What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
It is only Game 1.
It is only Game 1.
It is only Game 1.
With that requisite qualifier out of the way, dang, what a Game 1 it was.
The Lakers were coming off of an emotionally and physically draining seven game series against the Nuggets, while the Thunder team had been lying in wait since May 4th. The question in that scenario is always going to be, did OKC have too much time off? Would they be over-anxious? Would they be rusty? On the opposite end, would the Lakers use their recent victory to sneak in and steal a Game 1?
The Thunder answered the bell by playing an intense 1st quarter and refused to allow themselves to fall behind early, as they have often done in the past. Rather, when LA jumped out to a small lead early on, OKC went straight to their one guaranteed mismatch - Russell Westbrook against the Lakers point guards. Westbrook scored eight points in under three minutes of game time, enabling the Thunder to capture the lead with 2/3 of the 1st quarter gone. From that point on, the Thunder never trailed again.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
If you were to look at the final box score on the night and see that the Thunder scored 119 points while shooting 53% from the floor you might conclude that this game was simply one where OKC made everything they threw at the rim. Even the Lakers' modest 43% shooting should have been enough to keep them in the game had OKC not lit up the scoreboard.
However, the offensive output masks what really triggered things - the Thunder put an intense amount of pressure on the Lakers' perimeter offense and never allowed any shooter too much space to operate. Unlike in other games this season, the Thunder did a great job closing out on the shooters so that guys like Steve Blake would not enjoy big games.
The Thunder essentially acquiesced to only one thing - they were going to allow Andrew Bynum to get his points. Bynum played a very solid game, scoring 20 points while grabbing 14 rebounds. Even with Kendrick Perkins providing some minutes tonight, nobody was a fair match for the massive Bynum. The key though was that OKC views Bynum as a finisher, not a creator. He can get the ball and have some success, but he is not going to hurt a defense with great passing, so the rest of the OKC defense stayed at home and prevented too many easy shots from everyone else. Bynum got his points, but his offense never generated anybody else's.
I think this is going to be the key strategy unless LA adjusts. Bynum is going to get his touches, but Kobe and Pau Gasol are not. The reason why is because Gasol and Kobe can both put the ball on the floor, break down a defense, and swing the ball to the open man, thus producing derivative offense through their efforts, but Bynum cannot do that. He catches, he shoots. By OKC limiting LA's playmaking ability, the Lakers' stars are going to be forced to match the Thunder's supercharged offense point for point because nobody else on LA's team is going to get an open look.
What is a key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
The Thunder only committed four turnovers on the night, and only one combined between Westbrook and Kevin Durant. We have seen in the past when Durant & Westbrook play a little too fast and loose with the ball and end up with a number of careless wasted possessions, but tonight that was not the case. Westbrook protected the ball, never lost his body control, and went where he wanted to.
Likewise, Durant can sometimes get careless when he puts the ball on the floor. Being guarded by Metta World Peace for most of the night, he had to do a better job than in the past in protecting possessions. Durant responded by playing much more efficiently and with a better economy of motion than in the past, and MWP never had the chance to get a swipe at the ball.
The team's overall ability to protect the ball was paramount, but the four turnovers also reveals something critical about the Lakers - they are not good at pressuring the ball in the way that a team like the Grizzlies or Clippers are. With a backcourt of guys like Ramon Sessions, Steve Blake, and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers simply do not have the collective quickness necessary to pressure the ball for prolonged periods of time. They would much rather pack in their defense inside the paint and dare the other team to take a shot at the rim. However, OKC proved that by keeping the Lakers guards in open space, there will be all sorts of pockets of room to get open looks.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
One more time - it is only Game 1. OKC needs three more wins to advance, and each one in some way or another will be harder than the last.
What Game 1 tells us though is that if OKC is focused in their task at hand, they will always have untapped advantages at their disposal. Westbrook clearly had more in the tank if it was needed. Durant played solid but did not have to play great. Serge Ibaka could have better output. James Harden, as solid as he was, did not shoot great either.
It is not so much that there is room for improvement, because it would be a bit haughty to proclaim that a 29 point win does not feed the basketball soul completely. What it does mean though is that when LA tries to adjust, the Thunder will have options to counter the Lakers' new strategies. OKC is in the lead, and now LA must chase.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 27 points (10-15 shooting), 9 assists, 7 rebounds, 1 turnover
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, 25 points, 8 rebounds, 1 block, 4 assists
Thunder Blunder: none
Thunder Plunderer: Andrew Bynum, 20 points, 14 rebounds
Next Game: Wednesday, May 16, 8:30 PM Central Standard Time