Tonight the Los Angeles Lakers look to close out the young but impressive Oklahoma City Thunder in an important Game 6 in OKC.
The Lakers dominated the Thunder in the first game of the series, winning handily and looking like the current champions they are. But the Thunder did not roll over. They came back strong in Game 2, a game that they lost but played well and led in the 4th quarter. Back home, the Thunder ran the Lakers off the court, winning both Games 3 and 4 handily. Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers returned to their true form and trounced the Thunder, leading by more than 30 at one point to claim a pivotal 3-2 series lead.
And here we stand now, at the precipice of Game 6. A Lakers win and they're onto the conference semi-finals to play the winner of the Nuggets-Jazz series. A Thunder win and the series returns to LA for a deciding Game 7 on Sunday.
To win this game, the Lakers need to do the following:
- Go inside on offense. The Lakers have two 7 foot tall, offensive beasts in Bynum and Gasol. Bynum plays like a typical big, back to the basket. He's got some sweet post moves and can clean up on the offensive boards. Gasol is more of an all around offensive threat. He has the 16 foot jump shot, he's got the back to the basket moves, and he's one of the best big man passers in the league. In Game 5 the Lakers went to both big men early and often and dashed out to an insurmountable lead. In the games they lost, the Lakers failed to go inside, instead relying on jump shots and one on one play.
- Use Kobe as an offensive facilitator, not a creator. Kobe Bryant has lost a gear. While only 31, he's got too many miles on his odometer, too many nagging injuries, and is clearly not the same player he was in years past. He's got a broken finger that is impacting his shooting, as evidenced by his poor field goal percentage this series. Problem is, sometimes it seems that Kobe doesn't realize this. Too often he seems hellbent on creating something from nothing, instead of acting as a facilitator who conducts the offense (which should mean getting good spacing on the floor and then getting the ball inside to Gasol or Bynum). When Kobe tries to do too much, the Lakers suffer. When he defers, they win. Kobe... please defer tonight!
- Slow down Westbrook and Durant. Ron Artest has done a better job in guarding and harassing Durant than I had expected. To be honest, I thought Artest's age and declining skills would be highlighted this series, but the exact opposite has come true. So that's some silver lining in the cloud and gives me some hope that Artest can work similar magic against future opponents the Lakers may face (presuming they get past OKC). Of course, Artest's offense is another story... Artest needs to continue manning up and playing strong D against Durant, but that alone is not enough. The Lakers also need an answer for Westbrook, who has emerged in this series as a premier point guard. In Games 1-4, Westbrook lit up Fisher, blowing by him at will. In Game 5, Kobe started guarding Westbrook and played a more conservative defense. Rather than crowding Westbrook, Kobe would give him a five foot buffer, guaranteeing Kobe enough time to adjust when Westbrook makes his move, and daring Westbrook to shoot the jumper. Fortunately, Westbrook's jumper was flat in the first half of Game 5, allowing the Lakers to build on their lead. Had he been hitting the long ball (as he started to do in the second half), I wonder how successful Kobe's defense would have been. Regardless of what it takes, the Lakers need to limit Westbrook and Durant's impact on the game tonight.
- Keep the Thunder players off the offensive boards and limit second chance shots. In the two Thunder wins they dominated the Lakers on the boards and in hustle.
I hope the Lakers come out with a strong focus tonight and put away the Thunder convincingly, rather than dragging this out to a 7th and deciding game. Last year, when the Lakers played Game 6 in Houston in the first round, I was certain that the Lakers would do just that - come out strong and win handily. Unfortunately, the Lakers did the opposite last year, getting rolled by the Rockets and having to win back in LA. Let's hope this year is not a repeat of last year, and that this series can be nipped in the bud sooner rather than later.