The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers met three times before the season stopped. The first two games were cagey, tense affairs that the Lakers were able to win. The game played in January was nothing short of an embarrassment for the Thunder. The Lakers won handily without LeBron James or Anthony Davis.
There was an expectation that the game played in the bubble would go the same way. The Lakers have the top-end talent that the Thunder cannot match. The Lakers also have a roster of lengthy, versatile defenders who can make life hell for a guard like Chris Paul.
Yesterday, the Thunder did what the team has done all season long. Oklahoma City paid no attention to the expectations and beat the odds. The Thunder won by nineteen points and controlled the game from start to finish. It was an impressive victory, and the win moves the Thunder into the fifth seed.
Chris Paul was the Thunder’s best player on the court. Paul had 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists against the Lakers. Chris’s impact on the game was undeniable, particularly in the third quarter. Paul’s leadership and scoring helped the Thunder to grow the lead and made it difficult for the Lakers to win the game.
The fixture was a star-laden game. Anthony Davis and LeBron James are two of the most talked-about players in the NBA. Both men are MVP-calibre players. However, Chris Paul outplayed them and proved why he would make an All-NBA team this year. Paul was relentless and made no mistakes as he professionally dispatched the Lakers.
The Thunder has shown the ability to keep a cool head during games this season. I believe that it is one of the reasons why the Thunder have gone 25-10 since the New Year. The Thunder’s even temperament means that the team does not make bad decisions based on emotion.
The Thunder’s calm, rational manner was crucial in securing the victory against the Lakers. Oklahoma City did not let the sheer number of foul calls get to them. The Thunder accepted the foul and focused on the next play. It was a massive contrast to the Lakers who protested every single call and were visibly agitated by the number of free throws that the Thunder received.
Oklahoma City struggled on offense during the first half of the game. Shots were not dropping from deep, and the only place where OKC was able to generate points reliably was at the line. The Thunder did an excellent job of stifling the Lakers on defense and getting just enough points from the stripe to maintain their lead.
It was a different story in the second half of the play. Oklahoma City cranked up the intensity on defense. Luguentz Dort and Andre Roberson bothered LeBron James. They broke James’ rhythm and did not allow LeBron to get comfortable on offense.
The strong defensive effort fed into the offense. The Lakers tired, and the Thunder were able to grow the lead steadily. The Thunder were up by fifteen going into the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City was in a position of control and managed the game effectively.
The Lakers were not able to cut the deficit down to a two-possession game during the final stanza. Oklahoma City got necessary buckets every time it seemed that the Lakers were making a run. Dion Waiters was the only real scoring threat for Los Angeles during the last quarter. In the end, OKC notched a comfortable victory against LA.
Oklahoma City was aggressive in drawing fouls. The Thunder repeatedly got inside and attacked the rim. The focus on inside scoring meant that Oklahoma City got a lot of foul shots. The Thunder took 36 free throw attempts and made 32 shots from the stripe.
For them to knock down foul shots helped sustained the offense during the first half. Oklahoma City struggled to hit looks from the field and needed points at the line to compensate for the inefficient shooting.
The aggressive work inside also meant the Lakers’ big men accumulated fouls quickly. Anthony Davis and Markieff Morris both got into foul trouble. Both players closed the game out with five fouls, and neither player could play aggressive defense against Gallinari or Adams.
The lack of intensity on defense meant that Steven Adams was able to finish the game strong. Adams was able to get good looks inside, and he finished with aplomb. Steven displayed his delicate touch around the rim as he beat the Lakers’ defense.
Shai and the Bench:
In the last game against the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City struggled for shot creation in the second unit. The combination of Dort and Diallo was simply not enough to consistently generate offense for the Thunder. Billy went a different route against the Lakers and ran Shai with the bench.
Coach Donovan staggered the minutes, and Gilgeous-Alexander was free to run the point. The bench unit did surprisingly well for a group that has not played together. The Thunder were disruptive on defense. Anthony Davis was not allowed to eat away at the deficit.
I would like to see more of Shai in the lead ball-handler role. Oklahoma City needs someone to pick up Schroder’s load; Shai is the natural candidate. His performance against LA proves that Gilgeous-Alexander can lead the offense when Paul is on the bench.
The Thunder is not a team with distinct scoring options that are continuously fed the ball during the game. In clutch time, Chris Paul is the guy who you want to finish the game. However, during the usual ebb and flow of a basketball, the offense is run democratically. The hot hand is fed, and the team plays without ego.
The Thunder’s approach to the game is different from a team like the Lakers or the Rockets. These teams look to feed their superstars and rely on them to carry the scoring load. The offense by committee approach means that shot attempts are evenly distributed across the Thunder’s starters.
No starting player for the Thunder took more than 13 field goal attempts. Every starter attempted at least 10 attempts from the floor. The team’s scoring was balanced, and the Lakers were unable to deal with multiple scoring threats on the floor. The Thunder were very good at finding the open man and generating good looks.
Pace of Game:
Los Angeles is a team that likes to run and get easy transition buckets. A signature play of the Lakers’ offense this season is for James to throw an outlet pass to a running Anthony Davis for an easy score in transition. The Lakers are 7th in the league in transition points.
The Thunder is a team that prefers to work in the half-court. It is where the artistry of Chris Paul comes to the fore. Paul is a master at moving the defense around and creates seams for the Thunder to attack.
OKC was excellent at managing the pace of the game. The constant stoppages due to foul shots mean there was time for the defense to set up for the Lakers’ attack. The Lakers could not get natural looks in transition due to the game stoppages.
Los Angeles had to run their half-court sets, and the Lakers are much less effective when the tempo of the game slows down. Los Angeles does not have another playmaker outside of LeBron James, who can stretch defenses and make plays for others. Offensive production is a real issue if James has a bad game.
The defense played by Dort, Roberson and Bazley meant that James played poorly. James is an amplifier for the Lakers; when he plays well, the team plays well. When LeBron plays badly, good looks dry up in the half-court, and the Lakers settle for inefficient shots.
OKC played disciplined, diligent defense in the half-court. The Thunder deflected passes and pressured the ball-handler throughout the game. Los Angeles always had to go deep into the shot clock to generate a look. The Lakers were unable to get the quick buckets that the team desires.
Oklahoma City’s control of pace made every possession count. The Lakers did not maximize the value of each possession and finished the game with just 86 points. The Thunder took their chances on offense and grew the lead.
Roberson on James:
Andre Roberson’s return to basketball has been carefully managed. He has played sparingly during the first two seeding games. Against the Lakers, Billy threw him into the fire against LeBron James. James is the toughest assignment that Andre has faced so far in the bubble. Roberson did not disappoint.
Andre’s movements were fast, and his long arms cut off easy drives for James. Roberson played excellent pressure defense, and he stuck to LeBron James like glue. James was not able to get rid of Roberson and had to deal with Andre’s length at every turn.
Roberson played well on LeBron, and it is an encouraging sign for the future. I think that Roberson is ready for a step up in minutes. His performance would suggest that his conditioning is excellent and that Andre can handle a more massive load.