The Lakers’ 87-79 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday was approached with the precision of a lion stalking a gazelle on the African Serengeti. They never hurried, played within themselves, and were always in control of the game. And in the end, they got their meal.
I always knew the Lakers had a game like this in them–but they had certainly done a good job of hiding it lately. They hadn’t been playing championship-level basketball since about middle of March. It was refreshing to see, for once. Here are the highlights:
That said, this game was just one of four victories needed to vanquish the Thunder, and it was only one of sixteen victories needed to secure the franchise’s sixteenth championship this June. So, here are some observations from Game 1 and what it means moving forward.
I liked the defense the Lakers played in the first one and a half quarters. This was the athletic, screen-switching, shot-contesting/blocking/altering, ball-hawking defense that quietly propelled the Lakers to a championship last year. The Lakers haven’t been switching much on the Pick and Roll this year, and they’ve been scorched by it more times than I’d like to recount. The Lakers switched early and our bigs (especially Bynum) were stepping out and closing on mid-range shooters. The Lakers’ ramped up intensity clearly caught the Thunder (who had shredded the Lakers two weeks ago) by surprise. They shot 5-19 from the field and finished the first quarter with 13 points. It’s obvious that when the Lakers want to be, they can be a defensive juggernaut.
I didn’t like how the defense intensity slipped for the the last 2 and a half quarters, but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It appeared that the Lakers were heading for a 20+ point blowout, but the Thunder actually outscored the Lakers in the second quarter (26-20) to cut their deficit to 8 heading into the quarter. That was the deficit when the final whistle blew.
The score-line was certainly closer than the game actually was. I, for one, was never particularly nervous. With come-backs, I’ve always said that the toughest part is when they team that trails cuts the lead to 7. When the deficit hits 7, you find out if the comeback bid is for real (and the leading team is in trouble) or it’s a false hope rally. Say what you will about the Lakers defense in the second half, but they never let the Thunder get within 6. Every time they needed a stop, they got one. And with a team that’s had a history of blowing leads they’ve held for a majority of the game (See: Finals, NBA, 2008, Game 5 ), it’s a step in the right direction.
Phil Jackson also said that the Lakers hoped to limit the Thunder in transition. And we got some glimpses as to why he wanted to do that. Russell Westbrook is terrifying in the open court and so is the Thunder. The Lakers surrendered 14 fast break points (as compared to scoring 2 of their own), so I’m sure that will be a point of contention between now and Tuesday at 7:30 PM.