Oklahoma City Thunder 103, Los Angeles Lakers 100 (Thunder lead series, 3-1)
You get the feeling that every quarter the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder play is worth a column of its own. Our wrists can't handle such an exercise, though, and in a series like this, I'm not sure I can handle another exhausting three games. Though I'd like to see the Lakers and Thunder try.
Where to start? Well, it's almost as if Kobe Bryant realized his own line of [nonsense] emanating from his high free-throw total in Game 3. Yes, he got to the line 18 times and secured the Lakers' win, but it wasn't as if he was driving and getting hit to get to the stripe. Most of his looks came on fouls on the perimeter, with Oklahoma City in the penalty, and not some head-down brand of dashing to the goal. Come on, Kobe.
So what did he do in Game 4? Come on, Kobe. Come on so damn good. He was brilliant, to start. Absolutely fantastic in dominating in the post against both Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden, and outpacing even his Game 3 rate (10 free-throw attempts at the end of the third quarter in Game 3, 14 of those bad boys at the same time in Game 4) at the free-throw line by, you guessed it, putting his head down and driving to the rim. Smart, tough and cerebral play from a man playing nearly his 51,000th combined regular-season and postseason minute, on the second night of a back-to-back.
And what does he do in the fourth quarter? Come on, Kobe.
Bryant missed 8 of 10 shots, all but one were off of two perimeter looks, one of the makes was an impossible turnaround shot (a pretty terrible shot), and the second of the makes came at the buzzer with the game out of reach. He didn't play smart basketball, and as we've bitched about for years, this hurts doubly because he knows so much better than this. Nearly 51,000 career minutes, and he's still pulling this?
Now, is it a given that the Lakers would have been able to ride Andrew Bynum, as they did in the second and third quarters, late in the fourth? Absolutely not.
For all we know, this could have been Bynum's game to give away, had he been given the chance. Bynum has played over 40 minutes in the last three games, and played the entire first and third quarters in this contest, on the second night of a back-to-back. Bynum split his two attempts in the quarter, and Pau Gasol (so clearly not a power forward in a pick and pop style) didn't even attempt a shot in the fourth, and his late-game turnover was a game clincher for the Thunder. Nothing is guaranteed in this game, and there is no certainty to the idea that the Lakers could have won this game had they continued to go inside first.
What is guaranteed is what we saw. The Lakers played one way for three quarters, and led by nine points as a result. They stopped playing that way in the fourth quarter, and were outscored by 12. Chirp all you want about Bynum and Gasol (save for the last turnover, passing on taking a jumper or potential drive in a terrible decision) "not wanting the ball," but I didn't really see them passing on trying to step up when Kobe was doing his perimeter nonsense.
That's a good chunk of words about the losers. How about the team that pulled out the win?
How about the Oklahoma City Thunder, turning pressure inside-out to use it almost as a freeing, knowing influence that allowed them to play loose with house money with the Lakers seemingly ready to "do what they're supposed to do" and take both games at home?
How about the fantastic fronting job by both Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka in the second half?
How about the fact that the Thunder outscored the Lakers by 14 points in just under eight minutes, once Kendrick Perkins entered the game in the fourth quarter?
How about Russell Westbrook's ability to both get into the lane, and take and make those tough mid-range jumpers that the Lakers wanted to force him into? How about the fact that he's turned the ball over three times in right at 140 minutes of play in this series?
How about Serge Ibaka blocking five shots, again, and how it just feels normal?
How about James Harden, refusing to get rattled by his poor shooting, continuing to drive on offense, get to the line, and keep his wits about him defensively even if the shots weren't falling?
How about Kevin Durant, railed at on Twitter by an ESPN columnist a night prior for being too weak to lead a team late in games, coming through with 31 points on just 18 shots, with 13 rebounds? How about that too-cool jumper, again playing with house money, to put his team up three points?
How about this Oklahoma City Thunder team? The team that won it, more than the Lakers lost it?
We're disappointed in the Lakers. They're a team with talent enough to win a championship, and yet for the second season in a row they seem to be let down by their own hubris. We want to see them play more basketball. We wish this wasn't a second-round series. We wanted seven games and a movie.
It's still possible, I suppose. And it should be noted that even if the Thunder win in five games, on Monday, this still feels like an epic.
San Antonio Spurs 96, Los Angeles Clippers 86 (Spurs lead series, 3-0)
The collapse was shocking only to those that just haven't seen a lot of San Antonio Spurs basketball this year. Yes, the raw numbers behind the Spurs putting together an 80-46 run to overcome a 24-point deficit and put the Clippers in a dastardly 0-3 series hole are jaw-dropping, but these are the Spurs. If this comes off as too flip, I apologize, but this is just what happens when the best team in the NBA gets its act together — it systematically destroys a very good team playing with its best player at three-quarter strength.
Once San Antonio found its spacing again, the Clippers had had it. Once the strong side cuts actually had somewhere to go, the ball started moving as a result, and once Kawhi Leonard (3-5 from downtown) started squaring his shoulders, the Clippers just didn't have a chance. Twenty-two possessions ending in a 3-pointer created 27 points for San Antonio. Thirty-five field goals, all game, with 27 assists. Silly string defense in the third that crowded Los Angeles' strong side and took away the post-ups that Blake Griffin relied on so much in that first half.
And Chris Paul, who needed 17 shots to get his 12 points, couldn't do anything about it.
Paul is so obviously hobbled, and though Eric Bledsoe brought good first-half energy and Mo Williams' jumper was on point all afternoon, the only way the Clippers survive against great teams is if Chris Paul absolutely dominates late in close games. He's incapable of that right now, partially because the Spurs are so great, but mostly because an injured Chris Paul just isn't all that great when he's hurting so much.