In the First Round of the 2008-09 NBA Playoffs, a young Portland Trail Blazers team was set to face off against a veteran-laden Houston Rockets team in its first playoff appearance since the 2002-03 season.
The Blazers had earned home court advantage by finishing fourth in the Western Conference in the regular season, and one of the league’s more outwardly supportive and festive home crowds brought the house down long before the game even began.
But when the game tipped off, the Rockets started to nail shots. An anxious crowd, desperate to get involved, jumped over to the quiet side of the fence, and Houston just kept pushing, ultimately running away with a 108-81 victory. An obvious key factor was that Houston played both loose and aggressive, while Portland tightened up in its first playoff game in front of family, friends and partisan supporters.
Fast forward to April 22, 2010, when the Oklahoma City Thunder are the young team playing in their first home playoff game since 2004-05 as a franchise (Seattle Supersonics, as it were), and first ever in Oklahoma. The Thunder impressively showed little hesitation in Los Angeles, playing with no tightness whatsoever (perhaps with the exception of crunch time), playing with house money.
The question is, are the Thunder still playing with that house money in front of a crowd that will be as excited as Craig Calloway was after nailing the Mirage half court shot? Does the pressure shift to OKC, even with said pressure seemingly always on the Lakers to win (they’re used to it)?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Phil Jackson, who has been in just about every possible playoff situation, could argue either side. Here’s what he said when I asked him if the home crowd’s energy, which he acknowledged should pump up the Thunder, could potentially work against them.
“It can, it really can,” he said. “(But) the idea that I think they have is that, ‘We’re not expected (to win), this is an underdog role, whatever we do is an unbelievable accomplishment for a very young franchise,’ and that’s probably the message they have.”
Then there’s Lamar Odom’s answer to the same question.
“If we can get them out of the game early, if we can seize the momentum and make it kind of quiet in there really early, their crowd can work against them,” said Odom. “You know how the crowd gives the home team energy? If we can take the crowd out of the game, we can sap the energy.”
Particularly since OKC hasen’t hosted a playoff game, one wonders?
“Yeah because they don’t know what to expect, they haven’t seen a lot of games like that before,” the lanky lefty continued. “If we can come out and execute, get some dunks and layups early, knock down our open shots hopefully we can take their energy.”
Maybe none of that matters at all. Maybe offensive execution and the continued defensive energy that both teams showed in Los Angeles is really what will decide the game.
But let’s keep an eye on that home crowd, and L.A.’s early offense. We’ll have an answer soon.
Phil Credits Bench, Still Wants More
The performance of L.A.’s bench in Game 2 of the team’s First Round series wasn’t particularly notable on paper, much like in Game 1. Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown combined for 15 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and two steals, making 6-of-17 shots (Odom was 2-for-9).
That was more than the Thunder’s bench had to offer, however: 12 points, nine rebounds, two steals from Eric Maynor, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka (who did have seven major blocks).
What does Phil Jackson expect now that the Lakers head to Oklahoma?
“I actually think we have to play our bench more on the road,” he said. “(The bench) has to give us a little more of a bump out there, (but we) have to give them credit, they’ve held their own against the Oklahoma bench. We’ve really survived that well.”
Jackson, of course, does want more particularly from Odom.
“Lamar has to give us an imprint on the ball game,” he said. “It’s an understanding of what the game is. Opportunities (for) shots, little things like that, pockets he finds for penetration. And then the ball movement that he can create by his penetration.”
Of this, Odom’s well aware.
“I’ll find it,” he said. “I want to get myself going offensively.”
Bynum A Bit Tender … As Expected
Andrew Bynum’s Game 2 production didn’t match the 13 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks he offered in Game 1 despite not playing for almost a full month. Instead, the Thunder completely packed the paint, and limited Bynum to six points with 10 boards and a block in 31 minutes.
This was no cause of concern for Phil Jackson, however. Neither was the fact that Bynum sat out Wednesday’s practice in favor of treatment for his Achilles, which was a bit sore. As team spokesman John Black confirmed, that was not a surprise, and Bynum will start against OKC on Thursday.