Beat Down in OKC

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Well, so much for the Thunder’s supposed rustiness.

Despite not playing a game for 8 days (an eternity in this hectic season) the Oklahoma City Thunder picked up where they left off against the Mavericks, trouncing the Lakers 119-90 in Game 1 of the Western Conference semi-finals.

For the Lakers it was their worst defeat of the season, and one of their biggest playoff loses ever. Remember the 1985 Memorial Day Massacre at the Boston Garden? Well, last night was the post-Mother’s Day Massacre at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. (Not really sure that one will catch on).

For the Thunder it was the ultimate statement game. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were on fire, going through phases of the game where they seemingly couldn’t miss a jump shot. In stark contrast, Kobe and the Lakers were flat all night—turning the ball over and communicating poorly on defense. This one was over midway through the 3rdquarter.

Pre-game Hype

Entering the game, all the talk was of the contrast in styles between these two Western Conference juggernauts.

It was the playoff-tested veterans of the Lakers versus the young, talented upstarts of the Thunder—speed and outside shooting versus interior domination.

How would the Thunder cope with the inside threat of the Lakers? Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, both coming off monster game 7s against the Nuggets, would look to pound Oklahoma City down low and work them over on the glass.

On the flip side, the Lakers would have to cope with a young, dynamic Thunder team that could get out in transition and shoot the lights out on any given night. In Durant and Westbrook, they possess two of the game’s premier scorers, not to mention newly crowned 6th Man of the Year, James Harden, coming off the bench.

Speaking of Harden, the unavoidable subplot of Game 1 was, of course, Metta World Peace’s return against the Thunder, after his vicious elbow on Harden just a few weeks previous. World Peace was greeted with predictable hostility by a fired up OKC crowd, but appeared to revel in it—just like a professional wrestling Heel working over the fans.

…And Then, The One-Sided Clobbering

Early in the 1st quarter it seemed as though the Lakers size and strength down low was going to play a major factor in the game. Andrew Bynum dominated Kendrick Perkins early on, posting him up, and scoring 8 points with some nice hook shots. But the Thunder, as they often do, found their rhythm with the jump shot. Westbrook matched Bynum’s scoring with 8 of his own, while distributing the ball extremely well, adding 4 dimes in the 1st quarter.

Westbrook, in-fact, was unstoppable all night long. He finished with a game high 27 points, and added 7 boards and 9 assists. Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions had major problems staying in front of him all game, and he was able to pull up and hit his patented mid-range elbow jumper with ease. When Westbrook is hitting that shot, he’s pretty much impossible to guard. Mike Brown may want to consider putting a longer more athletic defender, like Kobe Bryant, on Westbrook for Game 2.

Of course, it wasn’t just Westbrook that had the jump shot going last night. Durant began to find his range as the game moved into the 2nd quarter. He finished the night with a typically efficient 25 points.

The Lakers would’ve expected the likes of Durant, Westbrook and Harden to hit their shots, but Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins were also knocking down shots when they found themselves open. The dribble penetration of Westbrook and Harden killed the Lakers all night, and when they did kick the ball out, the traditional non-scorers took advantage.

Normally teams can afford to cheat on guys like Ibaka and Nazr Mohammed, giving them the space to hit the mid-range shot. Not tonight, however. Everything was dropping for the Thunder.

Despite the wonderful shooting night from OKC, the Lakers didn’t help their cause with sloppy ball handling and poor transition defense. The Lakers turned the ball over 14 times, while the Thunder had a season low 3 turnovers (this, from the worst turnover team during the regular season!) Against the Thunder, the Lakers simply couldn’t afford to give away possession so easily. Westbrook and Harden frequently torched L.A. on the fast break, as the Lakers’ lumbering big men failed to get back quick enough.

On defense, the Thunder did a fantastic job of double-teaming Bynum (after the 1st quarter) and pressurizing the Lakers’ ball-handlers into making mistakes. Thabo Sefolosha was glued to Kobe all night, fronting him up constantly, and generally making his life as hard as possible. The Lakers were poor, however, in rotating to the shooters and there were too many communication breakdowns on defense, leading to open dunks in the paint.

The game was put to bed by the 3rd quarter, in which the Thunder put a colossal 39 points on the board—the most points scored in a quarter during the playoffs this year. The Lakers simply had no answer to the Thunders’ crisp ball movement, cuts to the basket, and outside shooting.

Scott Brooks had the luxury of pulling his starters by the end of the 3rd, and garbage time ensued. Nothing quite like watching Josh McRoberts and Cole Aldrich scrap for 12 minutes.

Time to Wake Up

It has to be said that L.A. looked like a tired team. Coming off a grueling 7 game series against the Nuggets, in which they played 3 of those games in high altitude, a slow start against the Thunder was always a possibility.

This defeat, however, continues a worrying trend for the Lakers. Some nights, like in Game 7, they look unstoppable. Kobe has it going, and Bynum and Gasol destroy teams in the paint. On others nights, aside from Kobe, they seem disinterested. Gasol followed up his big time performance on Saturday night, with another flat display, similar to his Game 6 in Denver.

Against a spirited, but limited, Nuggets team the Lakers could afford to take nights off (although only just), but they don’t have that luxury against the Thunder. With all due respect to Denver, Ty Lawson is no Westbrook, Danilo Galinari is certainly no Durant and Andre Miller is no James Harden. The Lakers better realize that, and fast.

This is a young, hungry and extremely talented Thunder team that displayed utter ruthlessness in putting down the Dallas Mavericks—another veteran-laden team. Taking care of Dallas meant redemption for their Western Conference finals defeat last season, and they will be eager to avenge their 2010 first-round loss to the Lakers as well.

OKC are playing with a confident swagger, and they will look to put the Lakers to bed as quickly as possible. Going 0-2 down,heading into what will be taxing back-to-back games over the weekend, will probably spell the end for the Lakers. They better be ready for Game 2 on Wednesday, or they could find themselves in a very big hole.

There’s no doubt that this Thunder team will be ready for them. As they showed last night, they mean business.

 

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