Four games into the first round of the NBA playoffs and a few things are clear:
- Dwyane Wade needs some more help or he just played his final game in Miami
- The Cavs and Magic are on a collision course in the Eastern Conference Finals, as both look great so far.
- The Denver Nuggets miss George Karl a lot more than we thought they would.
- The defending NBA Champion Lakers have looked like nothing more than chumps through their first four games.
Now before going any further, I am not a Laker hater. In fact, anyone who knows me, knows that I am quite possibly the biggest Laker supporter on the face of this planet. I bleed purple and gold through and through and will do so until they cease to exist or I die, whichever comes first. It is because of this that I feel I am entitled to rip them to shreds for how pathetic they have been playing so far this postseason, and I am not alone in these feelings. Consider this a memo to the Lakers, who better shape up, otherwise the Thunder will pull off the greatest first-round upset of all-time.
Sure, that doesn’t seem like too big of a drop off, but consider that the more the bigs get going, the more the shots open up for the guards. In the losses, the Lakers shot 14-53 from three-point land. In the wins? 14-44 from outside. Nine less attempts for the same amount of makes doesn’t seem big, but that’s before you take into account most of the Lakers’ made threes in the last game were after it was already out of hand. So a clear first fix to the offensive problems is posting the ball up more and allowing the bigs to get going, which in turn frees up shooters for better shots.
But there’s more to the problem on offense, and it lies on the shoulders of the Lakers’ leader, Kobe Bryant. Take away his 39-point outburst from Game 2, and Bryant has scored 21, 24 and 12 in the three other games this series on a combined 21-58 shooting. That is a steep decline from the former scoring champion, who we all know can still put up big numbers. The problem is Kobe hasn’t realized that he needs to allow his teammates – specifically Gasol – to carry more of the scoring load. That superstar mentality prevents Bryant from realizing he may be shooting his team out of games.
It’s not too late for Bryant to fix his issues and for the Lakers’ offense to get rolling again, but for that to happen the ball must go inside and Bryant must accept the fact that he is not 100% yet.
Coming into this series, the one player who many thought would be the Lakers’ biggest problem was Kevin Durant, the defending NBA scoring champion. True Laker fans, however, knew that the nightmare match-up was going to be Russell Westbrook – a fast, strong, scoring point guard who is exactly the kind of player that kills the Lakers. Four games into the series we have learned that despite Durant’s scoring numbers, the biggest difference-maker has in fact been Westbrook. To a lesser extent, back-up point Eric Maynor has also caused his share of problems for the Lakers in his limited minutes.
The cause of all of this is the decline in the play of starting point guard Derek Fisher. While a Laker legend who will forever live on in memories of fans everywhere for the huge shots he has hit in the playoffs, Fisher’s defense has deteriorated to the point that he no longer is able to stay in front of most point guards. A bigger problem than that would have to be the fact that his back-up Jordan Farmar is not yet ready to handle the big show, as he also continually gets abused defensively. Farmar’s defensive deficiencies can be traced to his lack of focus more than anything, as he is actually a pretty quick guard in his own right.
Therein lies the biggest problem of all; there is no quick fix to the point guard issue. As the playoffs wear on (if the Lakers advance), the point guards will only get better. Waiting in the second round will be either Deron Williams or Chauncey Billups. In the Conference Finals after that? Either Andre Miller, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, or Tony Parker, all guards who the Lakers have had problems with in the past.
The problems Laker guards have staying front of their man leads to penetration, which leads to the other main problems facing Los Angeles defensively: lay-ups/dunks and free throws. In Oklahoma City’s blow-out win in Game 4, the Thunder shot 42-48 from the free throw line. Go ahead and look at that again, 42-48! The idea that a “championship-caliber” team would give up 48 free throws to a young squad making their first playoff appearance is incredible – actually it’s incredibly ridiculous. A championship squad gets to the line, plays tough defense, and shows up in big games. What they don’t do is allow the playoff newcomers to do all of those things to them.
So since there isn’t a quick fix to the Lakers defensive issues, they must take a few defensive measures to shore up their problems. First, while the other point guards are quicker, Laker guards (and Fisher specifically) must funnel Westbrook and whatever guards they see into their bigs to take away the option of easily getting to the rim. This, of course, leaves the bigs susceptible to giving up points inside once they switch over. The only solution to this is rotations and hustle. The Lakers have to be more determined to stop the Thunder from scoring than the Thunder are to put the ball in the bucket.
Simply put, the Lakers have to want this more than the Thunder. They are deeper, bigger, more experienced, and far and away more talented than Oklahoma City. The difference in this series has been that the Thunder hustle more, play harder, and sacrifice everything to win games – traits the Lakers better pick up on quickly if they want to have any hope of defending their title. While you only have to look to the Houston series last year to realize that the Lakers can turn it on and win when necessary, they can’t just depend on flipping that switch when necessary.
Otherwise, 10 years from now we could be talking about how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lead the Thunder to the greatest playoff upset of all-time against Kobe Bryant and the defending champion Lakers.
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter athttp://www.twitter.com/belal_a