Little noise could be heard aside from the steady rumble of the engines as the Lakers team plane soared from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles in Thursday’s early morning hours, a heartbreaking 77-75 defeat to the Thunder slowly sinking in.
Blowing a big lead in the final moments of any game, let alone a potential momentum-shifting playoff game against an excellent team, takes a mental toll on a team. But Wednesday’s loss hurts all the more because the Lakers had almost flawlessly executed their game plan.
The entire tempo of the game had gone as L.A.’s coaching staff drew up prior to the action: possessions were slowed; turnovers were minimized; the ball was often taken out of the hands of All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant; and the Lakers’ ball movement was at times good enough to take away OKC’s strong side overload.
All of that produced a 75-68 lead with just over two minutes to play.
Then the execution, the careful attention to detail … all of it … disappeared when it mattered most, with Kobe Bryant – even if his will had propelled L.A. into the lead – taking the lion’s share of the blame, accounting for a a costly turnover that Kevin Durant turned into a dunk, seeing the ball go off his hands on a subsequent trip and watching two of his jump shots fall short.
The Thunder got easy baskets at the rim, created quick turnovers and forced contested jump shots, a game-ending 9-0 run eviscerating L.A.’s foreseen victory and changing the outlook on a series they now trail 2-0 heading into a Friday and Saturday back-to-back at STAPLES Center.
“I thought we did a great job throughout the game, just not the last two minutes,” said Mike Brown. “We were better, we made some adjustments. We talked about playing more physical and protecting one another and that is what our guys did and it gave us a chance to win on the road. Our guys fought, I have to give them credit for that.”
The defense was indeed good enough to put L.A. in position to win, thanks in large part to a change in how they played screen/rolls. The coaching staff decided to aggressively trap Westbrook in particular, taking away the 15-foot pull-up jump shot that killed the Lakers in Game 1, OKC ultimately scoring 119 points on 45 of 83 (53 percent) shooting.
In Game 2, L.A. conceded 15 fewer makes, and that’s with four allowed in the final two minutes, enough to trim 42 points off the Thunder total. The plan worked well enough that Andrew Bynum said after Thursday’s practice that the Lakers now know how to defend OKC, and simply need to continue to execute as the series goes on. Bryant agreed.
“It’s a tough loss but the biggest thing for us was that we found some things out defensively that we feel we can do that’s effective,” said Kobe. “They did a great job. It was a great comeback by them in the last two minutes. They got themselves a gritty win. Now it’s up to us to go back home and defend our home court.”