Thunder vs. Lakers Games 3 and 4: Who's The Better Closer?
If you watch the NBA on TNT, which I’m sure most of you domestically do, then you should of over the past few years noticed the one show that TNT manages to advertise during (it seems like) every broadcast. Now I’ve never seen the The Closer (an American crime drama according to
Wikipedia) on TNT and I doubt I ever will be a part of it’s viewership, and as far as I know only the name has any significance with NBA basketball. Never was that on display than this past weekend, when the NBA’s top scorers, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant showed how to close out high stakes games (even if Kobe had a little boost from the refs….queue hate from the Lakers’ fans).
Both games came down to the wire, with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers having dueling chances to win both games (Durant on one end and Kobe on another). The variety of situations that both teams faced allowed a series altering split, with the Lakers finally arriving to the series with a 99-96 win on Friday and the Thunder taking one-step closer to reaching the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year, with a 103-100 win on Saturday.
What We Learned From Game 3:
Does anyone remember Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals? Of course you do. The Lakers down 2-3 to the favored Sacramento Kings where we were provided with one of the most sophisticated wins in NBA history. If you were too young to remember or you suppressed those images out of your memory, here’s a refresher. The free throws and margin in that game has become etched in NBA lore, for all the wrong reasons.
Yet, somehow, with NBA Commissioner David Stern in attendance, almost 10 years to the day of that sacred incident, the Lakers managed to pull a repeat. According to the Elias Sports Bureau L.A.’s historic 41 of 42 performance from the free throw line (for 97.6%), is the second best in NBA playoff history for a team shooting at least 30 free throws in a game.
41-42, compared to 26-28 for the Thunder. I’m not going to go into controversy mode, the Lakers were aggressive given they seemed to sense the success they were having on the charity stripe. Bryant took 18 free throws, making all 18 and the Lakers 44-37 rebounding margin buoyed the Lakers attack: be aggressive and out hustle the Thunder.
The Lakers not-so subtle free throw charges surpassed all except a Dallas Mavericks 49 out of 50 performance on May 19, 2003, in San Antonio. Just to give you the greatest idea of what this game was, know that 10 of the Lakers last 12 points, coincidentally, came from the free throw line. That “effort” in the final three minutes turned a 85-88 deficit into the 99-96 victory. One final thought on the free throws: In the fourth quarter, the Lakers shot 18 free throws to the Thunder’s 10.
Outside of that, the Lakers did do a good job of getting Ramon Sessions involved, getting him into the lane on cuts and as he made a few floaters and layups throughout the game. The mid-range jumpers from Russell Westbrook were not as prominent as the previous games and Durant was much more passive on offense than he had been beforehand.
All-in-all the Thunder had their hands in the pot up until the final minute and could have walked away up 3-0 if not for a missed Durant 30-footer and the subsequent Ibaka putback that should have been a kickout to a shooter (the Thunder were down 3), but was instead blocked by Andrew Bynum.
What We Learned From Game 4:
Let’s just put this to bed: 1) Kevin Durant is much more clutch at this point than Kobe Bean Bryant. I won’t bash Kobe akin to our most recent podcast, but I will say this, Durant is a lot more clutch than he gets credit for. 2) The Thunder have learned to close out games and the Lakers can no longer do so.
The Lakers had a 91-78 lead with 8:02 to go in the game. Up to that point the Lakers had outplayed OKC in almost every facet of the game. Sessions was slashing and present, Kobe was playing his best game in years, with impossible turnarounds, hesitation moves to the basket, and the Lakers as a whole were doing what we knew would win them this series: scoring in the paint and rebounding.
L.A. had 14 offensive rebounds to OKC’s 6. They looked to be the better and more assertive team….and it was all downhill from there.
Oklahoma City started to front the post with Kendrick Perkins taking away entry passes to Bynum and Pau Gasol‘s touches only occurred in the high post and made him largely ineffective (he attempt a shot or score in the 4th quarter). In the first three quarters, the combination totaled 26 points on 52% shooting from the field. In the 4th quarter, they combined for 2 points on two field goal attempts and grabbed one rebound. On the other hand, Perkins grabbed 5 rebounds in the 4th quarter alone.
With Durant switching on to Kobe with about 5 minutes left in the game, Kobe’s only points came off of two free throws. Bryant was 2-10 from the field in the 4th, because of Durantula’s length and effort. Overall the Lakers shot 31.8% in the 4th quarter and were held to just two field goals over the final 4:30. The Thunder turned up the heat defensively and Westbrook and Durant closed the book on L.A.
Westbrook 12 points (including 10 straight) brought the Thunder within four (92-96) on a steady diet of mid-range jumpers and drives to the rim. The man who slipped 7,548 times on the Staples Center floor (attributed to the NHL’s Kings’ playoff home game ice) had the Lakers defense slipping and sliding for this stretch of the final period. He was harnessing the explosiveness like Marvel’s Avengers’ Hulk. To add a little perspective, Westbrook has committed only 3 turnovers in this entire series. That’s a man on a mission.
Yet, it was Durant’s cool, calm, and collected dagger that defined both his game and his teams accession. ESPN.com notes that Durant is a league leading 10-23 in game-tying or go-ahead field goals in the last 24 seconds of the 4th quarter/OT this season (including the playoffs). That is 43.4%, the league average is 27%….my goodness. Kobe on the other hand is 3-18 (16.7%) this season (including the playoffs).
That’s maybe the most telling statistic of this game and maybe even this series. Clutch conversions are what define the Thunder and plays like Gasol’s decision to attempt a cross court pass that led to Durant’s game winning 3-pointer, along with Kobe’s decision to public call out Gasol’s assertiveness, have defined this Lakers team. All of a sudden, a Kobe-led, physical, veteran team is on the edge of imploding, with questions of producing when it matters the most surrounding them. And with a closeout Game 5 on the horizon, performing at a moment like this seems a burden too heavy to bare for the Lakers.