What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
That sinking feeling that we had last night when a 26 point lead over the Celtics shrunk down to six? Remember that? That feeling was nowhere to be found tonight. For the first time that I can recall this season, the Thunder played a very strong, competitive, and focused game for 48 minutes and came out with a huge win over the Lakers.
The game had all the characteristics of a playoff game - the home crowd was into it, the refs let the players get a little physical, emotions were running high, and the pace was significantly slower than last night's Celtics win. Interestingly, I think the Lakers' intention to slow the pace down actually helped the Thunder a little bit. Instead of flying up and down the court and being careless with possessions, the pace forced the Thunder to take better care of the ball (only 12 turnovers), get good shots (17 assists on 36 made baskets) and avoid giving up fast break opportunities (Lakers had six fast break points). So while the style is not typical "Thunder ball," in a way the slower pace actually made OKC a better team on all fronts.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
The Lakers are a talented but flawed team. They still have Kobe Bryant, who is averaging 28.5 ppg, and they have their twin towers in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who help the Lakers be the best rebounding team in the NBA. However, aside from those three, LA is both shallow (their bench only had 11 points) and they have no perimeter threat whatsoever. Because of this, the Thunder had a clear defensive mandate - they were to double-team Kobe out high and pack into the paint down low.
OKC allowed only Gasol to roam relatively unimpeded. Pau was the only Laker who finished the game with a respectable stat line, scoring 22 on 9-14 shooting. However, OKC clamped down on everyone else. The Lakers only shot 38.5% for the game, and Kobe and Bynum shot a combined 12-39 and scored only 38 points together. Kobe got very few clean looks at the rim, was constantly bodied up by Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and even Kevin Durant, and had little room for daylight. Meanwhile, Bynum was kept in check all game by Kendrick Perkins, who was fired up and played like he was born to defend Bynum. Perkins finished with 9 rebounds and 2 blocks, but more importantly, he almost completely nullified Bynum's power game.
Overall, the Thunder never got cute on defense or gambled for steals, but for the most part played straight up defense on the night. I think it was their strongest defensive effort of the season, and it was an effort that was consistent throughout all four quarters. Knowing how OKC has struggled with its defensive focus, it was a pleasure to watch tonight's effort.
What is the key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
The Lakers came into tonight's game doing one thing definitively better than the Thunder - rebound the basketball. The Lakers are the #1 rebounding team in the league, and the combination of Bynum, Gasol, and Kobe rebounding the basketball has enabled the Lakers to play efficient if not flashy offensive basketball.
After a shaky first quarter, the Thunder came out and did a great job taking away this one thing that the Lakers do so well. Serge Ibaka grabbed 13 rebounds, Kendrick Perkins had nine, Russell Westbrook had five, and Durant & Harden had four apiece. Even better than the sheer numbers was the sight of watching the Thunder box out time and time again on the defensive boards to only give up eight offensive rebounds to the Lakers.
When the Lakers were denied easy runout opportunities and quick put-backs for scores, the Thunder had effectively taken away their biggest advantage. OKC utilized this advantage to beat the Lakers at their own game.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
The biggest thing that I take away from this impressive win is that the Thunder won in a pretty convincing fashion and they did it without playing A+ offensive basketball. Durant had 33, Westbrook had 19, and Harden had 16, but there was never a sense that they were in a breakout mode where the scoring opportunities were washing over them like a rip curl. They had to earn those points.
As a team, the Thunder did shoot almost 48% from the field, but took way too many 3-pointers and missed a bunch of them, finishing 7-25 on the night. If OKC had been a little more patient on a number of shots, they probably would have managed some better scoring opportunities that would have pushed the lead even further.
In the end, the Thunder defeated the Lakers via a combination of a well-executed defensive game plan and better patience on offense. It wasn't flashy, but it was sweet.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 33 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 block
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 11 points, 13 rebounds, 3 blocks
Thunder Blunder: none
Thunder Plunderer: Pau Gasol, 22 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists
Next Game: 2012 All Star Game
After that, at the Philadelphia 76ers at 6:00 PM Central Standard Time