After a dismal defensive effort against the San Antonio Spurs this past Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers responded with high energy and playoff intensity against the high octane Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.
The disappointment of the Spurs game was compounded by the fact that the Lakers had just lost to them by over 20 points just three days prior. After that game, Andrew Bynum seemed intent on providing a repeat performance of his capable dominance, vowing to "Come see them," the next time they played. However, in Kobe's first game back from his shin injury, the Lakers ended up losing 121-97. Kobe, Pau, and Drew shot a combined 16-31 for 46 points, however, the rest of the team shot 17-45.
Despite the misfires from the role players, offense wasn't the true culprit in the game. The defensive performance of the Lakers was pathetic. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili carved up the Lakers on 24-38 shooting for 61 points, and the Spurs team as a whole shot 61%, including 66.7% from downtown. The Lakers gave up easy points in bunches off of drive and kicks, pick and pops, and transition buckets. The Lakers gave up way too many points in three out of the four quarters, as the Spurs dropped, 32, 24, 35, and 30. The Lakers did not fare well against the properly spaced, highly functioning execution of the Spurs.
However, Sunday was different. The Lakers and Thunder squared off for an instant ESPN Classic with a thrilling double overtime game as the Lakers managed to overcome an 18 point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, before I can discuss the game, I must cover the Metta World Peace incident. Lately I have been praising Metta for his transformation back into Ron Artest. With Kobe out, Ron stepped his game up and looked like the guy from Indiana and Houston, a guy that was considered a top 5 two way player in the NBA due to his stalwart defense and effective offense. Lakers fans all over were infatuated with the resurgence of Ron Artest, however, on Sunday, Ron Artest really was back, and not in a positive way. Actually, scratch that, Artest was very positive, until 1:39 was left in the second quarter. Artest was 4-10 for 12 points, with 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 steals, 1 turnover, and some great defense on Kevin Durant. Prior to the Kobe-less stretch, this type of line could have been considered a great game for Metta World Peace, let alone a first half.
Metta's dual nature, Ron, erupted from within and Ron lost his damn head by throwing one of the dirtiest elbows I have ever seen into the side of James Harden's head. Ron actually just made a great play, he pushed the ball in transition, attacked the middle of the floor, created space by bumping the lanky Durant in the lane, and finished with the thunderous lefty slam as Ibaka tried to swat his dunk. Then Ron spoiled the party, began pounding his chest as he headed back down the floor, bumped into Harden, who was just trying to get into position to receive the inbound pass, and absolutely clocked Harden with a full windup elbow to the side of the head. If that elbow had hit Harden in the temple, who knows if he would have ever gotten up. Ron then adopted a protective fighting stance as Ibaka rushed towards him.
Luckily Ibaka was smart enough to stay away. For some reason the refs were pretty slow in going over to Ron and pulling him back; it was almost as if the refs wanted to see just how far Ron would take it. Ron then told his side of the story to the refs, but it was all for naught. The replays clearly show how dirty the play was. Personally, I don't think Artest meant to full on clock Harden. I think that Ron was just amped after a huge play, he bumped into Harden, and he had a "Get off me" type of moment. You know that moment, one where you don't want anyone touching you and you lash out. Unfortunately, Ron took it too far and he wound up a vicious elbow that could have been featured in the most recent UFC bout. Ron was immediately assessed a flagrant-2, ejected, and will definitely be suspended. It's hard to argue for less than five games, but I can't recall an elbow leading to more than 3 games, in fact, this clip of Arron Afflalo elbowing Gordon Hayward less than a month ago isn't too friendly either. Afflalo was ejected with a flagrant-2 and he was suspended just 1 game.
