It may not have looked like it, not with Pau Gasol being called "soft" every time he tried to force a shot through Aaron Gray and Trevor Ariza, or Kobe Bryant airballing shots late on his way to a 3-10 shooting night, but the Lakers have righted this ship. We don't know how long this will last, it could be shot to pieces by Game 3, but this is a step in the right direction.
For one, they forced Chris Paul to the baseline. This has been Phil Jackson's modus operandi with point guards for years, and not only did the quick help and push force Paul out of his initial wants and needs with the ball, it effectively forced him out of the play. Because the Hornets take so long to get into their sets, two passes following the trap the ball would be in Trevor Ariza's hands with the shot clock winding down, and Paul would be stuck on the baseline like some sort of Eddie House-type. Not the MVP-type that owned Game 1.
And though the Lakers could have done better with some re-entry passes for Gasol, or actually cutting around Gasol (the trick to getting Pau back in the fold is not to dump in the ball in the post and just watch, guys), the Laker offense was moving and working well. 101 points per 100 possessions is typically pretty near-crummy, but against a great Hornet defense and with Kobe and Pau combining to shoot 5-20? You'll take that overall offensive number, especially when you see Lamar Odom (16 points and seven boards) crush Carl Landry off the bench, and Andrew Bynum make 8-11 shots.
With 20 points and nine assists, Paul was great, but not in a way that takes down the defending champs at home. He was out on that island for most of Game 1 and for the early part of a fascinating battle early with Kobe Bryant. But once Los Angeles started shading him to the sides and away from effective angles, it was all over. There were runs, but nothing lasting when the ball ends up in the hands of so many lesser lights, against the brightest team in the NBA.
And if the Hornets are banking on building upon Trevor Ariza shooting 8-15 mostly on pell-mell drives to the hoop off of improvised cuts, then they have another thing coming. I know that Paul has made a career out of slowly-paced brilliance, but if the Lakers are going to trap as they did in Game 2, then Paul has to engage that initial screen and roll earlier in the shot clock. The Hornets' offense will die a death if he doesn't.
This was a little frightening, NBA.
Denver had its missteps. They seemed hell-bent on taking the first available somewhat-passable shot every time down court. Wilson Chandler gave the appropriate amount of defensive attention to Kevin Durant, if Kevin Durant were actually Stephen Graham. And J.R. Smith came through with one of those every-so-often J.R. Smith games. No, not that one. The other one. Yeah. Not good.
Beyond that, though, Oklahoma City sealed its blowout fate. The game started as the last one finished, with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant both nailing long jumpers and raising the percentage that those two hit on shots of that type up to 74 percent (20-27) on the series. Following that, sanity prevailed, as the duo's mark from that area regressed to the mean. Following that, the rest of the Thunder got mean.
James Harden came off the bench to score 18 points on nine shots. Nick Collison bailed the Thunder out of several plays with good finishes and jumpers, Eric Maynor (five assists) whipped the ball around, and Serge Ibaka managed a 12 and 12 double-double. The Thunder were dominant, and I didn't even like Kendrick Perkins' hedging defense all that much.
Because of a few whiffs by Perk, the Nuggets were able to climb back into things and keep us interested. Ty Lawson tossed in 20 points mainly on quick jumpers, and Al Harrington was solid in the first half as the Nugs had it down to 12 with 90 seconds left in the second, hoping to go into halftime with something respectable. Instead, the deficit was 15 as the teams went to the locker rooms, and Denver never really threatened.
Par for the course, when you treat Kevin Durant as an afterthought. I've seen Wilson Chandler play both great and terrible defense in his career, but overall I'd rank him as a pretty good defender. Certainly one that stood out on the Knicks. But he was awful -- and, if I can be a bit cruel, lazy -- in guarding Durant. Wouldn't fight through screens, wouldn't meet him in transition. I understand that at his best Chandler probably has no chance with the 7-footer, but give us something, please.
On the other end, those quick shots (for everyone but Ty Lawson) killed Denver. They weren't terrible shots, but the Nuggets could have done better, and even the bigs (Nene front-rimmed several early jumpers) were in on it. All starters not named "Lawson" shot 25 percent, and J.R. Smith missed five of six off the bench. And those quick shots were a huge reason why a team that often makes its hay grabbing long rebounds created by their own chuckers only managed five offensive boards. OKC missed way fewer shots but Scott Brooks' team picked up 17 offensive caroms, while out-rebounding Denver by 23 overall.
That's on the Nuggets. The rest? So on Oklahoma City. Let's see how it translates on the road.
You can always come back from a few iffy shots, taken at the wrong point, chucked from the wrong place. Assuming you're in the first half or third quarter or even the early fourth, of a very close game. But making up for those shots late in the fourth is just too much to ask, if things are close. Yes, points count for as much in the first quarter as they do with a minute left in the game, but pointed attacks count for so much more late. Memphis slipped, slightly, because San Antonio pounced.
As well as San Antonio can pounce at this point, I suppose. It was still a struggle for the Spurs, but they won this game way more than Memphis lost it. San Antonio really hunkered down on stopping penetration and looks from the mid-range in, all while going out on the other end to earn chances at making things right offensively. The Spurs played a desperate, willing brand of playoff basketball; and yet this was still a two-point game with less than a minute left.
That might not mean anything moving forward, because you don't take off from the place where you left. The "this isn't the Tour De France" comment works whether the previous game was won by 30 or three, and it's up to the Grizzlies to understand that a close, impressive loss in Game 2 means absolutely nothing to the scoreboard moving forward.
(Though it was a close, impressive loss.)
The in-game appreciation was a little fawning, but for Manu Ginobili to essentially come back from a week and a half off (remember, he barely played down the stretch of the regular season) while wearing an arm brace that we've never seen take the NBA court before, and contribute? Good news. He turned it over five times, but four assists and four steals helped make up for that. He missed six of 13 free throws, but he also helped put the Grizz in the penalty, as the Spurs attempted (and earned) 12 more freebies than Memphis. And he was the spirit and drive behind a soul-deep San Antonio attack that blah, blah, blah … even I don't believe that. But it was great to see him back.
Tim Duncan fouled out and had five turnovers of his own, but his rotating defense was fantastic, forcing tough finishes all night as Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined to miss 16 of 23 shots. O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier won't shoot 3-18 again, but you'd also be wrong in expecting consistent 7-13 shooting nights from Sam Young and Tony Allen; though we respect their play.
Memphis' focus, entering Game 3, will decide this series. No way around it.