Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thunder Rough Up Lakers to Pull Even

Hey everyone, I've been super busy this week so i haven't been able to post much, but here's an good blog post I found on ESPN by J.A. Adande which addresses my favorite NBA Playoffs series so far:

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Since the question is already floating out there, the answer is yes: If the Thunder knock off the Lakers, it would be a bigger first-round upset than the Warriors over the Mavericks in 2007.
Although the 2009-10 regular-season win disparity between the Lakers and Thunder was only seven games instead of the 25-game gulf between the Mavericks and Warriors, the Mavericks weren't the defending champions, and the Warriors weren't the playoff neophytes the Thunder were a week ago. (At the start of that Mavs-Warriors series, Baron Davis had played 35 playoff games, Stephen Jackson 43 -- including a championship ring -- and Al Harrington 25.)

The reason we're even having this discussion is the Thunder are halfway there, tied at 2 in their first-round series with the Lakers after a thorough 110-89 victory in Game 4 on Saturday night.

To me, it still feels a little less like Mavs-Warriors and a little more like Celtics-Hawks from a couple of years ago or even Lakers-Kings in 2002. The Kings were a better overall team that season, but the Lakers were championship-tested. (Don't even start with the Tim Donaghy-fueled conspiracy theories about Game 6. The Kings gagged in a Game 7 at home.) In other words, although the Thunder have played well, I'm not convinced they'll win this series.

It's all about Game 5. If the Lakers can win, it's hard to imagine the Thunder being prepared to win a Game 7 on the road. Playoff newcomers don't do those types of things.

That's all the Lakers have on their side at the moment. If you cleared the slate and didn't know which team had the experience or championship rings in its safe-deposit boxes, you'd give the advantage to the Thunder.
Let's say Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant effectively neutralize each other (even though Durant's ahead right now). The Thunder's No. 2 man, Russell Westbrook, has been consistently better than any Lakers candidate for the second-best spot. His Game 4 line: 18 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists.

The Thunder are playing better interior defense, rebounding better, getting easier baskets in transition, getting to the line more often and converting their free throws at a higher rate.

They were so superior in this game that they led by as many as 29 points, and Bryant spent the waning moments back in the locker room getting a head start on his treatment.

The Thunder have all the momentum; the Lakers have no answers. Starting with Westbrook's series-altering dunk in the third quarter of Game 3, the Thunder have outscored the Lakers 145-111.

When asked what the Lakers' frame of mind is right now, Bryant said, "Um, I'm not sure."

After constantly hearing that the solution was to get the ball inside to their big men, the Lakers dutifully complied at the outset of Game 4, with Bryant taking it to the extreme by not shooting in the first quarter. "I was managing the game exactly how I wanted," he said.

Despite getting quality looks, the Lakers made only 36 percent of their shots in the first quarter. Pau Gasol converted four of his first six but turned into a liability during the course of the game because he wouldn't come out to guard Jeff Green. The Thunder forward made two 3-pointers and scored 15 points, in addition to outrebounding Gasol 9-4. Gasol had a plus/minus of minus-22, worst on the Lakers.

The Thunder have turned all their negative attributes into positives. They're shorter, but they're faster down the court and to the ball, which translated into 24 fast-break points and 23 second-chance points Saturday. Their youth had them looking much fresher after the teams played four games in seven days. But the pace slows now, with two games in the next six days. And home-court advantage swings to the Lakers, with two games in Los Angeles if the series goes the distance.

"We know we still have a lot of work to do," Westbrook said. "We have to go to L.A. and try to figure out a way to squeeze out a win."

The Thunder can be buoyed by the memory of their last visit to the Staples Center, when they attempted a 3-pointer to win and then a 3-pointer to tie in the final seven seconds.

The Lakers can feel better based on what? Their ability to advance despite a pair of pathetic losses in Houston in the second round last season? That they found a way to win four of their last six road playoff games last year?

Phil Jackson isn't having it.

"Last season is entirely off the books," the Lakers' coach said.

And if they're not careful, their 2010 chapter will close a lot sooner than expected.

J.A. Adande is a columnist for

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