Obviously Artest has an extensive history. With 13 suspensions under his belt, it's hard to argue on his behalf, however, Artest has been out of trouble for almost 5 years now. In 2007 he had a domestic dispute that led to a 7 game suspension, and just last season in the playoffs he was suspended 1 game after knocking J.J. Barea in the face. That's a pretty wide gap in-between incidents. Obviously a gap implies that there were incidents that actually occurred, but I hope the NBA tends to think of this as a driving record. After a certain amount of time, that speeding ticket doesn't matter on your points record anymore. Artest has truly had an amazing turnaround in his life, even winning the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award last season. Whatever the suspension, it will be costly to the Lakers in the playoffs. The resurgence of Artest has been an unexpected, effective surprise. Hopefully this detour leads back to the main highway and Artest will come back out on track.
Let's get back to the game. The Thunder and Lakers played a pretty even half, with OKC up 52-47. However, following Artest's knockout blow, one that ended up leaving Harden with a concussion, the Thunder came out in the third quarter and dominated. OKC won the quarter 25-14. It seemed like the Lakers were in a lull following the mayhem of the Artest debacle. The Thunder came out aggressive and took it to them.
Although Kobe shot just 2-7 in the first half, his defensive effort never waned. Kobe stuck Russell Westbrook, one of the most explosive players in the league, and made Westbrook look like the starting point guard of an Olympic qualifying team. Kobe went into Team USA mode and absolutely shut Westbrook down. Westbrook finished the game 3-22 for 14 points and 10 assists, with 8 of those points coming at the free throw line. Jeff Van Gundy commented early in the third, "Kobe Bryant has set a great tone defensively against Westbrook today, his energy and effort level, keeping the ball in front." Westbrook tends to blow by everyone, but Kobe made him ineffective on dribble penetration. The only moments Westbrook succeeded came off of picks that forced switches.
Despite Kobe's defensive success, the Lakers as a whole took a nosedive defensively in the third, most notably, Andrew Bynum. Bynum actually did a great job at the rim, with 5 blocked shots, but his pick and roll defense was horrid. In the third, the Thunder ran the pick and roll/pop to death, and Bynum got burned every time. Bynum failed to show hard on the picks, allowing Durant and Westbrook room to operate. Sometimes Durant would pull up for the open shot, other times he would use the space given to him to turn the jets on and finish at the rim. Westbrook picked up 4 of his 10 assists in the third quarter, mostly off of pick and roll kicks outs and dumpoffs in the lane. For whatever reason, Bynum just wasn't engaged in the game. He routinely let Perkins and Collison push him off the block, forcing Bynum to catch the ball in uncomfortable spots on the floor. Even more apparent was Bynum's lack of aggression. In his 29 minutes of play, Bynum shot 5-15 for 10 points. Many of those missed shots were timid fade aways.
I cannot recall a game this season where Bynum shot so many fade aways. Bynum is usually very effective by taking two dribbles with his back to the basket and using a quick turnaround hook, either baseline for the bank or in the middle right at the rim. In the first quarter, Bynum actually shot two air ball turnaround jumpers from within 6ft of the rim. AIRBALLS. Bynum shot 5 fade aways in the game, made none. Bynum's buckets were all dunks, except for one free throw line jumper. It just wasn't his night. Mike Brown eventually benched Bynum for the entire fourth and both overtimes in favor of the seldom used Jordan Hill. Hill played with tons of energy and swung the momentum in the fourth quarter. Hill finished with a career high in rebounds, 15, and his Lakers season high in points, 14. Bynum later admitted after the game, "I didn't think I was posting up hard. They were fronting me and I was just kind of letting it happen. I wasn't being aggressive." Those comments explain Bynum's weak offensive output.
Mike Brown commented on Bynum's weak defensive effort, "If we tell our bigs, whether it's Andrew or Pau or whoever, to be up on the floor, if you're not up the floor at the point of the screen and we're getting hurt [...] then somebody else is going to play. If we give our guys a coverage, then they've got to do it." Coach Brown inserted Jordan Hill and went with him the rest of the way despite his lack of familiarity with the offense. Although Hill clearly did not know exactly what he was doing on offensive possessions, his defensive effort and high energy on the glass epitomized exactly what Brown was looking for, effort.
