The Oklahoma City Thunder had the best record in the tough Western Conference for most of the season, and they've yet to lose in six postseason games. The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, struggled through an up and down regular season, and the team has lost nine of its last 13 playoff games, dating back the group's second-round sweep at the hands of the champion Dallas Mavericks last year. An admittedly watered-down version of those Mavs, you'll recall, was swept out of the playoffs by the Thunder just two weeks ago.
With this unfortunate bit of history in place, and with a desperate Game 3 set to tip off on Friday night, is it possible the Lakers have any chance — both not only in this series, but in Game 3? That's going to be a tough one, Los Angeles.
We're well aware that the team was just over two minutes away from stealing the home-court advantage in this series on Wednesday night. Game 2's final-minute meltdown shouldn't take away from the fact that for 46 minutes the Lakers hedged off of Oklahoma City's screens expertly, covered ground in transition, forced nine more turnovers than they were able to in Game 1, while clogging the middle on drives from Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant. The defensive template, clearly, is in place.
But does it matter? Now it's Oklahoma City's turn to make adjustments, and while Thunder coach Scott Brooks doesn't have the best reputation around the league for being able to adapt on the fly, you get the feeling that his young charges know exactly what to do this time around: Keep the ball. Attempt to get to the free-throw line, and put the onus on the referees to make the call as you careen into Los Angeles' big men. And though Serge Ibaka is just fine with hitting baseline jumper after jumper, don't endlessly set up the defensive-minded forward when you can find a way to hit a runner in the lane.
Ibaka, in a way, might be the key to this series.
Though the young forward blocked a startling 3.6 shots per game during the regular season, he's not often as good as his third-place standing in the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year voting would suggest, because he often roams at the expense of sound team defense. But though he blocked seven shots in Wednesday's Game 2 win, it was the way he was able to change things for the Thunder defense that may have kept OKC in the game.
The threat of Ibaka's weak side rejections stops Andrew Bynum from going into his full drop step, instead forcing him into a three-quarter turn and banked-in jumper that is a much, much tougher shot. Though Bynum is capable of making that shot, he has to hurry and put arc on it with Ibaka approaching, and keep the rather sturdy Kendrick Perkins (or backup Nazr Mohammed) off of his right hip. It ain't easy, kids.
Not that Bynum is worried. Not on the defensive side of things, at least, two days removed from limiting the Thunder to 77 points following a 119-point outburst in Game 1. He said as much to ESPN's Dave McMenamin on Thursday:
"I don't think we have many pieces to pick up," said Lakers center Andrew Bynum after the team's brief practice and extended film session on Thursday. "We know exactly how to defend them now."
He's not wrong, but the Thunder probably know exactly how to break that defense at this point. Whether they follow through on those smarts is anyone's guess, but at the very worst Los Angeles' defensive breakthrough has been recognized and learned from by the Thunder. If Scott Brooks' team acts accordingly, they could have a series-altering win on its hands.
If the Lakers act upon the same know-how when they have the ball, Los Angeles could have a series-extending win on its hands. As we discussed above, getting the ball into Bynum and asking the big man to work is no easy task with Ibaka looming, but if he cuts to the ball on the strong side quicker, rather than your more orthodox post-ups, he could take in some easier shots and chances at getting to the free-throw line. And though the Laker offense wasn't going great guns even in the first half on Wednesday, when Kobe Bryant (here's that song again …) posted Thabo Sefolosha up or made decisive jab steps within 15 feet of the hoop, he was able to free himself up for several good looks in the first half on Wednesday.
Will Kobe continue his late-game habit of relying too much on long perimeter bombs? Will Bynum be able to get a shot off? Will the Thunder corral their turnovers? Will Los Angeles, hardly a great fast break outfit (Laker fans no doubt ruefully recall Ramon Sessions' missed lay-in in transition in Game 2, forced with Russell Westbrook sizing him up for the chase down block), be able to do much with those Thunder miscues?
Will any of it matter, if both teams bust out several new adjustments we weren't anticipating in the slightest?
This might be the most interesting game of the NBA's season. Well worth staying in on a Friday night, to see how it unfolds. Or, potentially in Los Angeles' case, "falls completely apart."