Tonight's game was fun to watch, but in the end, the offense just wasn't there.
The Thunder's strategy early in this game was to get off as quick a shot as possible. Now, it wasn't a strategy like that of Mike D'Antoni, where the team basically runs under a 7 second shot clock and shoots it early on regardless. Rather, the Thunder simply took the first good shot opportunity they got, no matter who had the ball or where they were on the floor. The Lakers were unable to get set most of the time, and it allowed the Thunder to score quite easily.
On defense, the Thunder were continuing to use the "trap and steal" strategy, double teaming good scorers and always looking to jump into the passing lane for a steal. This led to some easy scores for the Lakers defensively, but it also led to some guaranteed points offensively.
Interestingly, in the first quarter, the Thunder were also very good at limiting post opportunities for the Lakers. They did this not by great individual defense, but by trying to get in front of the guys in the post, thus preventing them from getting the basketball at all. Of course, if a Lakers post player did get the ball, there was always help defense on the other side, and thery were double-teamed whenever possible.
The early second quarter was marked by some beautiful point guard passing from Eric Maynor. The Thunder had actually jumped out to a 6 point lead, before the Lakers took the lead right back with some well placed threes. The rest of the quarter was a see-saw contest, with the Thunder lurking closely behind the Lakers. The Thunder's offense was much slower in the second, as they looked to get more baskets off of fouls and clever cuts to the basket.
Below: The Second Half, Future Analysis, Awards!
The Thunder did take a 59-58 lead early in the third, but things quickly turned sour. The Thunder were still getting opportunities, but courtesy of a missed Durant jumper, Durant trying to draw the foul while taking a three, an offensive foul by Durant on the fast break, a Westbrook turnover, and a pair of missed open threes by Sefolosha and Westbrook, the Lakers took a 13 point lead. It was terrible to watch, but there's nobody you can blame for that run but the players. The Lakers talent was showing fantastically, and the Thunder buckled under pressure. After the 14-0 run, Krstic finally redeemed the Thunder with a offensive rebound and a basket. But the funny thing is that Westbrook actually stepped out of bounds on that play, making it such that the Lakers should have had an 18-0 run before Serge Ibaka hit a pair of free throws.
But the second half of the third was a different story. The Lakers starters got tired, and their backups were providing little solace. The Thunder scrapped as hard as they could by getting fouled and getting out in transition, while still running excellent plays in the halfcourt. By the end of the third, the lead had been cut down to a very manageable 7 points.
The Thunder cut down the lead to four in the fourth, but they couldn't capitalize on their recent run, as a few stupid mistakes like Westbrook dribbling off of his foot and a Ibaka jumper that had little to no chance kept them on the low side. The Thunder weren't done by any means, but the stupid mistakes continued, and the offense stalled. The Thunder were down by 9 with 7 minutes to go. The middle of the quarter was a see-saw battle, with both the Thunder and Lakers having minor runs. But a few excellent plays by Westbrook got the Thunder to within four with two minutes to go. With about a minute and a half to go, the Thunder had a chance to cut it to two, but Westbrook missed a shot from the top of the arc taken in mid-stride. They had yet another chance to cut it to one after an airballed Artest three, but Jeff Green barely rimmed out.
This put the Thunder in a tough position, as the Lakers had possession and a four point lead with less than a minute to go. Kevin Durant "fouled" Kobe in an interesting call, and Kobe split the free throws. The Thunder needed to trade the two for one in order to win (that is, shoot before there was 24 seconds to go in the game, so they would be guaranteed another offensive possession without fouling). Green got the ball at the top of the key, and tried to set a pick for Durant, who was running. But somehow, the pick turned into a double team, and Durant had to split through it in order to score. He missed the shot and it was rebounded by Kobe Bryant, who was sent to the line. Somehow, he missed both free throws, giving the Thunder a second chance at life. Westbrook ran the floor in amazingly little time and got fouled. But, there were ghosts at the rim in LA tonight, as both shots clanked.
And then, somehow, the Thunder got a third lease on life. Bynum tipped the ball out of bounds on the rebound, giving the Thunder possession yet again. Westbrook got a semi-open three point attempt via an Ibaka pick, but it was so far offline that it couldn't load a webpage. Ibaka tried to save it as it went out of bounds, but he couldn't, and it was Lakers ball. Bryant went to the line and this time, his clutchness came through, putting the Thunder down by 7 with 15.1 seconds left. Durant missed a well-challenged straight on three by Artest, and the Lakers dribbled out the clock. The Thunder, yet again, failed to win in Los Angeles.
At the end of the day, there is nobody to blame for this loss but the Thunder players themselves. They did a great job of staying in the game in the third, but they could never get on the high side. Furthermore, the Lakers practically begged them to take the lead. Opportunities were handed to the Thunder on a silver platter on several occasions. But when you have a team that makes too many stupid mistakes, can't hit a three to save their life, and goes on really long offensive droughts, beating the Lakers is a Herculean task, not matter how good your defense may be.
Moving forward, this puts the Thunder three games behind the Lakers in the Western Conference Standings, and continues to tie them with the Jazz for the Northwest Division lead. The Thunder's current status as a three seed is seen as somewhat of a farce among analysts, and many think they will finish lower or trip up in the playoffs against good teams. While their current status is due to some good luck with injuries and such, I wouldn't say it's a complete farce, as they proved by beating Orlando. But, until the Thunder can beat a truly elite Western team like the Lakers, Spurs, or Mavericks at full strength, no one is going to take them seriously as a title contender.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 32 Points, 5 Rebounds, 12 Assists, 2 Steals, 1 Block.
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 11 Points, 10 Rebounds, 1 Block.
Thunder Blunder: Jeff Green, 6 Points, 3-11 Shooting, 2 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 1 Turnover, 3 Steals, 1 Block, -19 +/- ratio.
Thunder Plunderer: Lamar Odom, 16 Points, 7 Rebounds, 2 Assists, 1 Steal, 1 Block.
Next Game: At the Denver Nuggets, Wednesday, January 19th, 8 PM Central Standard Time.