Entering the fourth, the Lakers trailed 77-61. Mike Brown started Sessions, Blake, Ebanks, Hill, and Gasol. Van Gundy commented, "The lineup the Lakers have on the floor right now may not have ever played together this year." Van Gundy was right. Brown bucked his usual rotation and went with his gut. With 10:32 left, the deficit swelled to 17. Brown stuck with his gut. Ebanks scored 4 points and Pau had a tip in to make it 79-67 with 9:02 left. OKC quickly called timeout after Pau crashed the glass for a nice tip. The Lakers played with a ton of energy and the momentum was swinging their way. Kobe checked in a little bit earlier than usual at the 8:07 mark with the score at 81-67.
The Lakers played steady but were barely chipping into the lead. Then Steve Blake turned into Derek Fisher and hit two huge 3's. Down 84-73 with 4:37 remaining, Pau corralled an offensive rebound and kicked out to Blake in the near corner. Blake swished the open 3 and the crowd roared as the score dipped below 10 for the first time since the start of the third. The next possession, Kobe caught the ball at the mid top key. He jabbed right multiple times and then attacked middle. He drew contact from Thabo Sefolosha as he got into the lane and he finished a runner just outside of the dotted line for the and one. Kobe sank the free throw as the crowd thunderously cheered, MVP. Following a Durant miss, the Lakers came down and Kobe caught the ball at the near mid wing. In an iso set, Kobe backed down and pulled off a "Dream Shake" as he rocked baseline and turned middle. Kobe elevated to shoot a fade jumper, but the top side defender decided to leave Blake and come double Kobe just as he elevated.
In the air, Kobe put his full trust in Blake, kicked it out to him, and Blake sank the open 3 from the top. This is a shot that DFish has made thousands of times. It was nice to see Kobe trust someone who hasn't been by his side for 13 seasons. Blake's 3 made the score 87-82 with 3:19 to play. OKC came down and Durant missed a 3 from the near wing. The ball bounced off the near side of the rim and quickly sped towards the near sideline. Kobe and Ibaka then showed just how important the game was to both teams. With the ball racing out of bounds, both Kobe and Ibaka trailed the ball and ended up diving for it out of bounds. Kobe and Ibaka both crashed into the courtside fans. Fortunately, as Kobe dove in the air, he was able to tap the ball off of Ibaka's body, Lakers ball. Following an offensive board on the next possession, Kobe drove the lane and dumped the ball off to Pau right at the rim. Pau robbed Kobe of an assist, as he missed the easy layup, but Pau immediately went back up and tipped the ball in. Durant followed with another miss, and Kobe provided the highlight of the night.
With 3 on the shot clock, Kobe caught the ball at the near wing. He quickly dribbled to the top 3 as Pau set a slight pick on the trailing Sefolosha. With just enough space, but not enough time to set up, Kobe shot a one foot running 3 at the top of the line. Thabo nearly swatted the shot from behind, but Kobe was able to pull off the crazy shot. The crowd erupted, and the Lakers took their first lead since they were up 12-13. Westbrook followed with an attack to the rim. Westbrook was fouled and he sank both of his free throws. Then Kobe hit an even bigger shot with less than a minute left. Kobe took a handoff from Pau at the far top 3. Kobe sized up Sefolosha, jabbed right, took a slight dribble to his left and swished the 3 right in Sefolosha's face. Once again, Westbrook got fouled on a layup and was able to sink his free throws to tie the game. Both Kobe and Durant missed eventual game winners in the final 30 seconds and the game headed to overtime.
The first overtime was pretty ugly. Both teams scored 6 points, and both teams couldn't seal the deal. However, Jordan Hill made a defensive play on the last play of the overtime that probably saved the game. With 2.3 left in the game, Westbrook inbounded the ball to Perkins at the near top key, Perk immediately handed off to Westbrook and set a pick on Kobe. Hill wisely switched off Perkins and contested Westbrook's floating 3 from the top. Hill's challenge saved the Lakers from giving up an open look. Who knows if Bynum would have put forth the same effort. Westbrook came up short as he shot the ball over Hill's outstretched arms.
