How the Lakers can beat the Thunder

The magic number is 22; remember that.

On Monday, May 14, 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder crushed the Los Angeles Lakers by 29 points (119-90) in game 1 of their Western Conference Semi-Finals series. Given that in the previous round, the Thunder swept the Dallas Mavericks while it took 7 games for the Lakers to get past the Denver Nuggets, and given that the Thunder took 2 of the 3 games they had against the Lakers in the regular season, I was pretty confident after game 1 that the Thunder would advance to the Western Conference Finals without too much trouble.

In fact, the only drama left in this series might be who Andrew Bynum or Metta World Peace will give a cheap shot to as the series closes out.

However, when I looked at the stats for game 1, I was startled to discover that while the Oklahoma City Thunder were 8 of 18 on layups, they had 13 points off of fast breaks. That means the Thunder just 1 of 11 layup attempts in half court play (or something VERY close to that) and may have struggled more in half court play than I had realized.

Could it be that the Lakers were actually effective against the Thunder in the half court, but just failed to keep the Thunder in half court play? The answer is, “Yes,” but we’ll get to that later.

Analyzing Game 1

The Lakers are the only team in the playoffs who average exactly the same number of rebounds per game as their opponents (46.88), which is pretty pathetic when you consider the size and talent the Lakers have at the 4 and 5 positions.Before we talk about how the Lakers can beat the Thunder, we have to understand what really happened in game 1 of the OKC/LAL series:

  • The Lakers’ spacing is horrendous. In fact, it’s hard to believe they are a playoff team — especially when you compare the Lakers’ half court offense to the offense of the San Antonio Spurs. It’s night and day. The Lakers start their sets with decent spacing, then quickly and steadily lose it as the shot clock ticks away, which makes execution difficult and sloppy, causes turnovers, and encourages the Lakers to shoot “hero ball” jumpers to get them out of trouble.
  • 53% of the Lakers turnovers were by their big three: Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant.
  • The Thunder scored 22 points off of turnovers, the Lakers scored 4.
  • The Lakers have the worst 3-point shooting percentage of all the teams still in the Western conference playoffs, yet they attempt more 3s than any other team in the playoffs.The Thunder and Lakers both shot 56 jumpers, but OKC made 45% of their jump shots while the Lakers shot just 37.5% — again reflective of the Lakers’ poor spacing and their inability to get clean, higher percentage looks.
  • The Lakers were 6 of 27 (22%) shooting midrange jumpers. By contrast, the Thunder was 13 of 27 (44%) on their midrange jumpers.
  • The Lakers have the worst 3-point shooting percentage of all the teams still in the Western conference playoffs, yet they attempt more 3s than any other team in the playoffs. Again, hero ball jumpers and bad spacing contribute to this. Because the Lakers play in a way that does not make them an outside threat, opposing defenses collapse on Lakers’ bigs and make their life harder.
  • The Lakers should have such a dominating rebounding advantage that OKC head coach Scott Brooks lies awake at night worrying about what to do about it. After all, the Thunder can’t run if they don’t have the ball.The Lakers are the only team in the playoffs who average exactly the same number of rebounds per game as their opponents (46.88), which is pretty pathetic when you consider the size and talent the Lakers have at the 4 and 5 positions.
  • In game 1, the Thunder scored the most in the 3rd quarter (34 points), the same quarter where they had their biggest rebounding advantage over the Lakers. Coincidence? Not likely.
  • Backup point guard Steve Blake had as many rebounds as forwards Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes combined! And Blake played less than one third the time of Barnes and Artest.
  • Half of all the Lakers’ 3-point attempts were launched by just two players: Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes.
  • With the Thunder’s starting center, Kendrick Perkins, out with a hip injury, the Lakers should have such a dominating rebounding advantage that OKC head coach Scott Brooks lies awake at night worrying about what to do about it. After all, the Thunder can’t run if they don’t have the ball.
  • The Thunder had 13 fast break points, the Lakers had 0.
  • OKC’s bench scoring doubled that of the Lakers (50-26).
  • The Thunder outscored the Lakers on layups and dunks, shooting 63% on 27 inside shots as opposed to the Lakers 56% on 25 inside shots.
  • The Lakers size and talent advantage inside, on both offense and defense, is laughable, especially Kendrick Perkins out. Unfortunately, rather than dominate, Gasol and Bynum pick their moments and do just enough to have decent numbers. If Bynum and Gasol could play with Jordan Hill‘s heart, they’d have OKC in foul trouble every game.
  • While the Lakers were -29 for the game, they were just -7 in half court play.
  • So for in the 2012 playoffs, when the Lakers have won, their opponents average 90.8 points. When the Lakers lose, their opponents average 108.3 points.
  • So far in the playoffs, when the Lakers win they average 49.5 rebounds, when they lose they average 44.3 rebounds.

