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Thunder rise in clutch while Lakers wilt

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It will be tempting to reduce the Lakers’ crushing Game 2 loss in Oklahoma City on Wednesday to one superstar failing in the clutch while another succeeded. And while that is what happened in a very basic sense, that is also not what happened at all. It is true that Kobe Bryant, a practitioner of hero ball and crunch-time ball hog extraordinaire, went 0-of-4 in the last five minutes of the game, missed two shots in the last 60 seconds, coughed up a horrendous game-changing turnover to Kevin Durant and inexplicably waited more than six seconds for Thabo Sefolosha to intentionally foul as the game ticked away. And it’s true that Durant snagged that steal-and-dunk and nailed a high degree-of-difficulty floater to win the game — his second such game-winner of the playoffs already.

But as is always the case in basketball, the story is more complicated in ways that matter for our interpretation of the game and hint at the development of this Thunder team into a more dangerous animal. Let’s start with Kobe, since everything “clutch” must start with Kobe or LeBron James.

On the surface, Bryant’s last two misses were classic Kobe ill-advised shots — low-percentage prayers taken in isolation against defenses geared up to stop them. But look again at Bryant’s miss with one minute to go:

The Lakers intent here is clear: They want to work through Andrew Bynum in the post, just as they had on two possessions between the two- and three-minute marks of the fourth quarter. But they simply cannot enter the ball to him. Kendrick Perkins is fronting Bynum, not the normal strategy from Perkins. The Lakers respond by swinging the ball to Pau Gasol for a possible high-low pass, but the Thunder stop that by ignoring Metta World Peace and Steve Blake on the weak side in order to load up on Bynum.

There is always drama about the Lakers — about Bynum’s effort issues, Gasol being “soft,” Mike Brown’s job status and whether Kobe can do it again in crunch time. Those issues have their place in the discussion about why this team is 4-5 in the playoffs, but they miss the broader point: The supporting cast behind the three stars has been so bad that the Lakers are too often left playing 3-on-5 when they have the ball. (The other larger story is that the Lakers’ defense ranks last among teams still alive in points allowed per possession, but we covered that quite a bit during their series with the Nuggets, and Brown made some really nice adjustments on that end Wednesday night).

Here’s a fun exercise: When Durant is guarding World Peace, focus on Durant and watch how far he roves off the Lakers’ small forward to deny entry passes and generally muck things up. Or ask yourself if Serge Ibaka is so emboldened to leave Gasol — one of the world’s 15 greatest players — to snuff out Bynum’s shots at the rim in part because Ibaka is confident some other Thunder defender, ignoring some other Laker, has his back.

That’s the main reason this possession fails. You could also argue there is a failure of creativity here in conjuring up a second option other than giving the ball back to Bryant and getting out of his way. Gasol could have tried to drive past Ibaka. Bryant could have tossed a skip pass to Blake, in the game only because Ramon Sessions, the guy acquired to prop up the Lakers’ supporting cast, has been a disaster in the playoffs . Bynum could have tried one last frantic re-post with five or six seconds left on the shot clock.

The Lakers did better in searching out alternatives on Bryant’s final miss, with 36 seconds left:

Again, the goal is obvious: Get the ball to Bynum. And again, the Lakers can’t do it, even though they’ve made Blake the entry passer so that his man cannot lurk along the baseline behind Perkins’ fronting defense. Durant can still do that on the weak side, and when Blake passes to Gasol for that same potential high-low look, Westbrook slides right off of Blake and into a position where he could steal Gasol’s entry pass. By the time World Peace’s drive on Durant stalls out, there are just five seconds on the shot clock, leaving Kobe little time to pursue a third option on a scrambled court.

This is not to defend Kobe, long an overrated clutch performer prone to terrible shot selection — an issue he has addressed as this season has gone on, by the way; the Lakers are willingly playing through Bynum here, after all. Kobe air-balled a three-pointer wth about 3:30 left and cost the Lakers valuable time dribbling away with the game on the line. But these misses are the product of a flawed roster, not a selfish superstar.

On the flip side, Durant’s heroics will obscure a larger and more important story for the Thunder: the continued emergence of James Harden as a crunch-time weapon. Harden wiped out Dallas down the stretch of Game 4 in the Thunder’s first-round sweep, and when Durant wasn’t dunking or hitting floaters in the final minutes of last night’s game, the Thunder leaned on Harden to create out of the pick-and-roll. On the three Oklahoma City possessions that sandwiched Durant’s clutch steal-and-dunk, Harden blew by Bryant and Bynum (jumping too early against the screen) on one pick-and-roll for a layup, got into the lane on another before missing a shot at the rim and scored a layup in transition.

On the first of those plays — the made basket — Durant and Russell Westbrook were spotting up on the left side of the floor. On the second — the miss — Durant popped out above three-point line behind a Nazr Mohammed back screen, making himself a possible target for a Harden kick-out pass.

That is the kind of diversity that makes the Thunder terrifying, the kind they will need to win the title and avoid the crunch-time droughts that killed them last season. And it wasn’t quite there during the regular season, mostly because Harden was uninvolved during crunch time.

Oklahoma City players attempted 120 shots in the regular season during games in which the scoring margin was three points or fewer in the last three minutes of regulation and overtime. Durant and Westbrook took 103 of those shots, per NBA.com. Harden took five. He made one. James Harden, Sixth Man of the Year and likely All-Star next season, made one basket the entire season in the last three minutes of a close game.

He has already taken five such shots in six postseason games, compared to six attempts for Durant. This is a sea change happening instantly, a strategic switch so dramatic you almost wonder if Scott Brooks has been waiting all season to unleash Harden on unsuspecting defenses. He couldn’t have just now discovered that Harden is the team’s best playmaker, and that perhaps Harden should touch the ball now and then at the end of close games, right? This cannot be a sudden, spontaneous revelation, can it?

Either way, it holds immense promise for a Thunder team on track now for a monster conference finals clash against a Spurs team that has its way with Oklahoma City over the last three seasons.

  • Published On 11:59am, May 17, 2012
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