I don't think it's a stretch to say that the biggest question facing the Los Angeles Lakers this postseason is whether or not they are capable of "flipping the switch". It matters a great deal, because over the past month or so, the Lakers have looked more like a lottery team than a champion. If the Lakers are capable of willing themselves to dramatic improvement, through focus, effort, and execution, they remain at least a contender for the title, if not the favorite. If their struggles were indicative of the team's true "self", the season will probably end sooner than we're all comfortable with.
One game is not a big enough sample size to really analyze whether the switch has been flipped or not, but since when has that stopped anybody from proclaiming they know the answers. After the jump, we'll take a look at a variety of important factors which have been hurting the Lakers lately, and whether the Lakers were able to improve on those factors because they decided to.
Status of switch: Quite On
This is an area where we had a pretty good idea that the Lakers would be able to turn it on, and we were absolutely correct. The Lakers spent much of the early part of this season with the top ranked defense in the league, and tonight you saw why. Ron Artest was inspired against Kevin Durant. KD only had 24 points on 24 shots, and also had 4 turnovers. This is exactly why Artest was brought to the Lakers, and his first playoff game showed that, defensively at least, he is an improvement.
But Artest is not alone in deserving praise. Rotations were much crisper than we've seen of late, and the additional presence of Andrew Bynum made a huge difference, as Bynum did a good job of protecting the paint, en route to 4 blocks. Pau also chipped in with 3. Also, special mention to Shannon Brown. Shannon has a defensive reputation he doesn't really deserve, but tonight he was pretty damned good. On one possession in particular, he absolutely stifled his man, literally preventing him from going in any direction for about 5 seconds before just ripping the ball. And he fought over screens for perhaps the first time in his career.
The lone complaint is one that we all knew was inevitable. The Lakers can not defend Russell Westbrook. For some reason, it took OKC a full quarter to remember that Westbrook can dominate the Lakers at all times, but once they did figure it out, RW simply could not be stopped. I'd say the Lakers need to figure something out with him, but I'm not sure they have the personnel to do so. They might just have to let RW score so much he gets tired, and focus on shutting down the other 4 guys on the court.
All in all, when you win comfortably despite not reaching 90 points, your defense was solid.
Lakers outside shooting
Status of switch: Doesn't exist
Another non-surprise. This is the one factor we've been talking about all year as unlikely to improve, because shooting doesn't work like that. Actually, the Lakers shooting was improved tonight, especially in the 1st quarter and 4th quarters. But those middle quarters were filled with 3 pt misses, most of which came from Ron Artest. Sadly, % wise Artest remains one of our best shooters, but his stroke has completely deserted him. 1-8 from 3 pt range on the night. If the Lakers get this kind of shooting the entire playoffs, that'll be OK, but it's hard to imagine Derek Fisher going 50% the rest of the way
Status of switch: On ... but dimmed
The Lakers did a better job of running the offense tonight than they have been doing, but if you look at the overall distribution of shots, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Kobe took only 19 shots, which isn't so bad. Pau had 14 which is about right. Same with Drew at 10, maybe could have been a little higher, but for his first game back, it works. But there's no way Fisher should be shooting more than either of those guys, and yet his 12 shots was 3rd on the team. 4th was Artest, who's shooting has already been touched upon, though if he's wide open, we need him to take the 3 pt shot. We also need him to make the 3 pt shot, and that might be a problem going forward.
Andrew Bynum's Health
Status of switch: Way, way on
OK, so obviously this isn't something that changes as simply as the "flip the switch" moniker might indicate. That said, what we knew of Bynum coming in was that he had been hurt. And he is notoriously slow coming back from injuries. Well, I don't think I'm alone in calling Bynum's performance the pleasant surprise of the night. Bynum didn't come back at 60% or 80%. He came back at 125%. He looked as strong and as mobile as I can remember this season, dunking over people, being active on defense, climbing high for rebounds. Not only does he look as if he's not bothered at all by the injury that saw him miss the last 13 games, he came back without missing a beat, even dropping a couple of rhythm hook shots.
Kobe Bryant's shot
Status of switch: Off
Similar to the Lakers outside shooting in general, the Mamba continued to struggle with his outside shot. I'd say tonight was equal parts poor shot selection and simply missing good shots. He definitely forced a few, but even his good open looks weren't going down. And he missed another very un-Kobe-like 5 of 12 free throws. As Dex noted in the post-game, he certainly looked better (his legs seemed to be pretty strong), but whether it's the legs or the finger, his shot is still MIA.
Derek Fisher's shot selection
Status of switch: On ... in a bad way
Everything else discussed on this list is something we've wanted to happen more. Here's something we want to happen less. As previously mentioned, Fish took 12 shots, about the same amount as Pau and more than Bynum, and he only made 4. I guess credit should be given when due, and Fisher was very solid from 3 pt range, 50% on 3 of 6 shooting. But that means he tooke 6 shots inside the arc en route to his final shot tally , and missed 5 of them. I don't remember every shot Fisher took, but I do remember thinking he was still taking bad shots, and in the first quarter I believe he took more shots than anybody else. There simply is no reason for that to happen.
Status of Switch: On ... with a low watt bulb
Honestly, the Lakers bench is never going to be the driving force behind a win, so we have to praise them whenever possible. In yesterday's game, they played up to their limited potential. They only scored 16 points, but they did so on a very efficient 50% shooting. On top of that, they held the Thunder's bench to only 12 points, so for once the bench's defense supported the efforts of the starters instead of undermining it. Obviously, the re-introduction of Andrew Bynum to the starting lineup allowed Lamar Odom to resume "Captain of the bench" duties, and the difference was dramatic, but the results go further than having LO run with the 2nd unit. In fact, LO was the only bench player who didn't play well by the standards we have for them. Of course, that's only because he's the only non-starter for whom we don't set the bar really low.
All in all, we certainly saw dramatic improvement in a variety of areas, leading to an overall conclusion that this team is somewhat capable of turning it on. However, the poor shooting and so-so shot selection from the perimeter is still an issue which will need resolution if the Lakers are to defend their title. Now let's see if the switch can stay on for a little while this time around.