In short, because the Lakers let themselves be drawn into a shootout, the young guns of the Thunder blew them out. But had the Lakers played to their advantage, boring as grind-it-out, half court playoff basketball may be to them, they would have been competitive, if not victorious.

So now that we have a clearer idea of how the Lakers can get blown out by the Thunder, how do the Lakers win?

How the Lakers can beat the Thunder

The magic number is 22.

The Oklahoma City Thunder is 2nd in the NBA this season in winning percentage when scoring 100 points or more (the San Antonio Spurs are 1st). In other words, if you let them score 100 points, it is pretty much a sure thing that you will lose.

Unless your point guard is Tony Parker, you are not going to beat the Thunder by letting them score. You have to beat OKC by digging in and playing the kind of grind it out, half court, “smash mouth” playoff basketball the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are currently playing, and the Lakers have the perfect personnel for doing that, if they would only exert their advantages.Interestingly, the OKC is also 2nd in the NBA in winning percentage when allowing their opponents to score 100 or more (again the Spurs are 1st). In other words, the Thunder doesn’t care if you score 100 points, the moment the scoreboard reads 100 points for either team, they know they’ve won — playing out the clock is almost a formality.

The OKC Thunder:

  • Has the highest field goal percentage of any team in the playoffs (tied with San Antonio at 48.1).
  • Has the highest free throw percentage of any team in the playoffs (84%).
  • Has the highest average points per game in the playoffs (103.6).

So the bad news is that unless your point guard is Tony Parker, you are not going to beat the Thunder by letting them score. You have to beat OKC by digging in and playing the kind of grind it out, half court, “smash mouth” playoff basketball the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are currently playing.

But the good news for the Lakers is that they have the perfect personnel for doing that, if they would only exert their advantages.

For the Lakers win 4 of the next 6 games, their coaching staff and every individual player has to commit to each other with a blood oath that they will not allow the Thunder to score more than 22 points per quarter.

For the Lakers win 4 of the next 6 games, [they have] to commit to each other with a blood oath that they will not allow the Thunder to score more than 22 points per quarter. The goal has to be per quarter. The team needs to be accountable for their defensive effectiveness as the game goes, and not just at game’s end.The Lakers may, perhaps, maybe, might, possibly beat the Thunder with a different game plan, but they will beat the Thunder if they hold them to 22 points per quarter, and 88 points per game.

The goal has to be per quarter.

The team needs to be accountable for their defensive effectiveness as the game goes, and not just at game’s end.

If the Lakers work to hold the Thunder to 22 points per quarter, but don’t quite make their goal every time, they will still have put themselves in a position to win the game in the 4th quarter because they only need 90 to 100 points to get the W, a very doable thing for the Lakers.

But can the Lakers do that?

Not only can the Lakers do it, they’ve already done it — 3 weeks ago.

On April 22, 2012, the Lakers beat the Thunder; the final score was 114 to 106. However, that game was played with 2 overtimes. At the end of regulation, the score was 91 to 91. And although the Lakers couldn’t keep the Thunder quite down to 22 points per quarter, they held the Thunder to 14 points in the 4th quarter and gave themselves a chance.

Here are some specific adjustments the Lakers can make:

