Yesterday, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets due in large part to the efforts of some key role players. Steve Blake (career playoff high, 19 points) stepped up with his best game in a Laker uniform, and Metta World Peace loomed large on the overall result as well. Pau Gasol was the star, and Kobe Bryant did an excellent job of trusting his teammates and taking what the defense was giving him, but the bottom line is that if Blake were to do what he "normally" does, the Lakers might be on vacation right now. If Game 7 taught the Lakers anything, it's that they are going to need their role players to shine if they want a chance at beating the Thunder.
How many times throughout Lakers history have we seen "The Others" step up? Steve Blake is the most recent example in a history book that is full of them. Just since 2000, the Lakers have been blessed with role players who don't play all that well all the time, but always seem to come up big when it matters most. Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher are all fan favorites, and the reason those guys live in Laker lore is not because they played well in the regular season.
Call it the X factor. Call it whatever you like. Its not rocket science to say that you need more than a few guys to be successful in the NBA. The importance of depth lessens in the playoffs, as big stars play big minutes, but you still need at least 7 decent players to make up a rotation, and if there are any guys in that rotation that aren't providing, it becomes a black hole that can be difficult to deal with. That has been the exact worry throughout the regular season for the Lakers. Depth hasn't been considered a strong suit since Lamar Odom was eating candy in the home locker room. But the Lakers have enjoyed a long history of guys rising up in big moments. From Robert Horry to Derek Fisher to Steve Blake, its a big part of why this historic franchise is so, well, historic. Denver learned that lesson the hard way in game seven, and with any luck, its a lesson the Thunder will find out too.
Of course, in order for the Lakers role players to be able to play their roles, the starters will need to grab the opponent's attentions. Kobe Bryant will be there against the Thunder, but he has struggled against them this season, shooting 23/75 in three games. The Thunder and their guard James Harden do a good job of slowing Kobe. The questionis can Kobe rely on Ramon Sessions, Blake, Devin Ebanks and World Peace to knock down shots? If he does and if they do the Lakers will have a fighter's chance. If those guys grow cold, then the Lakers will go dead.
In the same vein, a key for this Lakers team is getting the ball to their big men, and having those big men step up. Everyone knows Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and how important they are to the Lakers' success. But unlike the Nuggets, the Thunder has two guys who can be a handful for the Lakers twin towers. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka will hold the fort down low and will not need nearly the level of secondary support required for Denver to shut the bigs down. What the Nuggets basically did was to double the Lakers big men and dare the Lakers role guys to knock down open 3's. When the Lakers hit outside shots, the Nuggets couldn't manage things both inside and out. Against the Thunder it will be more of the same, except the Thunder may not even need to double all the time.
It's a scary thought, unless you think the Lakers role guys are man enough. Against Denver, two or three guys on the court were completely ignored, and they couldn't make Denver pay until game seven. Against the Thunder, the role players will need to have a greater impact and have less space with which to make that impact. If they take, and make, big shots this series could be interesting. If they disappear, things could get ugly real fast.