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Pau Gasol rescues Kobe Bryant for a change

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How many times has this very same scene played out?  On the road, surrounded by thousands of hostile fans, down one with the clock winding down, and Kobe Bryant dribbling the basketball.  How many times have we been treated to those exact circumstances?  We know how it plays out.  The other team tries to double, but Kobe drives away from the 2nd defender.  He picks a direction, goes full steam, creates just enough separation, and launches a jump shot.  The shot goes in, the Lakers win.  The shot rims out, the Lakers lose.  It's as simple as that.  But not this time.  It's not the first time Kobe has failed to be the hero.  But it is the first time someone else was there to put Kobe on his shoulders.

Those shoulders belong to Pau Gasol, who took Kobe's miss and calmly banked it off glass as the clock ticked down to .5 seconds, giving the Lakers a 95-94 lead that would hold up to a desperation shot by Russell Westbrook at the buzzer.  Off the top of my head, I can't remember a bigger shot in Pau's NBA career.  That it came under the circumstances it did, with all the other factors that went into this game, all the other outliers and strange phenomenons that made up 48 minutes of compelling basketball, made it all the more fitting.  Go ahead and take a look at the box score and then ask yourself:  How the fuck did the Lakers win this game?

After 5 games, you felt like you knew what was coming tonight.  You knew OKC would struggle to score from the field, but would stay in the game by getting to the line.  You knew that Russell Westbrook would likely play better than he did in Game 5.  You knew that either Jeff Green or James Harden would have a big game at home, but probably not both.  You knew the Thunder crowd would carry the team, that an 8 pt Laker lead was actually a bad thing because of how much energy the crowd could provide at the slightest hint of an OKC comeback.  You knew it all because it was predictable, based on what we've seen so far, and the Thunder played their roles in the script to a T.  Just about the only area in which the Thunder defied expectation was in the turnover department.  With only 6 TOs on the night, they did a great job of taking care of the basketball, and based on that factor alone, you might have expected a Thunder victory.

The Lakers, on the other hand, couldn't have provided a stranger performance.  Yes, Kobe was Kobe, carrying the Lakers through the 3rd quarter by making tough shot after tough shot, and ending with 32 points on 25 shots.  But everything else the Lakers did qualifies as a surprise, both good and bad. 

  • Only three players reached double figures ... and they were all guards?  Our guard play has been the weakest link on the team this season, but the aforementioned Kobe, Derek Fisher, and Shannon Brown all took a turn at providing big shots to help the Lakers prevent a surge by the home team.  Meanwhile, I can't remember a game in which all three of our big man triumvirate played, were healthy, and all failed to score double digits.  I don't even think it has happened, much less happened in a victory.
  • The Lakers went from the outside in, taking 30% of their shots from behind the arc ... and made 50% of them?  3 pt shooting has been the bane of this team's existence all season, and anything over 20 attempts from downtown is usually a recipe for disaster.  Tonight, however, the Lakers outside shooting was a HUGE factor in overcoming the Thunder's FT and TO advantages.  Raise your hands if you thought the Lakers could possibly win a game in which the Thunder outscored L.A. in the paint.  OK, now you, the guy with your hand up in the back, stop lying. 
  • On the road, the Lakers bench carried the team to victory?  If the Lakers are to win a championship, it will be because they have the best starting 5 + 6th man in basketball.  If they don't win, it will likely be because the bench is otherwise filled with mediocre players.  But tonight, the bench were the ones picking up the team.  Shannon Brown hit 4-5 shots en route to 11 big points, and some of those were tough shots that would normally have me yelling at Brown for taking the shot in the first place.  LO provided some good energy with 9 points, 7 boards, and 3 blocks off the bench.  Luke Walton rose from his coffin to hit 2 huge shots down the stretch.  Those may or may not have been the first two shots Luke has hit all year.  All in all, despite the Thunder playing at home in front of a crowd that could have inspired me to amputate my own leg, the Lakers bench outscored their foes 30-16.
  • The Lakers turned the ball over too much ... and managed to get back in transition to prevent getting punished for it?  15 Turnovers for the Lakers compared to just 6 for the Thunder, and yet the Thunder couldn't capitalize on easy fast break opportunities.  The Lakers held the Thunder to a relatively modest 13 fast break points.

Seriously, all signs from this game point to a Laker loss.  Too many outside shots, nothing going on inside.  The Lakers turned the ball over too much, while the Thunder hardly turned it over at all.  The only people providing Kobe Bryant with any real support were a reserve guard and Derek Fisher's intangible corpse.  A free throw disadvantage north of 2:1.  The game's been over for two hours now, and I still don't quite understand how they pulled it out.

But then, we know how they did it, because it's how they've done it all year (when they weren't too busy not doing it).  With defense.  The Lakers defense, as it has been all series and almost all season long, was spectacular.  They held the Thunder to sub 40% shooting for the entire series.  Ron Artest earned his entire paycheck in his relentless hounding of Kevin Durant (which is good, because Ron Ron certainly wasn't earning it on offense in this series, though there were signs of hope towards the end).  Aside from Game 4, the Lakers put the pedal to their defensive medal, and it was an impressive display.

Kudos to Pau Gasol, who couldn't take advantage of his man, and struggled with both his inside and outside shot, but never quit working.  Pau pulled in nearly half the team's rebounds, and came from 20 feet off the basket (at the time of shooting) to secure the rebound and tip in that won the game.  Kudos to Shannon Brown, who didn't let a very hard fall deter him from making a large positive impact on this game and this series.  And kudos to the much maligned Derek Fisher, who quietly is picking up the kind of steam from the outside that makes him a worthwhile commodity, no matter how bad his defense is.  Fisher is shooting close to 50% from 3 pt range in the playoffs, and has the highest eFG of any player on the roster not named Pau or Drew.

Kudos to the Lakers, who finally managed to play through some tough whistles and a crowd that was reaching "We Believe" proportions.  They were given multiple opportunities to fold, but finally displayed the mental toughness and grit that will be absolutely required if a repeat title is in the cards.  Tonight, they had to find new ways to win, because the usual stuff wasn't working out.  In a game full of strangeness, the ending provided the strangest finish of all, with Kobe being saved by his teammates, instead of the other way around.

 

Poss.

TO%

FTA/FGA

3FGA/FGA

2PT%

3PT%

EFG

TS%

ORR

DRR

PPP

Lakers

86

0.17

0.18

0.3

45

50

54

55

19

69

1.1

Thunder

87

0.07

0.36

0.22

39

26

39

47

31

81

1.08