  • Slow the game down to a half court grind by rebounding like they should. This will help with fouls as well as many of the Lakers fouls are to stop scoring on the fast break.
  • Space the floor like grownup basketball should be played so that there are less turnovers and better shooting percentages on jump shots.
  • Gasol is a legitimate triple threat from the elbow, and the Lakers are cutting two of them off his game by plopping him on a low block.Start Matt Barnes at point guard. Barnes may not be able to slow down Russell Westbrook anymore than Ramon Sessions, but with Barnes the Lakers can switch pick and rolls and not be so hurt by mismatches. Plus Barnes has been a more effective shooter in the series, and will make Westbrook expend energy on defense.
  • Quit posting up Gasol when he’s on the floor with Bynum. They don’t have space for it. When the Lakers first acquired Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol made his scoring impact on the Lakers by diving to the rim and getting lobs or high passes. Also, in the triangle offense, Gasol usually got the ball at the elbow where he could hit easy jumpers if left open, use his great passing ability to hit cutting teammates, or get to the rim with one dribble. Gasol is a legitimate triple threat from the elbow, and the Lakers are cutting two of them off his game by plopping him on a low block.
  • Make sure the shot distribution in the 1st quarter tilts towards Bynum and Gasol. Both Gasol and Bynum are emotional players and tend to pout when they feel left out of the offense, which affects all aspects of their game.Make sure the shot distribution in the 1st quarter tilts away from the perimeter (especially Kobe and Artest) and towards Bynum and Gasol. Both Gasol and Bynum are emotional players and tend to pout when they feel they are being left out of the offense. Their persecution complex affects all aspects of their game, including defense, rebounding and a willingness to switch ends of the court quickly, especially for Andrew Bynum. The “Bynum Trot” just drives me crazy; I can’t imagine what it does to coach Mike Brown. Anyway, find TONS of shots for Gasol and Bynum early, and test the Thunder’s interior defense, including a hobbling Kendrick Perkins. Get their bigs in foul trouble and make the game easier.
  • The Lakers are in such a hurry to get back on defense that they are missing out on offensive rebounds. In game 1, the Lakers grabbed just 13 offensive rebounds and gave up 31 defensive rebounds to the Thunder on the same shots. Send 4 to the boards and 1 to the back court when your team shoots and you’ll stop their fast break while scoring second chance points, both areas the Lakers stunk at in game 1. The Thunder cannot run and score if they don’t have the ball.
  • Sometimes you can’t stop your opponent — their advantage is just too great. In these instances you have to press your advantage and make them worry about stopping you. The Lakers need to just dominate the boards. Dominate them.In game 1 Lakers coach Mike Brown kept telling his players to stay in front of their man. It’s time for coach Brown to embrace reality. I cannot think of a point guard in the NBA, including Rajon Rondo, that can stay in front of Russell Westbrook or James Harden. And even if Ron Artest could stay in front of Kevin Durrant, Artest is still 3 inches shorter; Durrant can rise over him and shoot at will. I realize Coach Brown was hoping for extra effort and accountability when he made that statement, but the Lakers need a more realistic defensive scheme. Dallas used a zone and switched more often than the Lakers do. Yes, Dallas got swept, but they never got blown out the way the Lakers just did, plus the Mavericks held the Thunder under 100 points two of their 4 games.
  • Also in the “time to embrace reality” department, sometimes you can’t stop your opponent — their advantage is just too great. In these instances you have to press your advantage and make them worry about stopping you. Dominate the boards. Dominate them. Just bury the Thunder with Gasol, Bynum, Hill, World Peace, Bryant, Barnes… everyone scrambling for every rebound. If Steve Blake can grab 4 rebounds in 19 minutes, Ron Artest ought to be able to grab a good deal more than 2 rebounds in 32 minutes.
  • I miss the triangle. If the Lakers could keep the game in the half court by rebounding and caring for the ball, then in the half court game space and move the ball better, come the 4th quarter the Thunder would be in foul trouble, frustrated, and worn out enough to make real and frequent mistakes that would the game would easier for the Lakers.

And above all, the Lakers must be obsessive about holding the Thunder to 22 points per quarter.

At any rate, those are my observations and recommendations for the Lakers. We’ll see tonight what the Lakers actually do.

By the way, I realize that it will probably seem like a long shot for some that the Lakers could win any games against the Thunder, much less the series, but if Kendrick Perkins can’t play, or can’t play well, the Lakers really have a strong advantage inside that must be exploited.

The Surprise Ending

Now that I’ve said all that, I need to disclose that I am an OKC fan.

I love Scott Brooks as a coach. I think Kevin Durrant is a class act. James Harden is one of my favorite guards in the NBA. Russell Westbrook I both love and hate and you can guess why. And I think Serge Ibaka is this season’s rightful Defensive Player of the Year, and lost out to Tyson Chandler mostly because Chandler plays in New York City.

As a lifelong Alaskan I’ve loved the Seattle Supersonics… it was pretty much our state’s team. Of course they’ve moved to Oklahoma City now, but I still keep an eye on them.

Also, I’m pretty sure OKC will dispatch the Lakers without much fuss and face the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals in an epic battle that I just can’t wait to see.

So why the piece on the Lakers winning? Habit probably.

I’m a big Phil Jackson fan as well and like to study what he does in basketball. That led to me liking and following the Lakers, and now this season I’m curious about how the Lakers will do without Phil. Also, I’d kind of like to see Kobe tie Michael Jordan in championships before his career is over.

Besides, there is no brilliance or learning opportunities in mapping out how the team that blew out another team by 29 points can win the series.

I don’t think I have a favorite team, just an “A List” of teams I like more than others.

Another A-List team for me is the San Antonio Spurs, again because of my admiration for their coach, Gregg Popovich.

From 1990 to 2010, two coaches accounted for 15 of the 20 possible NBA championships: Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson. It boggles the mind! And both of those two legendary coaches have only been voted Coach of the Year one time each, until this year when Popovich was finally awarded it again.

By the way, since 1973, the only two coaches to win an NBA championship in the same year they won Coach of the Year are Gregg Popovich (2002-03) and Phil Jackson (1996-97).

So it looks like this is the Spurs’ year again! 😉

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