In the second overtime, the Lakers went to work. With the score tied at 102 at the 2:20 mark, Kobe went into overdrive and finished off the Thunder. Kobe hounded Westbrook from the near wing to the far top of the key. Westbrook was unable to turn the corner on him, and Kobe forced him to dribble back out to about 35ft. Westbrook then attacked Kobe and pulled up for an errant 3 at the far top side. Westbrook bricked the contested shot, and Kobe came down and pulled off the "Dirk Shot." In an iso at the near top 3 side, Kobe attacked to his right and got to the mid block. At the mid block, Kobe decided to spin back and shoot a one foot fading jumper, the infamous "Dirk Shot."
Kobe swished the 15ft jumper over the perfect defense of Thabo Sefolosha. After getting a stop, Kobe then caught the ball at the near mid wing with his back to the basket. In an iso situation, Kobe faced up and jabbed right while swinging the ball through from right to left. Thabo bit on the jab, figuring Kobe was going to attack baseline. Kobe promptly squared up his shoulders after the swing through and swished the 16ft jumper. The Lakers then got another stop, as Ebanks stole an errant lob pass headed to Durant in the lane from Westbrook off of a pick and roll. Ebanks sent the outlet to Kobe, and old man Kobe pushed the full length of the court. He got fouled on the layup, the crowd chanted MVP, and Kobe sank both of the free throws. This put the Lakers up 104-108 with :36 on the clock. Ebanks then stole another pass from Westbrook in the lane and he sank both of the free throws. Blake and Gasol hit some free throws and the Lakers closed out the victory 106-114.
As the game ended, it was evident that Kobe was impressed with the win. Kobe had a mini celebration with Gasol and Blake, and then he had a true man to man moment with Coach Mike Brown. The moment with Brown almost seemed like an "I got you," followed by Brown's, "That's the way to do it," moment. Kobe and Brown exchanged some hard looks of determination and they embraced with a firm handshake hug as Coach Brown whispered some words into Kobe's ear. The moment was palpable and the symbolism could elevate this Lakers team to even greater heights.
Although Kobe shot rather poorly, 9-26 for 26 points, he came up big in the biggest spots. Add in his 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1 steal and Kobe had a hell of a game, especially considering how much defensive effort he put into shutting down Westbrook. Pau flanked Kobe, shooting 7-18 for 20 points, 14 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals, 1 block. Each had 3 turnovers, but considering they both played 49 minutes, they can be forgiven. The efforts of Jordan Hill and Steve Blake cannot not be overlooked as well. Blake went 4-9, 3-5 from 3, for 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Hill shot 6-11 for 14 points, 15 rebounds, 1 steal, and 3 blocks. Devin Ebanks also showed his defensive prowess in the absence of MWP. Ebanks played shutdown D on Durant all night, forcing Durant into a miserable 11-34 for 35 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block, and 5 turnovers. Ebanks only shot 1-4, but he attacked the rim, getting 10 foul shot attempts, and finished with 8 points. Sometimes all it takes is energy to be productive. Skill always helps, but energy can make up for just about anything.
The Lakers played like a team poised for a deep run in the playoffs. However, a series win over OKC cannot be achieved without Andrew Bynum. Jordan Hill was great in his relief duty, but Bynum is the star. Maybe Bynum just got caught looking ahead to the playoffs. Whatever the case, I expect Bynum to come back strong. With an effective Bynum, and Kobe and Pau playing their tails off, the Lakers are dangerous. It looks like the seeding has shaken out so that LA-OKC will meet in the second round.
If so, the ramifications of the Artest-Harden debacle could have a huge impact. Who knows how long Artest is going to be suspended, and who knows if Harden will be able to recover from the dangerous symptoms of a concussion. Despite it all, this season series has been full of physical, entertaining play. If this instant classic is any indication of the impending series, basketball fans everywhere will be rewarded with some of the highest play from some of the biggest stars in the NBA.
Update: This article was written pre-suspension. Metta has been supended for seven games since then.
Get more great NBA analysis from Tim White over at Blog Is My Medium, Sport Is My Message.