What’s wrong with the Lakers? After 4 games, the Defending NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers road to repeat is in jeopardy.
After a game 4 crushing loss, Lakers fans should be concerned. Traditionally NBA championship teams dominate in the first round of the playoffs. But so far the Oklahoma Thunder led by 2010 Coach of the year Scott Brooks, and 2010 scoring champion Kevin Durant, have neutralized the Los Angeles Lakers in the first three games and destroyed them in game 4 and put in question a repeat championship in LA.
Oklahoma defeated LA easily in game four. They held a double-digit lead that grew to as large as 27 points, from the second quarter to the final buzzer, to even the series two games to two.
The 4 Lakers Strengths have been weak.
There are four strengths the Lakers have that Oklahoma has been able to neutralize or diminish. If the Lakers don’t improve in these areas we could have a possible upset of a champion.
First, there has been so much talk about the Lakers length with two 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and the ability to bring Lamar Odom in at the point for Derek Fisher and move Kobe Bryant to small forward. This should give LA an advantage in rebounds and blocks. Instead, through three games the Lakers are averaging only one more rebound than the Thunder (43-42) according to the NBA stats. (http://www.nba.com/playoffs2010/index.html) And Oklahoma is averaging 7.5 blocks compared to LA’s 5 blocks per game. LA’s big men are shooting better than 50% from the field, Pau Gasol 27 for 50, Andrew Bynum 20 for 38. However, they are struggling at the free-throw line, Bynum 5-10, Gasol 20-28. What’s worse, they are being out hustled for rebounds and loose balls. Clearly the size of the Lakers has not been a decisive advantage thus far.
Secondly, the Lakers brought in all-star Ron Artest to solidify their championship run. So far Ron has been a bust on the offensive end, shooting just 13% from behind the arc (3-23). Many of those shots are wide open coming off of dribble penetration and kick outs, and ball-rotations from the triangle offense. The Lakers are going to need more than the 7.7 point per game Artest is averaging so far in this post-season.
Artest was also brought in to be a defensive stopper. In this series he has the tough assignment of stopping Kevin Durant, the leagues highest scorer at 30.1 points per game. Through the first four games Durant averaging 26.8 points per game. His Field Goal percentage is down from 47% in the regular season to 38.4% in this first playoff series. From three-point land his percentage dropped to 25% compared to 36% in the regular season. It’s notable that his Free-throw percentage also slightly declined from 90% to 85%. Artest’s defensive efforts shaved off a mere two points from Durrant’s scoring average in the first three games. In game 4 Oklahoma only need 22 points from Durant who sat out the entire 4th quarter. Artest is not exactly stopping him from getting his. If Durrant is able to lift his long range three-point shot from its mere 25% he will be even more dominant in these playoffs.
Thirdly, the Lakers bench, which was a strength for them in last year’s championship run, has been a weakness so far. The bench is a combined 5 for 30 (16%) from three-point range. Shannon Brown is 1-7, Jordan Farmar is 2-11, Luke Walton is 0-3. Lamar Odom who signed a contract extension this year, and is one the NBA’s best sixth man is averaging only 7.7 points per game in this first round. He too is struggling long range shooting 2 for 8 from behind the arc.
So far Bryant and Fisher are the only consistent three point weapons. (Bryant is 9-22 in the series.) Lakers Captain Derek Fisher has made half of his three point shot attempts in the series so far 11-22. The Lakers may need his three point shooting heroics to win this series.
Fourth and most important strength of the Lakers that we have yet to see in these first three games is the decision making leadership of Kobe Bryant. In the fourth quarter of game three, Kobe forced things shoot 2 for 10 in the period and turning the ball over twice, a flashback to his earlier years. In Game four Kobe went the opposite extreme and didn’t take a single shot until three minutes into the 2nd quarter. He finished the game with 12 points. Whether Kobe’s offensive struggles are due to Durant’s lock-down defense, (the first time we’ve seen the two defend each other for any length of time this series was the final 2 minutes of game 3), or Kobe’s broken finger, or fatigue, whatever the reason, he must look to his co-champion teammates when his shot isn’t falling, and take over the game when it is.
Oklahoma Thunder are a fresh, talented, young team and it should not be a surprise that they are competing with the best team in the Western Conference. But it is a shock to see the number 8 seed Thunder crush the defending World Champion Lakers as they did in game four. We’ve dissected the Lakers strengths that have been rather weak so far. But the biggest problem plaguing the Lakers is their lack of defense. That is what crippled the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals against the Champion Boston Celtics. Watching the Lakers players standing around and being out hustled, and fouling in desperation, was history repeating itself. (Oklahoma shot 48 free-throws in game 4).
The good news for Lakers fans is LA has all the ingredients needed to repeat. And if history is any indicator, Kobe Bryant, the games greatest competitor will have already concluded these same findings, and will make the necessary adjustments.
The Lakers will first have to past this test, and defeat a rejuvenated Oklahoma City team that few people anticipated would be in this situation a year ago. The pressure is clearly on the Los Angeles Lakers to win Game 5.