van Gundy no doubt felt right at home.

In a slightly reductive but not invalid sense, this was the first game of Ron Artest's Laker career that really mattered. The team signed him to supply dominant playoff defense against elite wings. Kevin Durant represents the first huge field test for the Lakers' offseason personnel strategy, and so far Mitch Kupchak is looking like a smart man. Artest got physical with Durant, chased him through screens all day, got into his head and took up residence there like an occupying army. Durant scored 24 points but needed 28 shots to do so. (He had 24 official FGAs plus five two-shot trips to the line. One of his FGAs I disregard because it was a 52-foot heave as time expired in the third.) The kid also turned the ball over four times and chucked up a couple airballs. The early advantage in this key head-to-head matchup goes definitively to Ron.

The Thunder's other main source of points, guard Russell Westbrook, had a fairly brilliant day. After a first quarter in which he deferred to Durant and tried to get other guys going, he started attacking the inside of the Laker D in the second. Derek Fisher did his best but obviously isn't equipped to stay with Westbrook. Even with OK help rotations and with Kobe Bryant and Shannon Brown occasionally taking over defensive duties, Westbrook still went off for 23 points on 65% True Shooting and eight assists with only one turnover. During one stretch at the end of the second quarter and beginning of the third, he scored on five straight possessions. He's going to have a huge series; the issue for OKC is whether he and Durant can get enough scoring help from the Thunder's role players.

Today they did not. Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden were invisible. Jeff Green missed too many open jumpers (allowing his man to help elsewhere). Serge Ibaka was kept off the offensive glass, where he usually does solid work. In fact, the most subtly important thing the Lakers did today was corral missed OKC shots. The Thunder were third in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate this year, collecting 29% of their own misses. Today that number fell to 24%, with credit due mainly to Pau Gasol (10 defensive boards) and Andrew Bynum (9 in 30 minutes of play).

Drew's form, in his first game back after missing 13 with an Achilles strain, was a delightful surprise. That he played almost two-thirds of the game was itself unexpected. That he performed as if in midseason shape - looking aggressive and strong with the ball, blocking four shots - was all the more gratifying. This isn't the hesitant, out-of-focus Bynum we saw this time last year. It's only one game, but he looks he'll be a force in April and beyond.

The other nice surprise today was how well the Lakers as a team shot threes. They made eight of 22 attempts, which would be a mediocre day for the Suns but for this edition of the Lakers amounts to a shock-and-awe bombardment. They built a 14-point first quarter lead behind a pair of threes from Fish and one from Artest, and in the fourth, moneyballs from Kobe, Fish, Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar were critical in silencing the Thunder's comeback attempt. Ron eventually missed 7 of 8 from behind the arc, still mired in his monthlong slump, but if the Lakers can continue to make 36% of their threes, they'll be in decent shape. (As they'll be if the Thunder continue to make only 13% of their threes.)

In his first game action in a week, Kobe looked OK. It appeared that he was getting better lift on his shots, and I found his defensive work to be lively and thoughtful. The Mamba's accuracy, however, still isn't there. He missed 13 of 19 field-goal attempts and 5 of 12 free throws.

Game Two is at Staples on Tuesday night. Leading a playoff series, I'm reminded once again, is a lot more fun than being down. Please, do tell us what you thought of today's W.











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