As time expired in last night’s Game 5 between the Lakers and Thunder, B.T.O.’s “Takin’ Care of Business” rang out in a raucous Chesapeake Energy Arena. It was fitting.
The Thunder took care of their business with ruthless execution in the final quarter of the game, defeating the Lakers, 106-90. Contrary to what Andrew Bynum claims, closeout games aren’t easy, but this one was fairly comfortable in the end.
After a back and forth battle for 3 quarters, the deciding stretch of the game came as Kobe Bryant sat on the bench during the start of the 4th. Kevin Durant hit two massive 3-pointers to put OKC up 91-77, blowing the game wide open, and ensuring that there was no way back for a Lakers team that had fought hard all series.
It was Kobe Bryant, (who else?) who epitomized that fight in Game 5.
The Black Mamba Against the World
For good or bad, Kobe had a typical Kobe-type game, finishing with 42 points on 33 shots, and zero assists (only ten assists shy of a double-double, as Brian Cardinal joked on Twitter). Win or lose last night, Bryant wasn’t going to die wondering—he was going to fall on his sword.
Bryant was aggressive from the start, posting up his defender, be it Thabo Sefolosha or James Harden, and hitting that Dirk Nowitzki-like one-legged fade-away with ridiculous ease. Bryant even rolled back the years, dunking on more than one occasion during the game—defying age and a banged-up body. Once again, I ask, what is this guy going to do when he finally retires?!
Kobe’s efforts weren’t enough, however, as the Thunder got plenty of production from their Big 3. James Harden got things going for OKC as he entered the game at the end of the 1stquarter. In typical Harden fashion, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year drove into the lane, got to the free-throw line, and facilitated for his teammates with some beautiful passing in transition.
Westbrook and Durant followed suit in the second half, and the jumpers began to fall. Westbrook finished the 3rd quarter with two huge 3-point plays, knocking down circus shots as he absorbed contact from the Lakers defenders.
That the dynamic trio got their points was no surprise to anyone watching. What was surprising, however, was the way in which the Thunder set the tone early. It wasn’t by knocking down jumpers, or getting out in transition, but instead, by dominating the glass at both ends.
OKC beat the Lakers at their own game last night, out-rebounding L.A. 51-35. In the 1st quarter alone, thanks mainly to Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder pulled down 7 offensive boards. Second-chance points kept OKC ticking over, as the initial shots failed to go down.
A Tale of Two Big Men
As great as Perkins was (and he’s been great all series), Mike Brown won’t be very happy that his team was dominated in a facet of the game perceived as their biggest strength.
Andrew Bynum shouldn’t be too happy with his performance either.
Bynum was lifeless for 48 minutes. He got in foul trouble early, which somewhat understandably affected his game on the defensive end, but his body language was awful. He finished with just 4 rebounds—criminal against a relatively small Thunder team—and just didn’t seem engaged at any point during the night.
Last night typified everything that’s wrong with Bynum. Without a doubt, he’s an awesome talent (I’ve praised his development on this site before), and has shown glimpses of his ability in this series. But too often the big centre has blown hot and cold—failing to get back on defense, appearing alarmingly passive, and coasting through games with that annoying smirk on his face.
Maybe Kobe needs to call out Bynum too.
After Game 4, of course, Bryant called out his good friend Pau Gasol, stating that he needed to be more assertive if the Lakers were going to turn the series around.
Whatever the merits of publicly criticizing teammates, Gasol responded last night. His shot wasn’t falling, that was obvious, but he was aggressive and looked to score when he had the ball in the post. Defensively, Gasol was engaged, pulling down 16 rebounds, even as the rest of his teammates were getting dominated on the glass.
Last night may have been Gasol’s last game in Lakers’ uniform. If that turns out to be the case, he finished his career in purple and yellow scrapping and fighting all the way. Lakers fans would’ve loved the effort, but it may take Gasol leaving L.A. for his overall value to be truly appreciated.
Too Much Firepower
In fairness to the Lakers, they battled hard all series. After a blowout loss in Game 1, the next three games could’ve gone either way. Games 2-4 were decided by a total of just 8 points. The Lakers will regret blowing an 8 point lead with 2 minutes left in Game 2—a result that may have been the defining moment in the series.
As well as the Lakers played in stretches against the Thunder, they failed to implement their game plan for the full 48 minutes. This was partly because Mike Brown’s team went away from their inside-out game down the stretch (A slight knock on Kobe that should be saved for another article), but also simply because the Thunder just possess too many offensive weapons. With Durant, Westbrook and Harden, OKC has that ability to flip on the switch, and turn around a lost cause in a matter of minutes.
OKC have prevailed in close games more than once in this year’s playoffs. While Kobe has struggled with his shot down the stretch all series, Durant has been Mr. Clutch—exuding calm in the biggest moments. Durant and his teammates never seem to panic, never seem to get away from their game. Granted, they live and die by the jump shot—but more often than not, they live.
In the end, the Lakers were simply outgunned in this series by a young, hungry team with players who can make massive game-changing plays. The Lakers will require retooling during the off-season if they want to compete with this Thunder team in the years to come.
OKC, of course, will now move on to face a much bigger and tougher opponent in the Western Conference finals. The San Antonio Spurs have yet to drop a game in this years’ playoffs and are on an 18 game winning streak. Gregg Popovich’s men are seemingly without weakness, and it will take a monumental effort from the likes of Durant and Westbrook to stop them in their tracks.
While the Thunder have been battling it out in tough, close games, the Spurs have been cruising. The fact that Durant and company have faced adversity should stand them in good stead against San Antonio, but Scott Brooks won’t want his team down late against this Spurs group. They’ve been absolutely ruthless when leading late in games this year.
It’s going to be a tough task to defeat this loaded Spurs team, but Durant and the Thunder have already eliminated two veteran Western Conferences powerhouses. Who’s to say that they can’t make San Antonio number 3?
Game 1 goes Sunday night in San Antonio. It will be must-see playoff basketball.